On his first day as interim Dolphins coach, Dan Campbell promised his team will tiptoe the line between playing hard and playing dirty.
Cameron Wake on Sunday was on the right side of the line.
Olivier Vernon, in the eyes of the NFL, was not.
On the day the league named Wake the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week, Vernon was dealing with an entirely different type of correspondence from the NFL.
Vernon said the league fined him “a decent amount” for his two personal fouls on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, including a hit to Mariota’s knees that Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt called “bulls--- football.” Mariota could miss playing time because of the damage done by the hit.
Vernon is appealing the punishment; the NFL will not announce the fine’s amount until Friday. Depending on how the league views Vernon’s actions, it could exceed $30,000.
“I don’t feel like I did anything intentional,” Vernon said. “Obviously, the quarterback, he’s in a defenseless situation, but my intentions weren’t to hurt the guy at all. My intentions weren’t to hit his knees. Watching it on film, you’ll see it.”
Asked about those who now view him as a dirty player, Vernon responded:
“Really, honestly, I could care less. I know everybody in this organization knows what type of person I am. That’s all that really matters.”
Campbell, for one, doesn’t believe Vernon’s a dirty player, and told him that during a private moment this week. Campbell said Vernon was “playing football” and was “trying to get to the quarterback.”
The next logical question: Does Campbell believe Vernon’s two illegal hits were the result of the coach’s demand for a more physical approach to the game?
“I think it’s like any of those games up front,” Campbell said. “Their job is to get the quarterback. If he’s going to drop back, they’re trying to get to them. That doesn’t mean they’re dirty. They’re doing whatever they can to get to them.”
The downside of Sunday’s actions is Vernon is now on the NFL’s radar. He has committed three personal fouls in five games. Another dangerous low hit to the quarterback could cost him more than money. It could cost the defensive end a one-game suspension.
“I think any time, that’s a concern,” Campbell said. “But I think more importantly, it’s still it’s more about, ‘What’s the intent?’ As far as the league’s concerned, it’s what is the intent of the hit? Is this clearly a ‘I’m trying to hurt somebody and I’m trying to play dirty?’ Or is it ‘I’m playing football, I’m trying to get to the quarterback, it’s not something I was trying to do.’ I think it’s a case-by-case basis.”
Penalties aside, Campbell has to be pleased with the turnaround in production by his defensive front. The Dolphins didn’t have a sack from a starter in the season’s first four games. They got five from their first team Sunday, and six overall.
Four of those sacks came from Wake — all in the second quarter. Wake also forced two fumbles.
No surprise, then, the league named Wake the conference’s top defender for Week 6. It’s the third time in as many years he has won the award.
Wake, still limited by a hamstring injury that is more serious than some believed originally, did not speak to reporters during the open locker-room period Wednesday.
“Cam’s back to his usual self,” Vernon said. “He’s getting back to 100 percent, so I’m happy for him. Everybody on this line is trying to eat now.”
No one more so than Vernon, who finally snapped his own sack slump Sunday. He’s in a contract year, and like every player, wants to cash in when the time comes.
“All that’s going to play out on its own,” Vernon said. “Come the season time, I don’t even think about that. I just think about football.”
Most specifically: He’s thinking about how to hit the quarterback legally, and avoid his wallet getting lightened again.