49ers’ Shanahan believes Dolphins’ McDaniel can have big third head coaching season, like he once did

ORLANDO — Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel has a critical third season ahead of him in 2024.

With a roster that’s ready to win now and presumably will only have greater challenges in piecing talent together in seasons to come, Year 3 for McDaniel has to move beyond any personal growing pains in his role and maximize the level of contention he can get from his team.

Kyle Shanahan, a longtime mentor for McDaniel, did a pretty good job of that in his third season as a head coach.

Shanahan, reaching that rank in 2017, his first with the 49ers, took San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2019, a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in February of 2020 that was played at Hard Rock Stadium.

“Each year’s a different experience,” said Shanahan, who has been on the same coaching staff with McDaniel for 14 NFL seasons, at the NFL annual meeting this week. “Mike’s had two good seasons. They made the playoffs both years. Doing that’s a hell of a job by Mike.

“I know they’re trying to get their quarterback situated and they have a hell of a team. I know they changed (defensive) coaches. Just putting it together each year, and trying to have the best team you can with every situation you’re in.”

Making two playoff appearances already puts McDaniel ahead of Shanahan two seasons into their head coaching tenures. Shanahan’s 49ers went 6-10 and 4-12 in his first two years at the helm. But then he was 13-3 in 2019, earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC and winning a pair of home playoff games to get to the Super Bowl.

And Shanahan’s 49ers rosters he took over starting in 2017, with McDaniel as an assistant under him, were not nearly as readied and developed as what the Dolphins have had in recent seasons. McDaniel cannot be stagnant and have the wild card round of the playoffs be where he lives and dies every year with the roster he has.

McDaniel went one season as offensive coordinator, 2021, before reaching the head coaching ranks, but he held various offensive assistant roles that were a step below Shanahan between stints in Houston, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta before San Francisco.

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“He was such a big part of my career from the onset,” McDaniel said this week at league meetings. “He was the first person that told me that it doesn’t matter what I look like or who I am, if I can help players accomplish their goals, players will listen to me.”

McDaniel shared one Shanahan memory from their Super Bowl together with the Falcons, in which Atlanta famously blew a 28-3 lead to New England with Shanahan as offensive coordinator and play caller. During the Patriots rally, Shanahan made a perfect third-down play call for a defense New England ran, but due to an injury earlier in the game, it didn’t go as planned and resulted in a sack.

“You only can do what you can control,” McDaniel learned from watching the moment unfold. “You’re always responsible for the results. And to me, I learned so much about how, in high-stakes situations, it doesn’t matter sometimes how much you prepare, how well-orchestrated a scheme is or everything that you can control from a coach’s perspective. Football is a team sport and a lot of things are going on, and sometimes it doesn’t fall your way and you have to move on and do your best moving forward.”

Like Shanahan, McDaniel in Miami calls plays as the head coach. It’s something he, while orchestrating the No. 1 offense in the NFL in 2023, can still stand to improve, specifically in key situations like short yardage and red zone. This is especially true against tougher competition and top defenses.

McDaniel and Shanahan, of course, run similar offensive concepts as members of the same coaching tree, which goes back to Kyle Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan. McDaniel, over time, has developed various wrinkles to add his unique twist to the scheme.

After Shanahan reached the Super Bowl in his third year as a head coach, a down season in 2020 for the 49ers was followed by three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game, the last of which netted a return to the Super Bowl last month and another title-game loss to the Chiefs.