The poster child for that implosion was linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and on Monday, the league had its say regarding his headshot on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown that helped cost the Bengals the win.
And just like that boneheaded play, Burfict has no one to blame but himself for the league-mandated vacation that will mark the beginning of his 2016 campaign.
As the NFL Network reported, Burfict has been suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season for "repeated violations of player safety rules:"
JUST IN: Vontaze Burfict suspended three games for repeated violations of player safety rules. pic.twitter.com/rtzTpKT003— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 12, 2016
But make no mistake, the play that got Burfict suspended was this shot that put Brown in the NFL's concussion protocol and drew a 15-yard penalty that (along with another 15-yard penalty on teammate Adam Jones) set up the Steelers' game-winning kick.
It was a hit that got Burfict excoriated in the media. ESPN analyst (and former Super Bowl-winning head coach) Mike Ditka said he'd want no part of Burfict on his team:
"He would not be on my football team. It's that simple." - NFL Countdown's Mike Ditka on Vontaze Burfict pic.twitter.com/gs6spBYjG2— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 10, 2016
Burfict's own head coach (Marvin Lewis), however, defended his player while speaking with Marc Sessler of NFL.com:
Both players couldn't be more heartbroken, literally to tears, both of them, about what went on. That's the first step, you know what I mean? To realize, 'You know what? I'm wrong. And it's unfortunate.'
It didn't go over the edge. Unfortunately, he can't have that kind of blow with a guy that's receiving a pass. It didn't go over the edge.
I don't think it's over the line, I think it's part of what football is now. And you have to learn to play within the scope of what football is right now.
The other player Lewis is referring to is Jones, who accused Brown of faking, per SportsCenter:
Of course, one knucklehead defending another knucklehead doesn't exactly carry immense weight in the court of, well, anywhere.
The thing is, whether it's anger, outrage or sympathy, there's one reaction to Burfict's blow you haven't seem one iota of anywhere—surprise.
Because we've seen this act before from Burfict. More than once.
That whole "repeated violations of player safety rules?" That might have something to do with this shot on Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams in Week 17:
Burfict has also taken a lot of heat for the hit that forced Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from Saturday's game. A hit that leaves his availability for Sunday's divisional-round matchup in Denver in as cloudy as Brown's.
That hit, in and of itself, was fine.
Giving Big Ben the business afterward?
Yeah...not so much.
Burfict drew nearly $70,000 in fines for three different sketchy plays when the two teams met in Cincinnati in December. The list goes on. And on. And on.
Take this article from Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle, with the names of the teams redacted by yours truly:
Vontaze Burfict is a super linebacker for (redacted), but his exuberance sometimes gets in the way of his judgment.
He was benched for the first quarter of the (redacted) game for a costly head-butt delivered against a (redacted) player the week before.
Against (redacted) on Saturday night, he committed three major penalties on the (redacted) winning drive, including a face-mask penalty that was hotly contested by (redacted). But he also had 10 tackles and generally was difficult for (redacted) to block.
That could easily have been from last week's game. For much of the night, Burfict was a force. He tallied six total tackles. Had that sack of Roethlisberger. Forced a fumble. And picked off what should have been a game-sealing pass.
But of course, Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill coughed up the ball soon after. Then Burfict coughed up the game soon after that.
By all indications, Burfict either can't help himself or has no intention of doing so.
That article I redacted the team names from? That's from 2010, when Burfict was at Arizona State.
And exactly nothing has changed since then. He chirps at opponents and gets in every late dig he can. If you want to be kind, he's overly exuberant and can't control his emotions. If you don't, he's a punk. A dirty player with no place in today's NFL.
Some, such as Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune, bemoaned the fact that a hit that not too long ago would have been celebrated is now cause for tarring and feathering:
Burfict delivered a great hit. A massive hit. A clear head shot that used to be one of the four major food groups of football. It was a big reason fans watched. That and the point spread.
Burfict’s hit wasn’t against the rules until recently. Before this, Burfict’s hit would’ve been celebrated. It would’ve been shown everywhere for oohs and aahs, not the way it is now for tsk-tsking.
But it's hardly a state secret that that hit is going to draw a flag 10 times out of 10 in today's NFL. Especially from the same crew that worked that chippy December meeting between these teams. A crew that wasn't at all shy about handing out 15-yarders Saturday night.
But despite that—despite the immense stakes—despite a one-point game in the last minute of the fourth quarter—Burfict just couldn't help himself.
And even his own teammates (per ESPN's Ed Werder) weren't surprised:
A #Bengals player tells me 55/24 behavior unchecked all year, he knew they would lose close game b/c guys blow it emotionally/situationally— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) January 10, 2016
It's a shame, really. Burfict is an immensely talented young player. He could be one of the league's best linebackers. But he's a million-dollar talent with a 10-cent head.
So if Lewis is correct, and Burfict is heartbroken over Saturday night's events (and the suspension that came after) you'll have to forgive me if I'm running short on sympathy.
Because Burfict has no one to blame but himself.
And both he and a Bengals team that has enabled his behavior all season long got exactly what they deserved.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.