When Ndamukong Suh was deciding which team he would let pay him nine figures to play football, it wasn’t all about the money.
Suh was drawn to the Dolphins and ultimately signed a record-breaking contract here because he believed in the ability of Ryan Tannehill, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
And he left Detroit for South Florida because he believed this team had a real chance to win.
That didn’t pan out in 2015. The Dolphins went 6-10 and were no better with Suh than without him.
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But a year later, Suh’s choice looks prophetic. He’s back in the playoffs for the third time in his career. And while Tannehill is out for at least one more week with a knee injury, the Dolphins wouldn’t be where they are without their fifth-year signal caller.
“No matter where I was going, my goal was to go and be a part of something special,” Suh said this week. “I think we have an opportunity to be something special here. Unfortunately, in the previous year, we weren’t successful; but we have an opportunity this year to make it, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
He’s not just a part of it. He’s been a driving force. Suh has put together yet another Pro Bowl season, the fifth of his career, and is playing as well as ever. He has five sacks and 38 tackles, but those numbers don’t accurately capture his impact. Pro Football Focus ranks Suh third among all NFL interior linemen, behind just Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald and Arizona’s Calais Campbell.
So this is one of those rare instances in free agency where both sides have gotten exactly what they wanted.
Granted, there were real questions about the size of Suh’s six-year, $114 million contract at the time he signed it.
Could any player who didn’t touch the football be worth $19 million annually?
Yes, the Dolphins decided at the time — and they still believe that. Team officials understood then that a player of Suh’s caliber reaching the open market in his prime was a once-a-decade (if that) event and knew they would have to pay a premium to land him.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase wasn’t part of that decision. He inherited Suh from the previous coaching staff and is grateful he did.
“I haven’t been around any defensive tackles that have had the kind of impact he’s had,” Gase said. “Being able to do a lot of things with controlling the front and stunts that they do and the rush games and how impactful he is. He’s really sacrificed himself to help other guys pop free and get sacks.”
What’s more, Suh is at his best when the Dolphins need him the most: late in games. He saved their win against the 49ers by chasing down Colin Kaepernick on the last play of regulation.
“When that fourth quarter hits, you know he’s going to make a play somewhere and the consistency every week is probably as rare as it can get,” Gase said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a player that just always is the same but at a high level. Every week we win, I feel like every week he gets a game ball. It’s really been impressive to watch a player that plays the position he does and how impactful he is and how disruptive he is. He changes the way you have to do protections. He changes the way you have to block the running game. When he gets a one-on-one block — it’s rare now — he’s going to win.”
The Dolphins need all of that and more Sunday against the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady has been ridiculous, throwing 25 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 11 games.
If the Dolphins are to have any chance to slow him down, they’ll need consistent pressure up the middle from Suh, who has 17 quarterback hits in 2016. Suh was the defense’s lone bright spot the first time these teams met this season, tallying an absurd 12 tackles.
“You have to take what you’re given and make the most of it,” Suh said. “I expect for this team to be successful for years to come.”
▪ The Dolphins listed cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Jelani Jenkins as doubtful for Sunday’s game, but defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has said they’re not playing.
Running back Jay Ajayi was listed as questionable, but he was a full participant in practice Friday and Gase has said he will be fine.
Linebacker Spencer Paysinger was listed as questionable but said he expects to play. Defensive end Mario Williams is also questionable.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is out.