A unique experience: Playoff-bound Dolphins players explain why McDaniel marriage worked

Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

There were two multigame losing streaks, a litany of injuries at three critical positions (quarterback, offensive tackle, cornerback) and a concussion controversy that all could have torpedoed the rookie coach’s first season.

But say this for Mike McDaniel: Even with his starting quarterback unavailable for 4 1/2 games, he ultimately accomplished the two things he was brought here to achieve in Year 1 of his tenure: getting the Dolphins to the playoffs and extracting far more from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

With McDaniel calling plays, Miami finished 11th in points per game (23.4) and sixth in yards per game (364.5).

And he kept together a locker room that could have fallen apart amid key injuries, a late-season five-game losing streak and a merry-go-round at quarterback triggered by Tagovailoa’s concussions and Teddy Bridgewater’s assorted ailments.

And with the Dolphins a sizable underdog in Sunday’s playoff game at Buffalo, McDaniel must somehow find a way to keep his team competitive against a Bills roster that’s healthier and better.

Perhaps that means more trick plays. Perhaps it means more max protection. Perhaps it means jet sweeps, such as the one that Jaylen Waddle converted into a 9-yard gain against the Jets on Sunday.

McDaniel said creativity is part of his job description. And if there’s anything left unused in his proverbial bag of tricks, Sunday would be the day to unveil it.

When Dolphins players talk about their first-year coach, the word that invariably comes up is unique.

So what has been most unique about the Mike McDaniel experience?

We asked his players:

Linebacker Duke Riley:

“How he compliments people when they’re doing things that are wrong by showing them [tape of them] doing it right. So instead of saying, ‘Yo, you did this wrong, you can’t do this,’ he will be like, ‘I know you can do this because I’ve seen you do it.’

Riley was just getting started: “His knowledge of the game is top tier. I don’t think there’s a coach I’ve been around that understands the game like he does. And he knows defensive stuff as much as offensive stuff because he’s going against defenses.”

And here’s the other thing that Riley noted: “He has a better understanding of players being that he’s young [39] and can relate to us a little better than a coach that is older can. It’s different things — from music to if he’s got a new watch, to fashion, lifestyle things. He’s always dressing fresh. It’s him knowing this generation is different from the older generation. Understanding how to talk to guys. That’s one thing that’s huge that he does really well.”

Running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who played for McDaniel in San Francisco and now Miami:

“You will have some guys get that kind of job or [promotion] and they’ll totally change. I can’t say that one bit with him. If you’re a real authentic person, it’s hard for people not to gravitate toward you. That’s Mike.”

Then Wilson made an interesting revelation about a conversation he had with McDaniel after his trade-deadline acquisition from San Francisco: “Mike was telling me that [early on this year] guys didn’t really believe in him before. I was surprised. But they weren’t familiar with him. It speaks volumes about him. I knew it wouldn’t be long before he had the [whole] team.”

Fullback Alec Ingold: “There are a lot of unique things about Mike. Where do you want me to start? You know when you’re around someone and they’re genuinely themselves? That’s him and he’s not going to change for anybody. That’s the embodiment of it. He’s not trying to be anyone else. That’s what makes it fun to go to work.”

Ingold said McDaniel also gains respect by first blaming himself for certain decisions in team meetings before pointing out mistakes by players on film.

Receiver River Cracraft: “It’s kind of cheesy, but he cares about individuals and he proves it on a daily basis. That’s something I always wanted to play for. Unfortunately, it is unique as a head coach. [Receivers coach Wes Welker] falls into the same category.”

A couple mentioned McDaniel’s sense of humor.

Cornerback Justin Bethel: “He keeps everything light and fun.”

Cornerback Keion Crossen: “You don’t find many coaches who joke around, have the charisma he has. Even if he gets just one laugh, he’s super happy with that. You can connect with that.”

Guard Robert Hunt: “His mind is going at different speeds. He’s all over the place, but he has a plan, he has ideas and we trust him. [And] he’s a good dude.”

Players also said they appreciate having a coach who doesn’t yell at them or curse them out.

“Some people need it,” Riley said of being cursed out by coaches. “I needed it throughout my career. But the advantage [of McDaniel’s way] is people don’t feel as down when they make a mistake. There are times when a coach is yelling or cursing at people, a guy is like, ‘I really messed up’ because they’re not used to getting it.”

The benefit of having a coach who doesn’t unleash angry, screaming tirades?

“You can hear better,” linebacker Sam Eguavoen said. “You can sleep better at night. You know you’re not shaking coming into that team meeting. He’s cool, a good dude, a people person. He’s a players coach. You can talk to him like he’s your co-worker, not your boss.”

Some wondered how McDaniel would command a room without yelling and cursing or fitting into the traditional box of how a coach is supposed to behave.

Ingold explains that it has fostered more respect and has heightened players’ determination to do right by him.

“He expects a lot out of us,” Ingold said. “He sees your best and he wants you to be your best. That’s what he coaches you up to. As a player, you want to reciprocate that. And he’s so thoughtful. He’s always going to take time and figure out what happened and why did it happen and we’ll correct the problem and move on.”

Guard Liam Eichenberg said: “He really does care about us. That’s different from other places.”

Offensive coordinator Smith has worked for Sean Payton, John Fox, Jon Gruden and Brandon Staley. What’s the biggest difference working for McDaniel?

“Mike has excellent communication skills and his ability to see what the defense is doing and attack it. And then every day, he has such a positive approach. He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around. You’re also going to laugh when you go to work for him, too. That’s not always true at some places. Most of us skip to work every day when you have a boss that is able to communicate through a positive approach every day.”

One aspect that has been appreciated inside the Dolphins’ facility is the steadiness in McDaniel’s approach. There have been no wild mood swings that can be unsettling for a team.

“When he talks to the team, he talks to the offense, talks to any individual player, talks to us as a staff, he’s not looking necessarily at ‘this happened now’,” Smith said. “It’s like, ‘Why did it happen now?’ Then that’s how we make the improvement. That’s why it’s ultimately awesome to work here because there’s not a roller coaster of one moment to the next.”

There are issues and shortcomings that McDaniel must address, whether Sunday in Buffalo or during the months ahead.

He (with general manager Chris Grier) must figure out a way to fix a defense that finished 24th in points allowed at 23.5 per game.

He must commit more to the running game; the Dolphins’ top two backs were tied for 11th in the league in per carry average at 4.9 and yet Miami averaged the fewest running attempts in the league.

He must fix a special teams unit that ranked among the league’s worst in returns and coverage.

He must eliminate the foolish mistakes and penalties that dogged this team during the five-game losing streak. Miami finished tied for fourth with 111 penalties.

He must work out the kinks with his challenge system; only one of the six plays that McDaniel challenged was overturned.

But at the very least, he took his team to the playoffs in year one despite a slew of injuries - no small feat - and he got the best out of his quarterback. That’s certainly a heck of a start for a guy that nobody, except the Dolphins, even asked to interview.