CARLTON coach Mick Malthouse has sprung to the defence of Bryce Gibbs, saying he is unsure what the midfielder has to do to get the critics off his back.
As 2006's No.1 draft pick, Gibbs is viewed as an unfulfilled talent by some footy fans despite recording two top-three best and fairest finishes in his seven-season career and last year becoming the second youngest Blue to reach 150 games (behind Robert Walls).
Malthouse told this week Gibbs – like every Carlton player – can take his game to another level in 2014, but the Blues coach still can't understand some people's reservations about the South Australian.
"I'm bemused that people say about him, 'Where's his improvement?'" Malthouse said.
"He is already a very, very good footballer. He finished in the top five of our best and fairest last year.
"I don't really get what Bryce has to do to convince people he's a good footballer and verging on a very, very good footballer."
Malthouse is confident his close relationship with Dale Thomas will help the former Magpie return to his best at Carlton after injury-plagued 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Thomas played under Malthouse at Collingwood for six years before the three-time premiership coach made way for anointed successor Nathan Buckley at the end of 2011.
One of the competition's most damaging midfielders from 2010-11, Thomas struggled to produce his best under Buckley, with an ankle injury affecting his form in 2012 and restricting him to just five games last season.
Last October, Thomas joined Malthouse at Carlton as a restricted free agent.
Malthouse said Thomas had played well under his coaching because he allowed the midfielder to be himself.
"A lot of players will just play to get the maximum out of themselves because they have that pride factor and they want to play; it doesn't matter who coaches (them)," Malthouse said.
"There are other players who enjoy the company of who's around them and play not so much for that player or person, but they play better in the company of that person.
"I've got a good relationship with Dale, he understands where I'm coming from. I allow Dale to be Dale and he enjoys that."
Malthouse stressed he would not be favouring Thomas over other Carlton players, with team disciplines something he enforced even-handedly.
"(Dale) knows the parameters. There's a tram track and we keep our players well within that and they can knock from side to side and it just lets them establish themselves, it lets them be who they are, both on and off the ground," Malthouse said.
"If you can get the best out of a player that way and he still fits within the framework of your disciplines (that's OK), and Dale does that.
"He brings to us some excitement, some experience. He's a winner, he's a competitor, he's a leader and he's a terrific kid."
Malthouse said Thomas' rehabilitation from post-season ankle surgery was "very much on track" and did not expect his body to hold him back at Carlton.
The Carlton coach was less forthcoming when asked about his expectations of his team in 2014, saying the Blues had a "very realistic view of where we're at" and would take a "very simple philosophy" into the season.
"There are no limits. Our learning and our development is unending and we're going to keep striving to be the best week in, week out," Malthouse said.
"We know the moment you start putting a cap on something you limit yourself … by and large, we expect to improve and we want to improve."