Mike McDaniel started as an intern with the Denver Broncos – now he is the mastermind behind the NFL’s most exciting offense


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Back in September, the Miami Dolphins put up a historic scoreline. The franchise that Don Shula and Dan Marino built racked up 70 points, only three shy of the all-time NFL record, as it annihilated the Denver Broncos, the very same team that Miami head coach Mike McDaniel got his start at.

The Dolphins scoring spree resulted in a franchise record for points, as well as an NFL record for total yards in a game at 726, as they became the highest-scoring team in a single game since Washington in 1966.

Miami has become one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the league thanks to its high-flying offense and is often labelled as the ‘neutral’s favorite.’

After years of being known as a defensive squad, the appointment of McDaniel has seen a marked improvement for the ‘Fins on the more glamorous side of the ball.

“The Dolphins offense has underperformed and been in the shadow of the clubs’ defense for decades,” Joe Schad, a Dolphins journalist for the Palm Beach Post, told CNN Sport. “Since McDaniel’s arrival, they’re creative, fast, dynamic, exciting and productive.

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“They’re feared for the first time since legendary quarterback Dan Marino was under center.”

The Mike McDaniel effect

Often decked out in aviator sunglasses and white sneakers, Coach McDaniel is part-quote machine, part-football geek, part-stand-up comedian and part-offensive guru.

“Mike McDaniel is unlike any coach I have ever covered or even met,” said Schad. “He has humility, humor, emotional intelligence and outside-the-box perspective and approaches that reach beyond perhaps any person I’ve ever met.”

Born in Aurora, Colorado, McDaniel began life in the NFL as a coaching intern with the Denver Broncos in 2005, working under head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator (OC) Gary Kubiak. He followed Kubiak to the Houston Texans in 2006 where he also assisted OC and quarterbacks coach Troy Calhoun.

HOUSTON - 2008:  Mike McDaniel of the Houston Texans poses for his 2008 NFL headshot at photo day in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Getty Images)

McDaniel’s media day headshot while with the Houston Texans in 2008.Getty Images

“You could tell he was immensely interested,” Calhoun told CNN. “He had a real, real drive to coach in the National Football League.”

Calhoun, who is now the head coach of the United States Air Force Academy football program, describes McDaniel as an “incredibly bright” individual with an “unbelievable work ethic.”

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While the Miami coach spent his first couple of seasons learning from his much more experienced peers, Calhoun admitted that there are now areas he studies in McDaniel’s schemes.

“I love the creativity of some of his own plays,” he said. “Certainly, some of his pulls and how much he utilizes motion, rather than only being in static sets.”

McDaniel spent two seasons in Houston before having two seasons out of the NFL with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct United Football League. He then reunited with Shanahan on the then-called Washington Redskins (now Commanders) and operated alongside Sean McVay, Matt LeFleur and Kyle Shanahan.

McDaniel’s current position in Miami is a product of the so-called ‘Sean McVay effect’ — a coaching movement in the NFL that saw teams shift away from more experienced, defensive-minded head coaches and turn towards hiring younger individuals who focused on offensive strategy.

McVay became the youngest NFL head coach when he was hired by the Los Angeles Rams at the age of 30 in 2017.

Washington provided McDaniel with his first role above the assistant level, with the future Dolphins boss spending 2013 in charge of the wide receivers unit. Stops in Cleveland and Atlanta followed before McDaniel arrived in San Francisco to work as the running game coordinator under Shanahan in 2017.

McDaniel rode the rumblings of the impending coaching revolution to the OC position with the 49ers, before the Dolphins hired him for their top job in 2022, despite having no previous head coaching experience at any level.

McDaniel is a sponge when it comes to football knowledge and uses everything he has soaked up along his journey to turn Miami into an offensive juggernaut.

He is so football-obsessed that, according to The Athletic, he wrote his senior thesis on the merger-era NFL of the 1960s and ’70s while at Yale.

“There were those evenings you might go home at 11 o’clock as a coach and you come back in at six in the morning and you think, ‘Oh no, did he spend the night here?!’” Calhoun laughed.

If his bold play-calling and expansive knowledge have turned heads, McDaniel draws just as much attention off the field.

Many quotes from his press conferences go viral, he is must-watch TV when he’s mic’d up and McDaniel has even had people dressing up as him for Halloween, including Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

Described as the “ultimate new-age coach” by Schad, McDaniel is a complete breath of fresh air.

“McDaniel is really smart, but not a braggart,” Schad said. “He cares about human connections and is not afraid to be transparent about feeling and emotions, which is entirely unlike almost every coach, especially football.”

Calhoun believes that someone as personable as McDaniel can benefit a franchise.

“Just any time you have somebody that’s that sincere, that genuine as a human being, I think it’s something fans certainly relate to,” he said.

“But more importantly, your ownership, your chain of command, if you will, they appreciate candor and forthright human beings, and he absolutely is.”

The most dangerous offense in the league?

It really is ‘pick your poison’ for opposing defenses when facing the Dolphins. This team is almost unfairly versatile and can hurt opponents from everywhere.

Nate Tice, a football writer and podcaster who was previously a scout and coach in the NFL, spoke to CNN Sport about this Dolphins squad and credits their offense with “weaponizing” their players’ blistering speed and their use of pre-snap motion (where players move before the ball is in play).

Their ability to “put some window dressing” on tried and tested football plays and use them to maximum effect is also something he admires but notes that the team is smart as well as speedy.

“In American football, they say ‘speed kills’ and anyone can say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just get a bunch of fast guys,’” said Tice. “But what this coaching staff and Mike McDaniel have done is they’ve taken a lot of staples of the NFL … and really used that system to make the players wide open all the time and get to use that speed.

“Even if it’s just a ‘normal play,’ in American football, they have taken that and then just put a little sugar on it, a little splash in the water, just add a couple of ingredients and it just pops everybody open,” he added.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 29: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins warms up prior to a game against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on October 29, 2023 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images)

Tua Tagovailoa, the NFL’s only left-handed starting quarterback, spearheads the Dolphins offense.Rich Storry/Getty Images

The ‘Fins are among the top three in the NFL in a myriad of offensive statistics. Rushing touchdowns, total receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, total points – it is a scoring frenzy in the 305.

The remarkably efficient run game has become McDaniel’s trademark.

Miami currently ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards at 1,430, despite being in the bottom half of the league for rushes attempted. Veteran running back Raheem Mostert and rookie De’Von Achane frequently confound coverage and punch holes in opponents’ defenses.

“They’re able physically to play really, really aggressive with their offensive line,” said Calhoun. “But boy, they sure disguise so many of their runs with different ball carriers, with different formations, different motions. It’s really fascinating.”

Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens (34) celebrates with Green Bay Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon (25) in the first half scores a touchdown in the first half against the Detroit Lions during an NFL football game at Ford Field in Detroit, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

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The Dolphins are creative, but they are not experimenting purely for the sake of it.

“McDaniel has taken these normal staples of the run game and they just add a little bit of flair to it, add a little bit of: ‘Hey, why don’t we have our backup running back that we drafted in the third round … let’s put him at receiver on this play and give them a handoff working the route?’” Tice explains.

“This is actually sound. It’s not just gimmicky.”

If you try and take away their ground offense, the Dolphins are happy to make you pay through the air as well.

Fourth-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa played his way into the early-season MVP conversation and ranks in the top three amongst starting quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdowns, as well as completion percentage and passer rating.

His life might be made easier by his plethora of options, but he is still the one steering the ship.

“He’s driving a very super powered car, but I think he’s handling it very well and giving feedback very well,” said Tice, using a Formula One analogy.

Miami’s elite passing game is aided by the fact that it possesses some of the fastest receivers in the NFL to aim for downfield.

The team’s seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, Tyreek Hill – nicknamed ‘Cheetah’ – is currently setting the pace for receiving touchdowns and yards across the league. In an NFL first, he crossed the 1,000-yard mark in just Week 8.

Jaylen Waddle is another electrifying option, while Braxton Berrios and Cedrick Wilson Jr. are more reliable targets out wide.

The Dolphins also recently acquired Chase Claypool from the Chicago Bears, and Mostert and Achane are also both more than capable of chipping in with receptions off designed plays and checkdowns when needed.

Oct 15, 2023; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) catches the football during warmups prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Hill is consistently ranked among some of the fastest players in the league.Sam Navarro/USA Today Network

Though naturally not as headline-grabbing as the free-scoring offense, the defense is holding its own while still having room to improve.

“Miami’s defense should be much better with the return of star cornerback Jalen Ramsey,” says Schad. “This should allow reputable veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio more flexibility in his calls.”

In his first three games since returning from a torn meniscus, Ramsey has three interceptions and allowed a remarkable 0.0 passer rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.

“Miami has the potential for a top five to top 10 NFL defense. It has not happened yet, but improvement is expected as players become more comfortable in Fangio’s new scheme,” added Schad.

Contenders or pretenders?

There’s still a lot of football left to be played, but the Dolphins might just have the aura of a championship team about them.

They currently sit atop the AFC East with a 7-3 record. Their immense offensive output seems to have drastically changed the club’s trajectory, going from middling outsiders to potential Super Bowl participants – maybe even winners.

Miami’s last NFL championship was for the 1973 season and their most recent Super Bowl appearance was in 1984, when they were led by league MVP Marino. In the 39 years since that loss to the 49ers in Super Bowl XX, the Dolphins have won just seven postseason games.

While the fanbase is not nearly as starved of playoff success as the supporters of teams like the Detroit Lions or the Cleveland Browns, ‘Fins fans are desperate for their season to last just that little bit longer.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 15: Raheem Mostert #31 of the Miami Dolphins runs the ball during the first half in the game against the Carolina Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 15, 2023 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Mostert, pictured here carrying the ball, has been one of Miami’s standout players this season.Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Dolphins have faced criticism for not being able https://merupakan.com to win when it matters, which casts a shadow of doubt over their Super Bowl aspirations. Miami is 0-3 against teams with winning records this season, begging the question: just how serious is this squad?

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Tice believes that this is more a reflection on the stellar defenses of the teams that they have played against rather than an in-house problem, while Schad argues that Miami “can beat anybody.”

“The Dolphins and Tagovailoa will also need to show, at some point, that they can win an important game on the road in cold, wet and/or windy conditions. Is this speedy team built for that?” Schad added.

Still, you can only beat who is in front of you, and the Dolphins are doing that far more often than not so far.

Is McDaniel, still young and inexperienced as a head coach, equipped to cope with the pressure and demands of a full NFL postseason though?

“A resounding yes,” said Calhoun.

Time will tell if Miami’s thrilling brand of football is sustainable, but you can’t help enjoying ‘The Greatest Show on Surf’ for now.

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