CINCINNATI — Vontaze Burfict was sitting at his locker after practice earlier this month when he spotted a reporter approaching him out of the corner of his eye. “Here comes the Steelers guy,” Rey Maualuga, Burfict’s fellow Bengals linebacker, warned him, and he meant another reporter wanting to talk about the way the last season had ended, with a collapse and a scuffle and a playoff loss to the rival Steelers.
At first Burfict got up and made a beeline for the other side of the room. Then he must’ve figured it was no use—the questions would keep coming, so he might as well answer them for a few minutes. Burfict did not enjoy talking about the Pittsburgh game, but he had a message he wanted to get across when the reporter asked if he harbored any ill will against the Steelers.
“I don’t give no f---s about them,” Burfict said. “Zero. You can write that, too. I don’t give no f---s about them. They’re just another team. They don’t scare me. Just another team.”
It was relatively quiet at Bengals training camp this year. The team’s core, on both sides of the ball, was back. Quarterback Andy Dalton appeared as steady as ever. The Bengals looked like contenders again. There was no drama, no injuries, no tidal changes to report.
But any mention of the Steelers caused players to frown and shake their heads. The Bengals had the ball and the lead, needing only to run out the last 90 seconds or so to win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1991 … when Jeremy Hill fumbled, the Bengals’ fourth turnover of the game. The Steelers then drove down and kicked the game-winning field goal in part because the Bengals gifted them 30 penalty yards on one play. First, Burfict made a gratuitously vicious hit on Antonio Brown, and then in the ensuing chaos Adam Jones made contact with an official and was flagged for another personal foul.
The Monday after the game, coach Marvin Lewis met with the team one final time before the offseason. We had it, he told them. All we had to do was keep our cool. If not for the turnovers, the penalties, the fighting. Lewis wanted them to learn from the Steelers game, grow, and then forget it altogether. That last one would be easier said than done.
The players couldn’t go anywhere this offseason without their family and friends bringing up the end of the game. When they arrived at camp, the media kept bringing it up again and again. When a reporter asked Jones about the subject, he said, “What’re you tryin’ to start something?” and waved the reporter off and walked away, ending the interview there.
“We’re not talkin’ about the Steelers no more,” said safety George Iloka. “It’s a new season. Like, honestly. It’s mid-August, right? And that was in January? We’re past that. That’s not really in our head. … We told the local media, quit asking us about it, because that was seven, eight months ago. People who aren’t local media, it’s always their first question.”
Perhaps because it’s the one question left unanswered about them: Will the Bengals keep their cool if they make it back to the postseason and face a similarly tense moment?
All offseason, Lewis tried preparing the Bengals for that. Players said he stressed prioritizing team goals over individual battles. He adopted the mantra “Pounding the Rock,” which had long been used by the San Antonio Spurs. He kept repeating a saying he has been telling them for years: Play with Poise. Still, Lewis acknowledged he wouldn’t know how the Bengals would respond until they played a real game and had to “overcome adversity.”
“We always play with poise,” Burfict says. “There’s just some times in a game when you’ll lose it.”
The Bengals had a test on a hot day in early August, when they had a joint practice against the Vikings. Thirty minutes in, a mini-brawl broke out. On a Vikings screen pass, Minnesota first-round pick Laquon Treadwell ended up on the ground, and another receiver, Adam Thielen, had his helmet knocked off. Pushing and shoving broke out, whistles blew and players converged. Adam Jones was involved. But by the Bengals standards this was relatively tame. The crowd dissipated, and practice resumed without another incident.
“[The coaches] want us to play physical, be tough guys,” Iloka said. “They don’t want us to back down. And there’s also a fine line, doing things that could harm the team.”
Dre Kirkpatrick, for one, had been thinking a lot about that line. During a regular season Steelers game last December, the cornerback had gotten into slap fight with Antonio Brown. If Kirkpatrick found himself in a similar situation, he suggested he would’ve handled it better. “I would just take a deep breath,” he said. “Try to find one of my teammates. Take a walk a little bit. Maybe take myself out, [off the field]. You don’t want to cost your team a game.”
Compared to his teammates, Burfict had a unique perspective on all this. After the loss to the Steelers, the NFL suspended him three games for the Brown hit and repeatedly violating player-safety rules. He will have three more weeks than the other Bengals to sit and ruminate. He already seemed to have done some thinking, as he spoke to the reporter.
On the suspension: “S---, I didn’t really care. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes. That’s it.”
On coach Lewis’ motto Play with Poise: “We always play with poise. There’s just some times in a game when you’ll lose it.”
On the media continuing to ask about the Steelers loss: “They didn’t go to the Super Bowl; we didn’t go to the Super Bowl. What is there to have a chip on our shoulder for? I would see if they went to the Super Bowl and won it, because obviously we were kicking ass the whole game. … We’re past that. The only people that still talk about it is Pittsburgh.”
Once the interview ended, Burfict strolled over to the ping-pong table in the center of the locker room and started a game against rookie receiver Tyler Boyd. A group of teammates gathered around to watch. Boyd was clearly the more skilled player, hitting the ball with spin and precision. Burfict looked more rigid, as if he hadn’t played the game much.
As Boyd jumped out to a commanding lead, Burfict appeared to get frustrated. Midway through the match, they had a brief argument over a point and got animated about it. But Burfict didn’t break his paddle or throw it across the room. He and Boyd said their piece, and play resumed without incident. Burfict even smiled, and danced and dabbed after a string of points, though he eventually lost.
See, he knew how to keep his cool.
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