Miami Dolphins head coach Dan Campbell is not one to criticize his players publicly. Yes, he may bench them or even disappear them -- taking them from starters to being inactive in the span of one week because they're not playing well -- but he doesn't criticize his players.
And that is smart. It doesn't benefit a head coach to undress his players publicly because that is often a recipe for losing their confidence. A coach does that to enough guys and he loses the locker room.
So Campbell, a smart guy who understands how this works, wisely isn't going there.
Indeed, Campbell is more apt to say guys are playing very, very, very well when, you know, they're playing good enough. Or playing OK. Or even just getting by.
That is why it was no surprise when the Dolphins head coach on Wednesday defended his two highest-paid players when the New York media asked him about them on a conference call.
The New York writers asked Campbell about quarterback Ryan Tannehill and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. And, predictably, Campbell stood on the table for both guys. He said he's "glad [Tannehill] is our quarterback right now."
And he said he's glad the Dolphins have Suh right now. Indeed, Campbell went a little further with Suh because the framing of the question about the defensive tackle seemed to take Campbell by surprise. The question apparently came from the standpoint of what is the criticism of Suh?
“Yeah I guess that criticism came early, right, in the first three or four weeks because I don’t know any criticism that would come out about him now about the way he plays," Campbell said. "If you turn on the tape, nobody is playing better than he is at defensive tackle in the NFL right now. His game is at a high, high level right now. He is a productive player, he’s disruptive and I’m glad we’ve got him.”
And that is fine.
But let's examine this more closely because, there are reasons, and valid ones, why there is criticism of Ndamukong Suh nationally.
Let's start with the fact he is playing at a high level. That is true. The past three games were great (versus Philly), very good (versus Dallas) and solid (versus Baltimore). That's a high level overall. And the first couple of weeks of the season Suh was horrible. Anyone with eyes saw that and he admitted as much.
But overall it is factually wrong to say no one in the NFL is playing better than Suh at defensive tackle right now.
St. Louis's Aaron Donald is playing better.
Minnesota's Linval Joseph is playing better.
Cincinnati's Geno Atkins is playing better.
Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox is playing better.
Green Bay's Mike Daniels and Carolina's Kawann Short are playing about as well at times, better at times, and not as well at times. Overall, however, Daniels, Short and Suh are all right there.
Yes, this is based in part on opinion. But it is also based on listening to pro scouts. It is also based on watching some (admittedly not a ton) of tape of other guys. And this is based in part on ProFootballFocus grades.
It is a compilation of factors brought together to form an opinion. I don't think Campbell is compiling that much material because he is an expert on how Suh is playing. He knows better than everyone. But he doesn't know better than anyone on the other guys. So for him to compare, he's out of his depth.
And so the mythifying of Suh as the best defensive tackle in the NFL at the moment is just bogus.
He's very good. He's among the best six or seven defensive tackles in the NFL. But he isn't the best.
And here's the thing: That also is not really the major criticism of Ndamukong Suh. It is not about whether he's a good player or not.
The problem I have with Ndamukong Suh is that he isn't often (ever for the Dolphins so far) a defining player.
So what is a defining player?
A defining player is one that changes the course of a game. A defining player is one that can put a team on his shoulders and carry it to victory. A defining player is one that can win a game for you nearly all by himself sometimes.
Dan Marino was a defining player. Jason Taylor was a defining player. Mark Duper was a defining player. Mark Clayton was a defining player. Manny Fernandez was, at least in one Super Bowl, a defining player. Ricky Williams was a defining player. Zach Thomas was a defining player.
Rob Gronkowski is. J.J. Watt is. Josh Norman has become one this season. Luke Kuechly is.
They make a difference in the outcome of the game, thus defining the game. They make a difference in the production of their unit, be it offense or defense, thus defining their team.
And Ndamukong Suh has not been that for the Miami Dolphins.
Well, the narrative I heard from the Dolphins after the Suh signing was that he was here to improve the run the defense. After all, I was told, the Lions had the best run defense in the NFL last season because of Suh. And the Dolphins needed that kind of redefining because they were an unacceptable No. 24 against the run in 2014.
The problem is the Dolphins defense this year is 30th against the run.
That is worse than last year.
Miami has been 32nd against the run a couple of weeks. Miami has been 31st against the run a couple of weeks. Miami is 30th now.
Did Suh change the defense for the better in that regard? Yes or no?
The other narrative I heard when Suh signed was he was going to be that guy pushing up the gut of the pass pocket. He was going to make Tom Brady's life impossible because Brady hates pressure up the middle. And he was going to do that to all the AFC East quarterbacks, particularly the inexperienced one in Buffalo.
Well, in five games against AFC East opponents this year, Suh has one sack, that against Buffalo on Nov. 8, during a 33-17 loss.
Indeed, against the AFC East, the Dolphins defense has allowed 41 points and 33 points to Buffalo, 27 and 38 points to the New York Jets, and 36 points to New England. And I am definitely not saying those points were Suh's doing. But I am saying his presence did not make any difference in the outcome of those games. The Dolphins could have gotten blown out of those games without him. They got blown out with him.
(Peanut gallery: But Mando, he's always double-teamed!)
Yes, that is correct 'oh friends of the gallery. But I remind you J.J. Watt is always double-teamed. Geno Atkins gets double teamed. Joseph gets double teamed. This double team thing is not a foreign tactic used exclusively against Suh. It happens every NFL Sunday.
So here is my point. The Dolphins have a good player in Ndamukong Suh. There is no arguing that.
But he simply has not been a difference-maker. Can we agree on that?
He hasn't made the run defense better. He hasn't made the defense overall better. The team's record is not on an arc to be better this year than last year.
He's been an addition that hasn't helped improve the team.
And, finally, it cannot be ignored, the Dolphins have added that piece at a steep, steep price. Yes, folks, money matters because that's why the NFL uses a salary cap so you knew this was coming.
Ndamukong Suh is currently the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. He signed a deal for $114 million that was trumpeted by everyone involved. He's getting $60 million guaranteed. He's averaging $19 million per year, which is what franchise quarterbacks are getting in their second contracts.
The Dolphins are paying Suh like a boss.
And that is not his fault. They offered it to him. He took it. So would I, so would you.The difference is the Dolphins should know neither you nor I can change the course of games, or redefine a defense, or put the team on our backs once in a while.
The problem is the Dolphins paid Suh either knowing he wasn't going to change the course of games or a season or a defense and were fine with that or they paid Suh expecting him change games and transform the D and be a defining player.
Either way, it is troubling.
If the team paid that much money knowing Suh wasn't going to be a player to get them over the top in any significant manner so far, then they didn't use their free agency money wisely. They went to a Lexus dealer and agreed to pay Lamborghini prices. Not smart.
The Dolphins paid that great deal of money expecting Suh to indeed be a difference-maker. They paid that money expecting Suh to raise the level of the run defense. They paid that money expecting him to help them win an AFC East game every once in a while. He has not done any of those so far.
And, like it or not, fair or not, that is a serious criticism of both Ndamukong Suh and the Dolphins.