How long has it been? Can it really be 30 years? Wasn’t it quarterback Dan Marino at his soaring peak, circa 1984-86, when the Miami Dolphins last could truly claim anybody on their roster as the NFL’s best player at his position?
Some other Fins have had their seasons in the sun along the way (Ricky Williams, Jason Taylor), but I’m talking about a player who enjoyed national stature and consensus as the greatest, the most dominant. Even with Marino, you’d hear dissenters in the Joe Montana camp parsing what defined greatness.
With Ndamukong Suh, there is no argument, no equivocation, no doubt.
Miami now has the best defensive tackle in football — officially, with his signing Wednesday.
Debate any other position. Not this one.
“I can’t wait to go to work,” he said.
The Dolphins formally introduced Suh at club headquarters in Davie, utilizing the main auditorium reserved for full team meetings and major announcements. It made sense.
Big signing. Big player. Big contract. Big expectations. Big room.
Suh is 6-4 and 310 pounds, his name meaning “House of Spears” in the Ngemba language of Cameroon, where his father is from. Mom is from Jamaica. Both were at his Miami unveiling Wednesday along with one of his sisters.
His father, Michael, is only 5-8. The Dolphins can thank his great grandfather, who stood 7-3, for the size genes. Ndamukong was a soccer player first, not touching a football until he was 14.
“I was scared of football, always scared he shouldn’t play,” his father said, then smiled. “Now I’m not scared because they’re scared of him.”
They are, yes. The quarterbacks who see their pockets collapsing and Suh smothering them, and the running backs to whom he is a brick wall.
“He alters [opponents’] game plans,” as general manager Dennis Hickey put it.
The Dolphins have come to epitomize NFL mediocrity since last making the playoffs in 2008, with six consecutive non-winning seasons including consecutive 8-8s. Their rosters, in turn, have had way too much average and way too little excellence.
Now, at least, the Dolphins are the greatest at something. Now, at least, they have that one special player every other team in the league would love to have.
Suh is this club’s biggest, most important free agent defensive signing in franchise history.
The Hall of Fame-headed greatness is not questioned. You can argue whether Miami overspent in lavishing a six-year, $114 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. The deal will pay Suh an average of $1,187,500 a game. Nobody is worth that, but if any defender is, it’s Suh.
What is questioned about Suh is the temperament and reputation for dirty play that makes him a target for unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty flags and has brought about $420,000 in league fines during his past five seasons in Detroit.
The Dolphins fired preemptive strikes in introducing him, emphasizing the great person he is and the charitable donations. Suh, polite and soft-spoken, presented himself exceptionally well even as he expertly dodged directly explaining his propensity for bad behavior.
“I’ve been misunderstood in a lot of ways,” he said.
If first impressions matter, Suh scored big in his South Florida hello. Fans are going to love him. He might quickly join Ryan Tannehill on that face-of-the-franchise level, the echelon of Dwyane Wade and Giancarlo Stanton.
In any case, clearly, the Dolphins know who they are getting, the full résumé, and are OK with the deal-with-the-devil tradeoff: an occasional dumb, head-scratching penalty in exchange for consistent excellence that singlehandedly elevates the entire defense. (Suh just needs to avoid the egregious stuff, such as the ankle stomp that might bring a four-game suspension.)
Just as clearly, Miami with this Suh deal is going all-in to stake its Super Bowl claim in the next few years. This is the window in which Suh will be in his prime to anchor the defense. This is when Tannehill will be coming into his to lead the offense.
No question that adding Suh makes Miami better, but will it be enough?
These are active, aggressive times in the AFC East.
The Jets have added cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Brandon Marshall.
The Bills have added coach Rex Ryan and running back LeSean McCoy, and seem poised to steal Miami tight end Charles Clay.
And the Patriots, by virtue of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski alone, might still be the team to beat even by standing pat.
As dominant as Suh is, there is the sense that Miami overall may simply be keeping up rather than gaining significant ground. (It also bears noting that Suh arriving won’t impact Miami’s overall success as much as Tannehill would by further improving to a Pro Bowl level.)
Suh was asked about pressure. A $114 million contract will get you those questions.
“I talk a big game, but I’m about exceeding that,” he said, later adding, “I’m excited about the pressure. … I look at it as really something I’m built for.”
The pressure, of course, isn’t on Suh at all.
He’s going to do his thing, attract nonstop double-team blocking and still be dominant.
No, the real pressure is on the team’s management and especially on coach Joe Philbin — all the folks owner Stephen Ross will likely sweep out of here if the season ends with yet more disappointment.
See, that’s the thing about the Dolphins landing Suh.
It does not guarantee you will win or succeed.
What it does is leave you out of excuses to explain why if you don’t.