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How Miami Dolphins’ ‘Genius’ Coach Mike McDaniel Gets His Receivers So Wide Open

The Miami Dolphins have become one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses under Mike McDaniel, the dream result of talent and scheme.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Show us a branch of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, and we’ll almost certainly show you a team full of dynamic wide receivers running free through the secondary.

It’s a Shanahan family legacy, a torch passed to his son Kyle, who in turn has shared with a new generation of head coaches, a list that includes Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel.

The Dolphins’ Week 1 was a masterclass in passing game strategy and execution, with Tua Tagovailoa lighting up the Los Angeles Chargers for 466 yards and three touchdowns on 28 of 45 passing.

As McDaniel is quick to point out, having Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle on the field at the same time makes any coach’s job easier. But that would be a wholly incomplete explanation for what we’ve seen for much of the last two seasons in Miami.

“The scheme is tailor-made for guys to get open,” Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert said this week, “and you see what happened with Tyreek yesterday, he had a 200-yard game. And then also Jaylen Waddle and then even getting River [Cracraft] and Braxton [Berrios] involved as well. It just shows you that this team is very dynamic.

“We got a lot of playmakers on this side of the ball, and we’re going to try our best to expose the defense one way or the other and just try to make plays when the plays need to be made,” he added. “It’s nice to be out there, I’m not going to lie. The speed is crazy. You got a lot of guys out there.”

Insight Into Mike McDaniel’s Approach With Miami Dolphins

Anyone who has ever spent five minutes with a football coach won’t be surprised to hear that McDaniel was reluctant this week to share the secret sauce.

The first thing he did was wisely credit those before him — namely Mike Shahahan, the former Denver Broncos coach whose offensive influence permeates today’s NFL.

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“That’s something that there’s a little bit of fortune involved,” said McDaniel, who has known the Shanahan family for more than two decades. “[There’s a] categorical consistency there, where you’re able to learn under somebody that does it the right way.

“And that is constantly challenging what has been done or relentlessly watching tape.”

That tape identifies patterns — of what works, what doesn’t, what defenses can handle, what they cannot.

It’s why McDaniel in Week 1 tweaked Hill’s pre-snap motion tendencies. The Dolphins had success early last season in bringing Hill the whole way across the formation, allowing him to begin the play running at a defensive back at full speed.

As the season went on, opposing defensive coordinators started to get a read on it, so McDaniel changed it up against the Chargers. As the clip below shows, he instead had Hill line up essentially as a tight end and then split out wide on the same side. So Hill was able to get his momentum without tipping his route.

“He’s a genius, and it’s exciting to be a part of, and I love being a part of this team,” said Dolphins running back Salvon Ahmed. “He’s a details guy. … Everything’s about details.”

Details. And motion and misdirection. And spacing. And speed. And play-action.

What McDaniel does as well as anyone is make defenders guess. And when the opposing wide receivers are as fast as Hill and Waddle, a wrong guess is disastrous.

Tua Tagovailoa’s Quantum Leap

The Shanahan/McDaniel offense has been a godsend for Tagovailoa, whose career has taken a U-Turn since the Dolphins’ 2022 coaching change.

“We have a lot of moving parts in our offense,” Tagovailoa said this week. “And that [forces] a lot of communication [for] to the defense. If they’re going to pass this, if they’re going to run with that, what they want to do if we go from a spread out three set to a condensed three-man side.

“If they want to triangle, if they want to box, like whatever they want to do, you’re forcing the communication,” he added. “And then all the things with if we’re running right, we got guys sliding right, sliding left, you don’t know if it’s a run, if it’s a pass, if it’s a keeper.

“So there’s a lot of things that I think Mike does really well, given what the rules are for the defense to put our guys on the offensive side of the ball in good position.”

McDaniel, as his nature, deflected any such praise this week ahead of his team’s Week 2 game against the New England Patriots.

“To me, we’re coaches,” he said. “Professionally, we get paid to and inherent in that is a devotion to players and their success. I think that’s the standard that is inherent in being a coach, that you should be attempting to put your players in advantageous situations. You only do that when everyone’s invested.

“But I think the biggest point is that, I’ll draw up sweet, sick plays on this board right now,” he added. “But they mean nothing. I’ve been drawing plays since I got started in 2005. It’s the players that make it come to life and that’s the cool thing to watch. Because you watch the whole process and know that the execution is earned, not given.”

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