Why the Raiders took a 'leap of faith' on Vontaze Burfict

Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther went to bat for Vontaze Burfict, who played for him with the Bengals. AP Photo/Frank Victores

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- There was still some 90 minutes until kickoff when Vontaze Burfict spied his first tackle, er, target, chatting people up on the sidelines.

It was Jan. 5, 2013, and Burfict still had Mike Mayock's scathing assessment of him as a college player ringing in his ears: "I watched three tapes and really didn't like him as a football player ... he's a non-draftable kid." So Burfict made a beeline for Mayock, who was in Houston that weekend to call the playoff game between the Houston Texans and Burfict's Cincinnati Bengals, to give him a piece of his mind.

"That's when Mike has his run-in with him because that didn't sit too well with Vontaze," Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther laughed, reflecting on when he was Burfict's position coach with the Bengals.

"But the truth was, Burfict wasn't drafted."

Six years later, after numerous fines, suspensions, concussions and a Pro Bowl nod as an undrafted player for the Bengals, the paths of Mayock and Burfict have crossed again. This time, with Mayock as the draft analyst-turned-Raiders general manager and Burfict as the on-his-last-lifeline linebacker.

And with Guenther as Burfict's adviser.

"Paul became one of his best friends, earned his trust, showed him how to become an NFL player and kind of unearthed the fact that on top of being this incredibly tough, physical guy, he was also smart and instinctive," Mayock said a week after signing Burfict, the day after he was released by Cincinnati. "When he was in shape, when he was healthy ... he was as good as any off-the-ball linebacker in football.

"Paul knows this guy better than any of us. Paul banged the table for him. Hard. And I challenged him a little bit. 'He's getting older, he didn't have a great year last year, but there's still talent there -- Paul, how are we dealing with this?'"

Guenther vouched for Burfict, saying he would be in great shape, come in with a chip on his shoulder and a broad knowledge of Guenther's system to play middle linebacker and wear the green-communication-dot helmet in the 4-3 scheme. A one-year, "prove-it" deal worth $2 million, with $300,000 guaranteed, followed.

"When your defensive coordinator feels that strongly about something, and it's a position of need and he's only 28 years old, let's go," Mayock said. "Vontaze Burfict is a Raider and I'm all-in."

Essentially starting with Burfict's first OTA session Tuesday.

But it was in Cincinnati, where Burfict landed in 2012 and where Guenther transitioned from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in 2014, that Guenther was seen by some as walking a fine line between enabler and supporter.

Because by the time Burfict's seven seasons in Cincinnati were done, he had racked up a combined 13 suspensions and fines for dirty play and for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and it cost him 10 games and more than $4.1 million. He has suffered a reported seven concussions.

Burfict had a champion in Guenther. He needed one. And after calling his mother first when the Bengals cut him, Burfict's next call was to his old coach and friend, "Paulie G," as he affectionately calls him.

"We hit heads as soon as we met," Burfict said. "I respected the guy, he taught me the game playing as a linebacker playing at a high level. Sat me down, actually. Thomas Howard got hurt, he hurt his knee. Paulie G came up to me and was like, 'Look, we're going to have you play outside linebacker next game ... you're going to start.' I was like, 'Bro, I don't even know the playbook like that.'

"So, he took his time out, it was like 8 p.m. that night, took his time out, set the trash cans up and went through the whole playbook for like a whole two hours for me. I went into the game, I got like nine tackles and I just looked at him at the end of the game, like, 'Appreciate that. You took your time out. You didn't have to do that. You could have went home.' Ever since then, it's just been a close relationship where I know his kids, his wife, we go out to dinner, all of that good stuff. It's just a good time to have a good relationship like that with a coach."

Particularly one who is sticking his neck out for him.

"To take a leap of faith on him was a no-brainer," said Guenther, who added that he taught Burfict the entire Bengals defensive playbook, not just what applied to his position. "He's coming to resurrect his career. He's coming into a defense he knows, but a new place, a fresh beginning.

"This is a guy that had a rough upbringing. We bonded. I saw a really good player in there somewhere. I had to get it out ... there was a trust factor. 'Do what I tell you to do and it will work out.' Every week I just kept feeding him information."

But about those flags -- like the head shot he put on new Raiders teammate Antonio Brown in 2016, a costly penalty that contributed to the Steelers' winning drive in a playoff game.

"We can't have that, but I'm not looking for nice linebackers, either," Guenther said.

"He's marked, in part, because of his reputation."

It's the old chicken-and-the-egg argument, which means Burfict is a throwback to those old-school Raiders who would regularly lead the league in penalties but also be in contention. Alas, these Raiders have had only one winning season since 2002, with a lone playoff appearance coming in 2016.

Burfict, who has played in three postseasons and has 8.5 career sacks, five career interceptions, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles -- but has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2013 -- is not about to change his ways, either.

"I'm not a dirty player," he said. "I can't go in there playing patty-cake. If I go out there playing patty-cake, then I'm going to be getting run over. I have 300-pound linemen, 300-plus-pound linemen coming at me, trying to block me. If I play soft, then I'm not doing my job. I play a physical position to where I have to put my jockstrap on right, put my shoes on right, put my cleats on right and come out ready to play physical.

"I think every team plays a little bit after the whistle. It's just a matter of if the ref catches it, you know what I mean?"

Which brings us full circle to Mayock and his pre-draft evaluation of Burfict on a conference call in 2012.

Seven years later, lounging in a restaurant booth at the Arizona Biltmore hotel at the NFL owners meetings, Mayock clarified his comments.

"It wasn't anything to do with his talent level," Mayock said. "It was just, the last year he played [at Arizona State], he wasn't in good shape, he didn't have good tape. I think he'd probably acknowledge that now.

"My entire evaluation was based on a really gifted and talented guy that didn't have a good year and still came out early."

But right on time for a last chance with the Raiders.