Onus on Miami’s McDaniel now: ‘We’re gonna find out just how good a coach/adjuster he is’

Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel has carved out a reputation as an offensive savant.

He types up new play concepts on his iPad at 2 in the morning when his wife “is annoyed that my screen is too bright.”

He runs plays that veteran NFL quarterbacks have never seen before, including placing Tua Tagovailoa in the shogun but play-faking and having him turn his back to the defense, a strategy that paid dividends earlier this season.

He does things that make other coaches take notice. “Everybody shares a little bit of DNA,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said last month. “What’s so interesting to me is how different they can seem as well.”

McDaniel said in the spring that “being creative and innovative.. is part of the job” and he is “mindful of pulling back [so] I don’t get bored.”

But the parade of plaudits has stopped with this two-game offensive collapse, and now McDaniel must tap into that creativity and uplift Tagovailoa from his worst stretch since McDaniel arrived and rescued him from doubting disciplinarian Brian Flores.

And he must do it in the toughest of circumstances: on Saturday night at Buffalo, in cold, potentially snowy conditions.

“After watching that Chargers-Dolphins tape, we’re gonna find out just how good a coach/play designer/adjuster Mike McDaniel is really fast here,” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky said on Twitter.

All season, McDaniel has regularly added new wrinkles to the offense. Fullback Alec Ingold said he has seen nothing like it in his career.

“It’s exciting coming into work every day and we’re doing stuff that’s new,” Ingold said. “And that’s what keeps you on your toes. We’re creating football plays and it’s fun. You never know what you’re going to get.”

But more is clearly needed now, after the world could see the Chargers - with a porous, banged-up defense - stifling the Dolphins’ attack by clogging the middle of the field with extra defenders.

While other teams often have played a soft zone against Miami, the Chargers stuck to the Dolphins receivers like magnets, using press man with plenty of help. They blitzed him on only six of his 28 dropbacks. Tagovailoa went 8 for 22 when he wasn’t blitzed, 2 of 6 when he was.

The Chargers played man coverage on 52 percent of Tagovailoa’s drop backs, and Tagovailoa was 4 for 15 on those throws. Tagovailoa faced man coverage only 30 percent of the time in previous games, per ESPN.

This was “the blueprint to stop this Miami offense, not San Francisco two weeks ago,” Orlovsky said. (The 49ers played a lot of zone and Tagovailoa simply missed throws.)

With Tagovailoa’s accuracy and timing with receivers off the past two weeks, the answer cannot simply be trying more sideline routes that stretch the field.

There needs to be something else - whether it’s screens (there haven’t been many the past two weeks) or more shallow crossers, or more quick designed rollouts, or wheel routes to running backs or gimmick plays or something defenses haven’t seen yet from this offense, perhaps with new wrinkles to the pre-snap motion that worked so well for Miami earlier in the year.

Or, at the very least, accentuating short passes early in the game to get Tagovailoa into a rhythm. Tagovailoa is at his best when he gets the ball out quickly.

Per Next Gen Stats, Tagovailoa was 3 for 13 when he took at least 2.5 seconds to throw on Sunday, the worst completion percentage by any player in a game on those throws this season.

“Tua gets impatient because all of the plays he has seen work for such a long period of time this season aren’t [working against the Chargers] and then the forces come,” Orlovsky said.

Former NFL coach Herm Edwards, back with ESPN after Arizona State fired him in September, said Monday: “What would help him and help this offense is if they ran the ball a little more. That would give him the ability to play action pass and get those linebackers and those guys to suck up on the line of scrimmage. “

Here’s something else that is needed: Maximizing Mike Gesicki, who has gone from top five in the league in receiving yards by tight ends (780 on 73 catches last season) to a non-factor in the past three games (no catches on three targets and just 24 for 269 for the season). McDaniel was non-committal on Monday when asked if he needs to increase Gesicki’s involvement.

And this is something we didn’t expect to hear after what had been a wonderful run with McDaniel and Tagovailoa:

“I never thought I would say this in a million years,” ESPN analyst and former Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “But [Chargers coach] Brandon Staley outcoached this Dolphins team so badly in this game it’s amazing. How about you run it down the Chargers throat like every other team has?”

Each week this season, McDaniel and offensive coordinator Frank Smith have installed some fresh nuance, to keep the Dolphins from becoming predictable.

Here’s how it works:

“I don’t think there’s any concepts we didn’t run in training camp that we’re doing,” Ingold said. “But there will be wrinkles every week, or a play will build off another play. Or we will add a shift or motion onto things. It’s always changing, evolving. That’s where it keeps guys mentally in it.

“It’s unusual I would say, especially with the amount of content we have to constantly learn. I think it’s challenging for guys but it’s paying off. You have a lot of guys that are mentally bought into this stuff. He’s able to give a vision and create plays and see things on tape.

“The way he describes it to us, he gives us the vision. And you’re able to be creative with him and add wrinkles to the game. He’s an amazing communicator of that. We can all see the same vision so we can create it on the field.”

Tagovailoa put it this way: “Week to week, we have some carryover, but a lot of things are new in our passing game and in our running game and our play-action game. So he’s always working on things that can grow the offense.”

Figure on new additions this week. And potentially subtractions.

“You take a hard look at why stuff isn’t working,” McDaniel said Monday. “You would be a fool to continue to do stuff that doesn’t work.”

There must be something new or at least unpredictable on Saturday night, something that Buffalo doesn’t expect and something that will snap this offense out of its funk.

Or at least something that will expose a hole in the Chargers approach, which Orlovsky said, “could be the blueprint for other teams to copy.”