Vontaze Burfict says he wants to change.
Oh, he still intends to play his game -- hard, physical, downright intimidating if you've got the ball in your hands as No. 55 barrels down on you. But Burfict's latest suspension cost him the final 12 games of last season, and if he gets another chance, one of the most notorious players of his era knows his next illegal hit may be his last.
At age 29, after eight NFL seasons and over $4 million in fines and salary lost to suspensions, mostly for violating player safety rules, can Burfict be the same, relentless presence without getting in trouble?
"I have to be," Burfict told me by phone this week, in his first public comments since his suspension was quietly lifted on Dec. 30. "I'm a tone-setter. But I can also be a vocal leader, and that's what I was trying to do (last season with the Raiders) before I got suspended -- trying to switch up my image and the way I play, the way people (perceive) me.
"And I'm not going to lie, bro. The first two, three years, everybody was saying, '(He's) the villain.' You guys think I'm a villain? You just go on and live with it. Then, it gets old, when you go out there and some fans think that I'm just out to hurt people. That's not the case."
Set to become a free agent next week, Burfict is back in the Phoenix area, where he starred at Arizona State. He's in a routine now, waking up early to hit a gym near his new house and then going to campus for another workout at night after traffic dies down. He's eating healthy and getting massages. He's varying his training and doing more physical combat boxing, allowing his body to get used to feeling sore again after a layoff of more than five months. He weighed 266 pounds when he stepped on the scale over the weekend and can be at his 255-pound playing weight in no time.
Perhaps more important, Burfict has been speaking to his longtime coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, Marvin Lewis (who's now co-defensive coordinator at ASU), as well as current and former NFL players and others about what he can do to play within the rules. And he has been watching a lot of tape of how other linebackers through recent NFL history have stayed on the right side of the line between physical play and fouls.
"You can tell how the years changed and the years evolved in football from Ray Lewis to Brian Urlacher to now," Burfict said. "You watch Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David, me -- it's a totally different era, and watching how the eras have changed, you've got to change with it."
There are plenty of reasons for teams to be skeptical that things really would be different this time. The over-the-top antics from his younger days with the Bengals -- leading to fines for striking an opponent in the groin, ankle twisting, leg stomping and numerous fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct, among other things -- have abated. Lewis told me "we worked hard on technique" in 2018, their last season together in Cincinnati. But that was the same season the NFL instituted a rule against lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet, and Burfict was fined multiple times for violating it.
He was four games into his first season with the Oakland Raiders when another violation of that rule -- a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle in Week 4 -- led to Burfict's unprecedented suspension, which NFL Vice President of Football Operations Jon Runyan wrote in his disciplinary letter was based in part on Burfict's "extensive history of rules violations."
The Raiders had been effusive in their praise of Burfict's leadership prior to the suspension. Coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr, who told reporters Burfict is "one of the most misunderstood people in the NFL," phoned in to Burfict's appeal hearing to offer their support. (It was swiftly denied by appeals officer Derrick Brooks.) Gruden so respected Burfict's football intelligence, sources said, that he explored hiring him as a coach last season after Burfict's suspension -- an opportunity Burfict says he would've considered if the NFL permitted it, though he says now he wants to keep playing because "I just feel like I still have a long road ahead of me, I'm still young and a lot of things to prove. And I want to win a championship."
When veteran guard Jordan Devey signed with the Raiders the same week as Burfict, he was concerned his new teammate would be a safety hazard in practice. (For good reason; Devey was on the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017, when Burfict leveled fullback Anthony Sherman in a preseason game, leading to a three-game suspension.) He now calls Burfict "one of my favorite teammates," having seen his impact in the locker room as well as on the field.
"There were periods (in practice) that Gruden would do and it'd be Derek vs. Vontaze, and Derek would have free rein of the playbook and Vontaze was just trying to stop it. It was like a battle every single day that they did that," said Devey, who is also represented by Burfict's new agent, Peter Schaffer. "So, he was a leader. He knew what he was doing, first off, and then he was bringing other guys in, and it was so impressive to watch.
"Granted, there were a couple hits where it was like, 'Ooh, you could've pulled off and done it differently.' But knowing how intense he takes the game and how serious he is about it -- he was just playing 100 percent and trying to play football the way that it was meant to be played: hard and fast."
It's not easy to keep hard and fast from becoming too hard and too fast, especially with the way NFL rules continue to evolve to emphasize player safety. Though spearing has long been against the rules, Burfict's hit on Doyle might not even have drawn a flag until a couple years ago, much less an ejection and lengthy suspension.
"You watch every person I come to try to tackle, they duck their head, and my target -- the first thing that happens is I have to duck my head, because why would I want their heads to be going into my sternum?" Burfict said. "So I have to protect myself as well out there. And yes, I'm a (big) linebacker, so when people see me -- what do you do when you see something just flying at you? You duck your head like, 'Oh, s---!' "
In a November interview with The Athletic that he now regrets, Burfict said he didn't think the hit on Doyle warranted any suspension, much less the rest of the season, and had choice words for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the media, among others.
"Obviously, I wasn't happy about the suspension, so I'm just trying to make sure it doesn't happen (again) and see what I can actually do to make sure I can fix it," Burfict says now. "There is a way you can change, bro. There's a way you can change in making a sure tackle and just not letting him run you over."
Burfict has stayed in contact with many Raiders teammates and believes the door is open to return there. Either way, he expects to be back on the field in 2020.
Why should a team (or anyone else) trust him to stay there? Not even Burfict can offer a straight answer until the first time a running back is coming his way and he needs to decide in a split-second what he's going to do about it.
Besides assessing his game, the time away from football gave Burfict a chance to catch up on daddy duties. He shuttled his daughters, ages 5 and 3, to school and swim lessons. (A third is on the way.) Get another NFL shot, and there's still time to write a new ending to his story.
"I think about how the world sees me. That bothers me. It bothers me a lot," Burfict said. "People think (from what they see in) football, 'that's how he is off the field.' Nah.
"I've always (bet) on myself. I think I can get it done, man. I think I can get it done."