There was a time when Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison was viewed, by the league’s front office at least, as more or less public enemy number one. He became the poster child for the player safety initiative when he had head-on collisions with two different players while the Steelers for playing the Browns several years back.
Harrison’s play style then suddenly drew a lot of scrutiny from people all around the league—as well as outside of it—and it led to him, perhaps, being monitored more closely than other players whenever they were around the ball or making contact.
There was one point at which Harrison tried to clarify his playing style, saying that he wanted to hurt people, but not to injure them, making a distinction between the two. Hurting a player is more akin to doling out body bruises that cause a running back to think twice when running full-steam up the middle.
Today, while he is still frequently tested for performance-enhancing drugs, the hounds are off him when it comes to policing everything he does on the field, or so I would wager. And it would probably be pretty safe to argue that the player everybody is watching these days is Cincinnati Bengals veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent with a reputation, and has only further built upon that reputation since.
Many instances of that reputation-building have come against the Steelers, particularly last season, during which he managed to injure all three of the team’s top offensive players, and which got him called out publicly by several Steelers on social media.
Back in 2013, during his second season in the league, Burfict got the opportunity to be teammates with Harrison, during the one year that he played for the Bengals following a contract dispute with Pittsburgh. And in that time, as Chris Adamski writes, Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said that “Vontaze was like his little brother, and wherever James was, there was Vontaze right behind him”.
Harrison may have been a sort of mentor for Burfict that one year, but he evidently did not take the right lessons to heart, because there is no question that he has continued to do things the way Harrison never has in the past.
Harrison may have had a reputation for being a dirty player in the public sphere, but when it comes to the general public, there is no distinction between the most physical and the dirtiest. Harrison was never the sort of player to deliver cheap shots. Burfict has proven on a number of occasions to be exactly that sort of player.
Perhaps Burfict didn’t spend enough time with Harrison during that one year. Unfortunately for him, the Bengals released him the following year, and he ended up re-signing with the Steelers, where he has recently re-emerged as a starter, and leads the team in sacks—playing the game the right way. Not all lessons are well-learned, and Burfict, thus far in his career, is the proof of that.