MIAMI — The Miami Dolphins‘ latest coaching hire might have a familiar feel to fans.
They have seen their franchise hire eight head coaches since the turn of the century, and only one had prior NFL head-coaching experience. And of those seven first-time head coaches, five had backgrounds on offense.
That list now includes San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, who agreed to terms Sunday to become the Dolphins’ head coach. McDaniel, who identifies as multiracial, joins the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Mike Tomlin, Washington Commanders‘ Ron Rivera and New York Jets‘ Robert Saleh among the league’s minority head coaches.
McDaniel inherits a situation only one of his predecessors did — a winning team.
Under former coach Brian Flores, the Dolphins went 19-14 over the past two seasons, their best two-year stretch since 2002. This roster, while not a final product by any means, has good bones on the defensive side of the ball and a burgeoning star on offense in receiver Jaylen Waddle.
McDaniel, 38, is tasked with resurrecting an offense that hasn’t finished in the top 10 in total yards since 1998 — the longest drought in the NFL.
What makes him any more equipped to do so than the coaches with backgrounds in offense who came before him — Cam Cameron (2007), Tony Sparano (2008-11), Joe Philbin (2012-15) and Adam Gase (2016-18)? For starters, his place on one of the most innovative coaching trees in the NFL alongside head coaches Kyle Shanahan (49ers), Sean McVay (Rams) and Matt LaFleur (Packers). The quartet worked on the same staff in Washington from 2011 to 2013, when McDaniel served as an offensive assistant and wide receivers coach.
Waddle is a building block on McDaniel’s offense. The problem is he might be the only one, depending on the development of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Armed with about $66 million in cap space this offseason according to Roster Management System, McDaniel can work with general manager Chris Grier to find players who fit his offense and start implementing his system.
A source told ESPN that McDaniel shared playcalling duties with Shanahan toward the end of the 49ers’ run to the NFC title game, and he is known as a creative play designer. One play in particular, against Green Bay during the NFC divisional round, captured attention when he sent All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams in motion.
That’s the type of creativity the Dolphins need while they get their roster up to par.
Then there is the matter of how best to build around Tagovailoa, who enters a make-or-break third season in 2022. He finished second in the NFL in completion percentage in 2021 but has not firmly established himself as the franchise’s quarterback of the future. After firing Flores on Jan. 10, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he believes in Tagovailoa and hoped the team’s next coach would work with him. It remains to be seen what McDaniel has planned for the fifth overall pick from 2020.
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2022
On the other side of the ball, Miami reportedly wants to keep its defensive staff largely intact after leading the league in defensive expected points added over the final nine weeks of the season. The defense isn’t perfect; the team must make a decision on defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, an unrestricted free agent who led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons. Miami must also add depth at linebacker and either trade Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard or restructure his contract.
But McDaniel’s primary focus will be on building a competent offense to compete in the AFC East, which produced two playoff teams in a loaded conference last season.
He comes with risk, this being the first time he has been a head coach at any level. He must spend the next six months building relationships in the Dolphins’ building and convincing his players the organization got it right — that he’s not another offensive whiz who won’t last.
Because ready or not, his time has come.