There is one place for Vontaze Burfict in this league and it’s with Paul Guenther in Oakland. Burfict was a highly talented linebacker out of Arizona State who went undrafted because of discipline and character concerns. He certainly brought those to the NFL with him, coming to be known as one of league’s dirtiest players.
Despite these issues, he and Guenther hit it off; first as his position coach and then as the defensive coordinator. What started off their bond? Golf.
“He was my linebackers coach in Cincinnati,” said Burfict. “You know how that relationship goes, you see him every day. And I don’t know, we just started talking about golfing around that time because I was just getting new to golf and we went out and played a couple holes and ever since then it was like man, this is my guy and I trust him and he tells me little things about defense and offense that can give you keys and in Cincinnati it made me a smarter football player.”
Most teams wouldn’t consider Burfict worth the trouble. Case in point, a year after Guenther left to become the Raiders defensive coordinator, the Bengals dropped Burfict like a hot rock. The moment they did, both he and Guenther knew where he was meant to be.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him obviously in Cincinnati as both his position coach and as coordinator and any time you can add a guy with his talent and knowledge of the system, when he became available, it was very attractive to us,” Guenther said of Burfict. “He knows the system inside and out, he can get us in and out of calls. I think some of the returning players are seeing the knowledge and the system he has out here on the practice field, so it’s good to have him.”
After missing the team’s first OTA, Burfict was in with the first team by the second open media OTA the following week. He would step in for drills, and when the second team would step in, Burfict would head straight to Guenther standing in the back of the defense and exchange notes in much the same way you see Derek Carr leave the field and go straight to Gruden.
“It’s like having a quarterback that you’ve coached back there, so you can get in and out of calls at the line of scrimmage,” Guenther continued. “Last year we didn’t do that as much. We did it a few times and I just felt like it was a lot for the guys in the first year of the system to put that added weight on them. Now in year two adding a guy that can and having another year in the system, guys will pick it up a lot faster.”
Middle linebacker was a revolving door last season. First it was Tahir Whitehead calling the plays from the middle. Then Whitehead was moved to strongside linebacker and Maquell Lee took over in the middle. Then late in the season he switched in and out with undrafted rookie Jason Cabinda. It was not ideal.
Some of these guys would figure to be more comfortable at the position coming into their second year in Guenther’s scheme. But no one would be more comfortable with it than a guy who spent his first six NFL seasons in that scheme.
“It helps a lot,” Whitehead said of Burfict’s addition. “Having a guy that’s extremely familiar with the scheme for the most part of his career, I believe. Six years he was in the system. Being in the system for that length of time, you know the nuances of the defense, all of the checks, all of the calls, and just having Vontaze has definitely been a huge help.”
Basically the entire linebacking corps from last year is back this year. The Raiders didn’t even draft a linebacker. The only new guys really are veteran free agent pickup Brandon Marshall and undrafted rookie Te’Von Coney. So, being on the same page shouldn’t be an issue. Burfict knows Guenther’s scheme well and he isn’t speaking a language no one understands. It also means he is seen as a leader on this defense.
“You got to be a leader out there,” said Burfict. “You got to lead by example, you have to make sure you are doing your job so they can have confidence in you when the game time comes, and putting guys in the right position. Like if I have to make a line stunt for the defensive lineman, putting them in the right position as well because obviously they have their hand in the dirt. Like I said, just being accountable, on time to everything and make sure you’re doing every rep in the weight room.”
There is little doubt Burfict can lead this defense in practice and in the weight room. But what of the field of play? What about that whole ‘dirty player’ thing? It’s Burfict’s one major criticism because it costs his team when he gets penalized on the field and especially when he gets suspended for his actions.
No one is questioning why Burfict was added from a schematics perspectives. He was a no-brainer in that regard. They need him to be a complete leader. And to do that, he must get a handle on his personal fouls and his temper. He is a ‘quarterback,’ so he is held to a higher standard. If he can live up to that standard, the Raiders could be in good hands at the linebacker position.