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The story of the Miami Dolphins this century has followed more unfortunate twists and turns than anyone could relate in this limited space but one of the signature symptoms that something is wrong has to do with the team’s players in the Super Bowl.
I’m not talking about Dolphins players in the Super Bowl representing the Dolphins.
I’m talking Dolphins players in the Super Bowl playing for other teams.
Talk about problematic.
It began in the late 1990s and carried through the early 2000s when players such as Jeff Dellenbach and Keith Byars, Bryan Cox, Larry Izzo, Terrell Buckley and Wes Welker would either team up or play against each other on the NFL’s biggest stage. Often this would happen a year or two after they’d been discarded by the Dolphins.
The trend carried through to last year when Jay Ajayi played for the Eagles and continues this year with Ndamukong Suh starting Super Bowl 53 on Sunday for the Los Angeles Rams.
So while the Dolphins haven’t played in a Super Bowl since the 1984 season, plenty of Dolphins players certainly have made a mark on the game.
Some Miami fans have witnessed this small phenomenon and decided it doesn’t matter. I know the Dolphins front office through the years has certainly adopted this stance.
Guys come. Guys go.
We don’t care about guys who are gone.
I’m not accepting that anymore. Because one guy going on to something better is happenstance. A couple doing it raises eyebrows.
This happening with significant frequency, often in consecutive years, as is happening this year with Suh, suggests something’s really wrong.
Early on I used to think whatever was wrong was with the players. After all, if they’d performed better, they’d still be with the Dolphins. Because the Dolphins weren’t dumb enough to cast out good players.
Except I’m starting to think, yes, they actually are.
It’s not the players. It’s the folks making decisions about those players.
Because those people have lost the benefit of the doubt in recent years. Consider:
In 2015 the Miami Dolphins’ backfield was Lamar Miller, Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams. All of them were either allowed to leave as free agents or traded the past three years.
Miller went to the Pro Bowl this season.
Williams was a revelation for the Kansas City Chiefs late in the season and scored three touchdowns in the AFC Championship game.
And although Ajayi injured his knee this season, last season he helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl after being traded by the Dolphins.
Again, I used to think it was them.
Now I’m thinking it’s the personnel department or the coaching staff. Or both.
The Suh example is interesting because the Dolphins cut him with all the ceremony of an undrafted free agent at roster cut time before a season.
He was a good defensive lineman one day.
He was out the door the next.
And, yes, that surprised and probably even stung the prideful player who signed with Miami in 2015 expecting to play the rest of his career there.
“You never expect to get cut,” Suh said this week. “You’re an elite athlete and you’re playing at a high level so you always have the goal of wanting to set the tone and let yourself lead the way and then retire kind of on your own terms.
“But it was a blessing in disguise and I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Suh didn’t leave on bad terms. He still keeps in touch with multiple players on the team. He says he talks to club owner Stephen Ross and club president and CEO Tom Garfinkel with some regularity.
“I’ll say this, Mr. Ross, I love him dearly,” Suh said. “Had a great relationship with him when I was there. Even to this day, I spoke to him probably about two or three days ago, as well as Mr. Garfinkel. I still have friends on that team.
“Overall, my relationships outside of football were great. Some situations the last couple of years weren’t great. As I said before, it was a blessing in disguise for me to get cut.”
The problem, frankly, wasn’t Suh.
It was the folks who decided signing him to a six-year, $114 million deal in the spring of 2015 was a good idea.
Those folks overpaid. We know that. We knew it then, frankly.
And the fact Suh said this week he had higher offers on the table that he discarded in favor of signing with Miami doesn’t change the fact the Dolphins overpaid.
The problem is the Dolphins overpaid to such unheard of heights that it doomed Suh’s time with the team almost as soon as it began.
Because the Dolphins paid Suh an average of $19 million a year. And even now that is stratosphere only quarterbacks or game-changers can successfully orbit.
And Suh could not live up to the expectations of the deal even though he was probably about as good in Miami as he had been previously in Detroit when he was a very good player.
Suh sees that now.
“I played at a high level,” he says, “but I was judged at a higher level -- which I appreciated because I pride myself on playing at a higher level from the standpoint of I’m not just a player that worries only about me, but also about raising the level teammates around you or the defense playing at a high level.
“And sometimes we did play really, really well. And sometimes we didn’t play well. It reflected in wins and losses. But a lot of the time my evaluations were about those wins and losses -- like a quarterback. And I’m not a quarterback.”
The fact is Suh couldn’t affect a game like a quarterback even though he was getting paid like players who touch the ball on every play.
Former coach Adam Gase saw this early during his tenure. But there was nothing he could do about it for a while -- until he cut Suh after 2017.
But the damage was done.
Suh signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Rams after leaving Miami. He didn’t play a snap this season for the Dolphins but still cost them $9 million in dead money.
And regardless of where Suh plays in 2019, he’ll cost the Dolphins another $13 million in dead money, which effectively eats Dolphins salary cap space without providing any contribution on the field.
How does this happen?
Look, personnel departments and salary cap departments around the league combine to make mistakes every offseason. And often times the only way to overcome those mistakes is to cut the players quickly.
But the Dolphins the last few years didn’t just make mistakes, they made whopping mistakes with big-name players and huge contracts.
The trio running the organization the past three years -- Gase, Mike Tannenbaum and general manager Chris Grier -- all agreed on adding those players. If one had refused to go with the signings, chances are good the players would not have been signed.
But all were signed for sizable money.
It’s almost certain such moves will stop at least for one year. Because league and team sources say the Dolphins have already decided they are not going to be active at the top end of the free agent market in 2019.
It’s all part of the rebuilding (tanking) the team is about to undergo (endure) for this year at least.
But the lesson of this and other Super Bowls still has value. They have taught us the Dolphins often discard players capable of greater feats than the team thought. They’ve also taught us it’s often not the players responsible for their failure in Miami but the organization itself.
Those lessons need to endure.