As the Dolphins used references to implement their new offense under first-year coach Mike McDaniel in the offseason, they looked no further than his old stomping grounds with the San Francisco 49ers.
Fullback Alec Ingold watched Pro Bowler Kyle Juscyck’s film. Left guard Liam Eichenberg got tips from former Notre Dame teammate and tackle Mike McGlinchey. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa studied the footwork and timing of Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Shanahan offense, which centers around zone blocking runs and West Coast passing concepts, is the foundation of the scheme McDaniel brought to the Dolphins. It’s an offense McDaniel saw up close as a ball boy for the Mike Shanahan-led Broncos and has operated within at just about each of his NFL stops, much of it beside Mike’s son, Kyle, who is head coach of the 49ers.
But with different players, various skill sets and McDaniel handling the reins as the primary play-caller, the offense has taken on its own form in Miami.
“He’s done a really nice job of being able to put his own sauce on it,” said wide receiver Trent Sherfield, who played in San Francisco last season. “It’s kind of similar in some instances. But the things he’s doing in the run game and the things he’s doing with us as receivers as far as blocking and the pass game, there is stuff that we’re doing here that we didn’t do in San Fran.”
Ahead of the Dolphins’ road game against the 49ers on Sunday, here is a look at how Miami’s iteration of the Shanahan offense has taken shape.
One of the main fixtures McDaniel brought from his time in San Francisco was the use of zone-blocking running schemes, which is focused on the offensive line moving in unison to create lateral displacement, as opposed to blocking a specific player.
In the first week of free agency, the Dolphins signed running back Raheem Mostert, who was with the 49ers during McDaniel’s tenure as run game coordinator and offensive coordinator. In a pair of trade deadline deals in early November, the team swapped Chase Edmonds for Jeff Wilson Jr., whom McDaniel also coached in San Francisco.
The Dolphins rank 28th in yards per game and yards per carry but have found most of their success on the ground with zone runs. According to The Edge, Mostert has carried the ball 83 times on zone runs for 390 yards (4.7-yard average) and two touchdowns. On gap-blocking and other runs, Mostert has recorded 35 carries for 153 yards (4.4-yard average) and one touchdown.
In three games as a Dolphin, Wilson has scored three total touchdowns, providing a physical element the team lacked at times in the first half of the season. Wilson has 28 carries on zone runs for 167 yards (6-yard average) and two touchdowns. On gap-blocking and other runs, Wilson has 42 yards on 11 carries (3.8-yard average).
Part of the evolution of the Shanahan offense has been the use of presnap motion, which can help create better blocking angles in the running game and reveal the defense’s coverage in the passing game. Last season, the 49ers ranked first in their use of the presnap motion. The Dolphins were also top-five in their use of presnap motion, but it has increased significantly under McDaniel. According to ESPN, Miami has used presnap motion on 75 percent of its plays this season, which leads the NFL. Second is the 49ers at 71 percent.
Both Tagovailoa and Garoppolo have excelled with presnap motion. Tagovailoa is tied for fourth in passing touchdowns, first in yards per dropback and fourth in completion percentage with presnap motion. Garoppolo ranks third in passing touchdowns, fifth in yards per dropback and 10 in completion percentage with presnap motion.
“Just motioning in general, from a starting point, defenses have to defend as a group,” McDaniel said in September. “We prioritize motioning so that they have to communicate. ... It’s not just to do it, but one of the reasons it’s such a big part of our offense is because we believe if we train it, we can stress defenses in that way.”
Yards after catch
During organized team activities and training camp, the Dolphins stressed how important the timing of their passing game was to maximize yards after the catch.
“We want to YAC the heck out of teams,” Tagovailoa said in April.
When the Dolphins traded for wide receiver Tyreek Hill in March, he noted that McDaniel would “help me get drunk off of YAC.”
Through 11 games, though, the Dolphins have been sober as it relates to yards after the catch. According to TruMedia, the Dolphins are averaging 4.65 yards after the catch per reception, which ranks 27th in the NFL. For comparison, the 49ers lead the NFL with 6.75 yards after the catch per reception and have led the NFL in that category since 2018.
The Dolphins’ low yards after the catch hasn’t inhibited the offense’s success, though, and it’s one of the biggest differences in Miami’s offense from previous units that McDaniel has helped lead. With Hill and Jaylen Waddle giving the Dolphins’ the fastest receiving tandem in the NFL, defenses have taken extra steps to not get beat deep, playing a lot of zone coverages with two deep safeties.
It has rarely impacted the Dolphins, however. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in yards per attempt (9.0) and yards per completion (12.9) and ranks fifth in air yards per attempt (9.2).
“During the season, it’s hard to forecast the way things will look, how people will defend you,” McDaniel said. “And that changes game by game. So you have to adapt and there are certain focuses and points of emphasis that we have to really focus on now, just because [of] the different styles that people are playing us. So I think that’s a natural constant consequence.
“I think that’s less about, ‘Oh, those players aren’t YAC players that we have in our offense.’ I think most people would argue that’s quite the opposite. And there are plenty of examples to show. I know they are trying to max out all those yards always, but at the same time, there’s a component of handling adjustments and you can’t fight what defenses want you to do.”