NAPA — It was a match that was either made in heaven or, well, you know . . . the other place.
Vontaze Burfict and the Raiders.
Bad boy joins the bad team.
So far, both sides seem more than pleased with the arrangement, which began March 20 when Burfict signed with the Raiders following his release after seven years with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Burfict was in his element during the first padded practice Monday, getting more leeway in terms of delivering the kind of punishment that some thought went overboard during his time with the Bengals.
“You get collisions and stuff like that so it’s obviously football time,” Burfict said. “It’s exciting to be out here with your teammates. Getting to see where everybody’s heart is at because, obviously, with no pads, there’s different types of players. You see what type of physical players there are with pads on.”
The term “being physical” is one of the great throwaway lines in football. It’s repeated often, by every team, every year, as if there were any other option in such a violent sport.
Burfict has been regarded in some circles as overly physical. He’s got the fines, suspensions and concussions to prove it. Burfict finished in Cincinnati with 11 fines and suspensions and six reported concussions. He’d hit a wall of sorts in Cincinnati, leaving many to believe he was an “old” 28 after so many of the collisions he loves so much.
Enter the Raiders, and specifically, Paul Guenther. The Raiders defensive coordinator was Burfict’s linebackers coach in Cincinnati and eventually defensive coordinator. Burfict considers him a father figure, and dropped his share of hints to Guenther last season that he wanted to join him in Oakland.
“No offense, but it was time for me to go,” Burfict said. “I’m happy to be back here with my coach ‘G’ and Jon Gruden.”
Burfict was signed to a one-year “prove it” deal, meaning he’d get a long look to show he can still play, but there were no guarantees. Yet Gruden has called upon Burfict to be “the straw the stirs the drink” in the middle of the defense and the veteran has in short order become an authority figure because of his knowledge of Guenther’s defense.
Veteran linebacker Brandon Marshall, the free agent from Denver, has been soaking up Burfict’s expertise on the system.
— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) July 29, 2019
“Vontaze, people don’t really speak about his intelligence, football intelligence,” Marshall said. “He has to be one of the smartest football players I’ve played with. He’s been in this defense his whole career and he knows the ins and outs, and I come and ask him questions.”
Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst marveled at how Burfict has taken ownership of the defensive play-calling.
“We even do a period where just him and DC (Derek Carr) call plays together — like no coaches, just them on the field,” Hurst said. “That’s how smart those guys are. It’s just awesome to have a player that smart and that intelligent and knows so much about the defense and what the offense is trying to do.”
Rookies such as Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abrams have found Burfict willing and able to watch film at any time and field questions about specifics.
It’s a big reason why Guenther stood by Burfict when the suspensions piled up. That and the fact that Burfict is basically a de facto member of the Guenther family.
“This is my guy, right here,” Guenther said Monday as Burfict relieved him at the interview podium.
The constant barrage of questions from young players helps Burfict stay attuned to the task at hand.
“It kind of keeps me sharp on my game. You know, if you’re not talking football, if you’re not thinking about football, then what are we here for?,” Burfict said. “So, like a lot of guys want to watch film with me to see how much I know. At the same time I’m coaching them, I’m coaching myself. I enjoy being a leader and I want all 11 to think the same way when we’re out there so we can all play fast.”