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November 27, 2011

Burfict handling emblematic of Erickson era problems

From the point Vontaze Burfict signed with Arizona State, we must assume soon-to-be 'one-time' Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson knew the extent to which his fate was tied to him.

Erickson surely knew that Burfict, good, bad or indifferent (and it's most typically the latter two, at least of late), would be the face of the program, and helped set that in motion by comparing him to Ray Lewis, a 12-time NFL Pro Bowler and former Erickson player at Miami.

The highest-rated recruit in history, a player whose hits would be replayed for television promotion, Burfict would be the name most associated with ASU, and by extension, Erickson.

And for a time, a short time, Burfict was able to skate by on raw athleticism and highlight footage, maintaining the reputation he earned in high school. The first and perhaps still most famous of his hits came in his freshman year against Idaho State when he pile-drove the ISU quarterback - launching him four yards from the point of contact.

Sadly, that hit -- the first game of Burfict's career -- may have been its apex. With a few good performances sprinkled-in, Youtube highlights have propped up Burfict's reputation far beyond the merit of his play.

To the average fan wanting results, the problem with Burfict hasn't been that he's fallen below expectations, it's that he turned into an average football player, perhaps worse, in his junior year - a season in which any third-year starter with above average talent should turn into a big-time contributor.

So what happened?

While we may never know exactly when Burfict began giving less than his full effort or focus towards self-improvement, or if he's ever genuinely considered the concept, we do know the point in which Burfict quit.

Just as the wasted clock in the waning minutes against UCLA was an indictment of Erickson and his staff's preparation and mental focus, nothing could better represent the sheer disappointment of Burfict's Sun Devil career than the final quarter of ASU's epic four-game collapse. Burfict sat on the bench, a place he should have gotten familiar with far earlier. He was supposed to just miss a series but, according to multiple sources, told Erickson he wouldn't go back in (using less friendly words).

The team's collapse and the point Burfict officially resigned on the season is not just synchronistic, it's in some ways causal - each has helped create the other.

However, before completely blaming Erickson and his staff for enabling Burfict's immaturity, for not providing the proper structure or discipline, for not setting up reasonable boundaries, it should be considered that the scope and depth of Burfict's emotional instability may be far more complex than any football coach without a Ph.D. in clinical psychology can handle.

But one does not need to make a diagnosis to observe that the person may have deep-rooted issues - still far from being dealt with or confronted.

It's not just that Burfict spends much of his time on the field jawing with almost everyone - officials, teammates, coaches, opponents - it's that outwardly there seems to be a general disconnect with what he's supposed to be on the field to accomplish.

Burfict's job, like any other player on the team, is to help it win in whatever role he's been assigned.

That has never come across as Burfict's primary concern, even as it may be in some misguided, difficult to comprehend way.

Not much makes sense when it comes to Burfict. It appears as if he spends most of his time on the field fighting for respect, feeling slighted by even the smallest of disturbances, induced to rage as if on a whim.

Burfict has been given multiple opportunities to present his case here and elsewhere, to defend himself and allow fans and media to get a better understanding of what makes him him. It's not hard to win over The Valley's soft-as-Charmin media market. Surely there are things to like about Burfict - teammates have never openly called him out and it seems he has friends and a support system on the team.

Is Burfict too shy to speak to the media? Scared? Does he have the proverbial bully's mindset, where he only chooses fights he can win, and does he perceive the media, much as anyone outside his circle, to be an adversary?

All are plausible; some have been offered as explanation by those around the program. But he remains an enigma.

In the last month, ASUDevils.com has asked Burfict to interview three times. And each time he declined. On the first attempt, he said he wouldn't do it because ASUDevils.com was unfriendly in its coverage of him. It should be noted, however, that ASUDevils.com went out of its way to defend Burfict on social media platforms and local radio when false allegations were made against him earlier in the season.

Absent his rationale, Burfict comes across as a player who is uncaring of how his actions impact the overall health of the program he suits up for. And given his proclivity for personal fouls and histrionics, whose fault is that?

In this case though, blame must go beyond the player.

Sure, Burfict was benched for a quarter after-head butting Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz -- and just as likely for pushing teammate Max Tabach in the huddle following the play -- in 2010. But only a quarter?

When asked about Burfict's penalty and discipline problems, Erickson has on more than one occasion talked about the need to let Burfict play aggressively and violently, implying that any disciplinary action would temper his passion -- perceived as a gift to some.

Erickson's hands-off approach works when leaders develop on their own or when a culture is in place that fosters it through peer pressure; when players are not only capable of self-motivation, but enabled to motivate stragglers like Burfict.

But what happens when a player shows an utter lack of self-motivation, or acts as an emotional detriment to the team and isn't taken to task for the behavior? Moreover, how hard did the staff even try to adapt their approach to the headcase face of the program, was it even capable?

It's not clear that there was ever a substantive change of approach with Burfict and it's now clear such action was required.

The impact Burfict's behavior and attitude had on teammates and the program itself could be masked and hidden to the public for many months, even two seasons, like an undetected tumor. But as it metastasized, Erickson never seemed to offer up a strong solution to slow or halt its growth.

In the end, ASU's collapse is most logically attributable to the performance of its defense, which, as Erickson acknowledged following Friday's loss, has been the bedrock of his program. And the abominably poor performance of the defense over the last four games is most logically attributable to a leadership void that cracked that foundation beyond repair.

Maybe Burfict was incapable of becoming a leader even in the best of circumstances, but the negative impact he had on the defense could have been avoided.

Like much of Erickson's tenure, he prescribed the remedy far too late -- with it having almost no bearing on the outcome, and little meaning to anyone involved.


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