Miami Dolphins: How ‘Mastermind’ Mike McDaniel Builds Devastating Offensive Game Plan

The Miami Dolphins have an MVP candidate in Tua Tagovailoa and one of the league's best offenses. It's a testament to first-year head coach Mike McDaniel.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In just 10 games as Miami Dolphins head coach and offensive play-caller, Mike McDaniel has been called a visionary, a mastermind, and even an artist.

But brains and talent alone don’t explain the insane turnaround the Dolphins’ offense has demonstrated in McDaniel’s first season aboard. It also takes a plan. A very detailed, deliberate plan that begins midday Monday and probably doesn’t truly end until kickoff.

So what’s the special sauce? What’s McDaniel’s process?

No surprise, McDaniel, his staff, and his players weren’t exactly eager to give away the shop. But enough of them — including McDaniel himself — filled in enough of the details to provide a snapshot.

Mike McDaniel Is Kyle Shanahan 2.0

No NFL offense has improved more from 2021 than the Dolphins. After ranking 29th in yards per play (4.8) and 22nd in scoring (20.1), the Dolphins are now second (6.4) and sixth (25.2) in those categories entering Week 12.

They’re producing at a level not seen here since Dan Marino’s peak nearly four decades ago. The Dolphins rank first league-wide in yards per pass (8.3) and goal to go (92.9%), fourth in points per play (.414) and team passer rating (105.8), seventh in first downs per game (21.6) and 10th in third downs (42.6%).

What’s more, Tua Tagovailoa has become the quarterback the Dolphins envisioned when they made him the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Under McDanel’s tutelage, Tua is first in QBR (83.1), EPA per play (.43) and passer rating (118.4), second in completion percentage (72.4%), CPOE (6%) and success rate (54.8%), yards per attempt (9.1), fourth in yards per game (283.1) and fifth in touchdowns (18).

The Dolphins managed these spectacular numbers despite using very little hurry-up. They rank 22nd in seconds per play (29.5), which is a lot like what the 49ers do in San Francisco (30.6, 28th).

That’s just the start of similarities between the two offenses.

Before the Dolphins hired him last winter, McDaniel spent basically his entire coaching career working with San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. And both men learned at the knee of Kyle’s father Mike, a three-time Super Bowl champion whose influences are everywhere in the modern NFL.

McDaniel broke into the league as an intern on Mike Shanahan’s Broncos staff in 2005. There’s been either a Shanahan or a Shanahan discipline running every NFL offense that’s employed McDaniel during his nearly two decades in coaching.

“It didn’t take me long to realize how unique and special some of the guys that I was fortunate enough to work with, how unique and special they were at their craft,” McDaniel said this week, ahead of the Dolphins’ Week 12 game against the Houston Texans.

“So starting with coach Shanahan, then to Gary Kubiak and then to Kyle Shanahan; those three people probably kind of established what I see preparing for an opponent, what that looks like. And within that vision, I’m also very aware and have seen the best outputs are collective.”

Miami Dolphins’ Collective Approach To Game-Planning

Every NFL coach is a film room creature, and that’s no different here. McDaniel and his staff dig into the coming week’s opponent by midday Monday and don’t really stop until late Tuesday.

Each of his 12 offensive assistants — a group that includes a former head coach in Darrell Bevell and a five-time NFL receptions leader in Wes Welker — has their own areas of expertise. One coach is responsible for red zone situations. Another handles third down, while another has short yardage.

“There’s no shortcut to a game plan that’s really up to the standard of your players, in my opinion,” McDaniel explained. “You don’t just make stuff up. You don’t just ‘Hey, what if we put this guy here?’ If your game plan is sound and tied together and complete — I tell the staff all the time — there should be a ‘why’ attached to every single thing that you’re doing.

“That’s every alignment, every motion, and that’s kind of the way we approach it and the way that the staff has really, really come together and understanding that there is a why, a reason for every little nuance, every variable.”

Mike McDaniel, Modern Artist?

McDaniel hates being comfortable. Comfortability leads to complacency, and that isn’t fair to the players putting their bodies on the line every Sunday.

That inner drive explains how he got into Yale, how he got his career back on track after alcohol abuse nearly ended it early on, and how he became an NFL head coach before his 40th birthday despite never playing in the league or calling an offensive play.

McDaniel both thinks differently and works differently. He is heavily influenced by the time he spent with the Shanahans. But his approach is true to who he is.

“Every coach has their own way of installing plays,” said Dolphins wide receiver River Cracraft, one of four former Niners currently on Miami’s offense.

“The difference that Mike brings is not necessarily the generalized scheme but his way of developing the offense. I think every coach that comes from the system that Mike has come from has evolved it in some sort of way. I think the way Mike has evolved his offense has worked really well. I’m excited to see him continue to evolve it and see where it goes.”

Running back Jeff Wilson Jr. joined the Dolphins at the trade deadline after spending his first four and a half NFL seasons in San Francisco.

“Mike, he’s a groove,” Wilson said. “I had been in the offense with Kyle since I’ve been in the league and I’ve seen how he gets people open, puts people in the one-on-ones, gets them to the open field where they need to be. Mike does it in a different way.”

The locker room’s faith in McDaniel is very real. They call him Mastermind Mike — and not with the slightest bit of irony. That confidence comes from his open-door approach and, of course, the results on the field. Players want to win. And they want their talents maximized.

McDaniel, so far, has delivered both.

“The way he sees football, the creativity, the understanding of that, what the defense is trying to do, and how to attack it, I mean, it’s been awesome,” said Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith.

“Our game-planning always starts on Tuesday with an abstract thought of where we see the vulnerability or with the defense, what area we need to attack, what we’re both seeing, and then we kind of build a gameplan off of that,” Smith continued. “As opposed to many places you’ve been, ‘Hey, these plays worked against them. Let’s do that. Let’s do this,’ where we start with an abstract thought and kind of go, ‘OK, here’s what we see. Now, let’s build upon that.’”

Smith added: “I would say that’s one of Mike’s greatest strengths is understanding the defense, its rules, where they’re trying to do things and then we build a plan off of that. Then the guys help with that as well when we look at combination blocks, leverages, stuff like that. I mean, that’s where the whole – I would say it starts off with a lump of clay and then turns into a piece of art by the end of the week.”

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