MIAMI — Flying 30,000 feet above the continental United States on Feb. 7, Mike McDaniel had his first conversation with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, face-to-face in the most modern way possible — on FaceTime.
McDaniel was en route to south Florida for the second time in a five-day span, this time as the Dolphins’ new head coach. Using a cell phone that he says is still inundated with congratulatory messages, he spent time during the roughly five-hour flight to meet the man who would be running his offense.
“One thing I know about you is you have the ambition to be great. My job is to coach you to get all that greatness out of you,” McDaniel told Tagovailoa. “I’m gonna make sure that when you look back at this day you’re gonna be like, ‘Damn, that was one of the best days of my career, too.'”
Whatever your opinion is regarding Tagovailoa, you can find evidence to support it in his 2021 season.
“My job is to coach you, to get all of that greatness out of you”
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) February 8, 2022
Optimists see the NFL’s seventh-most efficient passer (67.8% completion percentage) who commanded the offense more confidently than he did as a rookie but played behind the league’s worst pass-blocking offensive line with no run game to support him. Skeptics see an injury-prone quarterback who missed the better part of five games and the first half of a sixth because of injuries, whose efficient passing numbers stemmed from conservative playcalling and decision-making (6.92 air yards per attempt, 28th in the NFL).
His second NFL season was marred by injuries and trade rumors, but the Dolphins are committed to Tagovailoa in 2022. McDaniel, specifically, said the quarterback’s skills are well-suited for the offense he will be asked to run.
“What I’ve seen is a skill set that I’m familiar with, that’s very successful in this offense,” McDaniel told ESPN. “You’re seeing a very accurate passer that receivers love to catch footballs from — tight spirals and accurate throws, which are huge for run after the catch and YAC yardage. What that means for an offense is if you have people who can run after the catch, that’s an outstanding skill set for him.
“I also see some great athleticism, some natural pocket movement and really, a tough competitor that’s willing to stand in there when necessary. All of these things that are components to a quarterback’s game that are very important in NFL systems.”
This assessment of Tagovailoa is nothing new; his teammates have long-raved about his accuracy.
“He’s going to throw a very catchable ball and he’s going to make the job easy for his receivers,” tight end Mike Gesicki said during the season. “I love playing with him, and a lot of guys are making plays because of where he’s putting the ball.”
Gesicki, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, would presumably be a beneficiary of Tagovailoa’s skill set if he re-signs with Miami. But the primary player to watch as McDaniel installs his offense is wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who set the NFL record for receptions by a rookie with 104 last season. Waddle was known as a big-play threat at Alabama, and McDaniel has not-so-subtly hinted that he has plans for the 2021 first-round pick in 2022.
It’s still unclear, however, what exactly McDaniel’s offense will look like; he might not know yet himself. We know he will call plays and plans to collaborate with new offensive coordinator Frank Smith and wide receivers coach Wes Welker, among other offensive assistants.
Based on his history as a play designer, offensive coordinator and run game coordinator with the 49ers, it seems safe to assume Miami will place an emphasis on its rushing attack. But there is danger in assuming, because the one thing McDaniel has told us about the Dolphins’ offense is that it will be tailored to fit the players they have.
Not the other way around.
It’s a philosophy he became intimate with during his years in Washington with future NFL head coaches Sean McVay (Rams), Kyle Shanahan (49ers) and Matt LaFleur (Packers). When the team drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2012, the staff installed scheme heavy in zone-read concepts — something none of them had any experience coaching prior to that season. McDaniel said learning that lesson during his “formative years” as a coach taught him the value of being able to adapt by “any means necessary.”
“Everything is tailored to the skill set of our players, and it looks a little different,” McDaniel said, referencing the offenses McVay, Shanahan and LaFleur now run. “It’s the coolest part of our job, but it’s also very normal because we went through that in a drastic way in our formative years. It’s really fun because you don’t limit yourself and you kind of don’t know where it’s going to go, but you’re working with players, finding out what they’re comfortable with and adjusting on the fly.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the process.”