Most every time the Dolphins play the Patriots, Matt Slater sidles up next to Darren Rizzi to sing Michael Thomas’ praises.
Now, none of those names might mean much to a casual football fan.
But for those who know special teams, particularly in the AFC East, it’s a big deal.
Rizzi coaches the Dolphins’ kicking units and has done so under five head coaches. Thomas is Rizzi’s top player.
And Slater is probably the best non-kicking specialist in all of football. So when he has something nice to say about an opposing player, it carries weight.
“One of the best compliments [Thomas] ever got, quite frankly, is from Matt Slater,” Rizzi told reporters Thursday. “... Here’s a guy that’s been to the Pro Bowl I don’t know how many years in a row. You guys know better than me. But the guy gets elected every year in the AFC, or at least the last four or five years, [and] has a lot of respect for [Thomas]. That goes to show you a lot right there.”
Thomas, one of the nicest human beings you’ll meet in any line of work, didn’t know about those pregame pow-wows until a reporter told him Thursday.
When he heard, Thomas flashed a broad smile.
“I’ve met him a couple of times, especially outside of football,” Thomas said of Slater. “He’s a standup guy. It’s great to hear that the respect is mutual. ... Obviously, I have the utmost respect for him.”
Friendship only goes so far, however. Thomas doesn’t hide the fact that he wants one of the NFL’s two non-kicking special teams invites to the Pro Bowl; Slater has gotten one in each of the past five years.
But if there’s ever a year for someone to snap the streak, this is it. Thomas’ 14 special teams tackles through Week 12 are tied with teammate Mike Hull for most in the NFL.
And these aren’t empty stats. The Dolphins rank 11th in kickoff coverage (allowing 21.2 yards per return) and 15th in punt coverage (8.8 yards). They’re one of 19 teams that has not allowed a return touchdown this season.
Thomas “absolutely” deserves a Pro Bowl nod, said teammate Jarvis Landry, who went as a receiver last year.
“Mike T. is one of those guys that, every year, deserves a spot,” Landry continued. “He’s kind of what Slater is for New England, he kind of is that for us. Around this league, he’s well-known not only for his defense, playing safety, but also for special teams.”
Rizzi acknowledged that he’s biased about Thomas’ worthiness, but made the case nonetheless.
Thomas hasn’t just been excellent this year but has been for three or four years now. He’s a team captain who often holds players-only meetings with younger teammates. He’s productive at everything Rizzi asks him to do. He has a sky-high football IQ.
He’s humble. And he’s driven.
“He never thinks he’s ‘got it,’ ” Rizzi said. “To me, in this game, at this level, as soon as you think you’ve got it, you don’t got anything. You’re out. You’re probably going to be one foot out the door. Mike Thomas is one of those guys that, week-to-week, takes a beginner’s mentality with whatever the game plan is. He’s not one of those guys walking around here like, ‘Yes, I’ve got this covered.’ ”
No surprise then that Thomas turned a conversation about himself Thursday into one about Hull, the second-year linebacker who has developed into another Dolphins special teams gem.
“I’m glad I got a guy on our own team where I can’t be complacent in Mike Hull,” Thomas said. “If I’m not getting a tackle, he’s getting a tackle. If they’re blocking him, I’m getting a tackle. It’s great to continue to have somebody to push you. You have to play at a high level. That’s how you earn the respect of everybody in the league.”
Thomas has a fan in Slater, and that’s a great start.