Mike Preston: NFL teams need veteran leaders who are calming influences on players like Burfict

Cincinnati Bengals' Vontaze Burfict (55) runs into Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown (84) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh won 18-16. Burfict was called for a penalty on the play.
Cincinnati Bengals' Vontaze Burfict (55) runs into Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown (84) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh won 18-16. Burfict was called for a penalty on the play.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were prima donnas, but they were players of character, not just characters. Michael Irvin and Randy Moss were high maintenance, but they produced on Sunday afternoons.

The NFL is full of superstars with enormous egos and crazed attitudes. But to win in this league, you need to have at least two or three on every team.


It's a fine line that NFL coaches have to walk, but the great coaches are able to control these types of players. And it's not just about coaching. Teams need to have leaders on the field, and that's why the presence of veteran players on every roster is so important.

And that's why Cincinnati can't win a playoff game. The Bengals' Marvin Lewis is a good coach, one of the best in the NFL, but he can't control his players and this team lacks leadership.

It was amusing to hear so much criticism of Lewis after the Bengals lost to Pittsburgh on Saturday night in an AFC Wild Card playoff game after unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones helped set up the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds.

Some said it was only a matter of time before Cincinnati imploded because it had a roster of bad boys. Some media experts have come out and declared that Lewis needs to be fired.

"I blame Burfict for his own actions," said CBS football analyst and former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott. "A coach can't control everything. It's like Odell Beckham going off in New York. You can't get rid of them because they are the main reason you are in this game. What you hope is that the Bengals continue to work with him because he is so young, and maybe they can get him straightened out."

"At the end of the day, this all falls on the head coach," said Scott. "He is responsible for this lack of control, this lack of discipline. But this is going on around the league. The league is starting to change, there is a lack of veteran leadership because the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] is forcing teams to get rid of veterans with nine and 10 years, and the league is getting younger."

If the Bengals should fire Lewis than the Ravens should fire John Harbaugh, whose team has struggled with penalties and off-the-field issues. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin definitely needs to leave Pittsburgh.

There is no attempt here to exonerate Lewis because this is his team, but the Bengals organization is also to blame because the front office allowed Lewis to sign these players. It had to be aware of their backgrounds, especially troubled players like Jones and Burfict.


But the same behavior we saw exhibited by Jones and Burfict on Saturday night we see every week at pro football games. This behavior has been going on since the beginning of the game, but is more prevalent now because of the advances in television, the immaturity of the players and social media.

And guess what?

Teams can't win without these alpha males. The Ravens purged their team of these type of players after their Super Bowl win in 2012 and have been to the playoffs just once since then.

In 2000, the Ravens had some dominating personalities on that team, but they also had leaders like Tony Siragusa, who didn't mind berating a player verbally if he stepped out of line. They had defensive end Rob Burnett, who would physically grab a player if he had problems. There was also safety Rod Woodson, who came off as the calm father or grandfather during troubled times.

Seattle has a calming influence in safety Earl Thomas, who can control defensive lineman Michael Bennett. Carolina has a strong veteran leader in linebacker Thomas Davis.

The Bengals don't have leadership of that caliber. Their best player, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, is quiet. You don't get many words out of defensive end Carlos Dunlap or receiver A.J. Green either. Quarterback Andy Dalton had started to become a vocal leader, but didn't play Saturday night because of a hand injury.


The Bengals needed someone to control Burfict, who is a head case. There were some draft experts who rated him in the top five of linebackers when he was coming out of Arizona State University in 2012, but no team drafted him because of his on- and off-the-field problems. The Bengals eventually signed him as an undrafted free agent.

Since then, Burfict has been fined for striking and hitting another player in the groin in 2012. In 2014, he was fined for twisting the ankles of Carolina tight end Greg Olsen and quarterback Cam Newton after plays were over.

And the list goes on and on ...

Burfict is actually a smart football player, but lacks guidance and was deservingly suspended three regular-season games Monday for his hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown on Saturday. Jones has been arrested and in trouble several times, including a season-long suspension in 2007 and a partial one in 2008.

But those close to Jones say he has changed, and league officials blew the call against him Saturday. The real culprit was Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter, who was out on the field in the middle of several Cincinnati players who had huddled together.

Jones had every right to ask him to leave regardless of the tone.

"Joey Porter has his own issues and once the officials discovered he was out on the field, they should have either threw the flag on Porter or just picked up the flag on Jones," said Scott. "Porter said he was out there checking on Antonio Brown yet he was 10 to 15 yards away from Brown."

"If you go check out Adam Jones, he is a changed man," said Scott. "Watch him closely; he is now one of those peacemakers and always helping other players after plays. They penalized him for being Pac Man Jones, not Adam Jones."

Porter was a knucklehead when he played in Pittsburgh, but also one of the best linebackers in the league. Scott had his own problems controlling his temper throughout his playing time with the Ravens and New York Jets.

But Scott isn't ready to run Burfict out of the league, and the Bengals certainly can't afford to lose him. The Ravens are gambling on several players with troubled pasts themselves like quarterback Ryan Mallett and running back Terrance West. They took a chance with safety Will Hill nearly two years ago and appear to have won.

"It's a fine line head coaches have to walk," said Brad Jackson, a former Ravens linebacker and football analyst for Comcast. "It's like walking on the edge of the concrete standing on your tiptoes. You don't know if it is going to work out but you have to take the chance."

"It's all about winning," said Jackson.