The Dolphins’ offense has been one of the most dynamic units in the NFL, answering many of the questions it faced entering the season, from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s fit to the coalescence of the offensive line.
But maybe one of the most underrated aspects of the offense has been coach Mike McDaniel’s success as a first-time play-caller.
Days after Miami’s win over the Cleveland Browns, pass rusher Myles Garrett praised the Dolphins’ preparedness and adjustments.
“It wasn’t like a first 15, it was like a first 60,” Garrett said of the Dolphins’ game plan. “The way they attacked us was very detailed in what they were trying to do. They had us out of position a lot of the time. It seemed like when we tried to switch things up, they were a step ahead.”
McDaniel on Monday declined to take credit for Garrett’s compliment, directing it to the players. However, McDaniel’s ability to put his players in the best position to succeed — a goal he spoke of when he was first hired — has let a bevy of players shine on offense.
For McDaniel and the Dolphins, that success begins with the week of preparation and a detailed game plan.
“The coaches do such a good job of, in detail, planning out every single route, steps, depth, all that stuff,” wide receiver River Cracraft told the Miami Herald. “I think the coaches make it really easy on us.”
McDaniel said he learned the ins and outs of game preparation from the many coaches he worked alongside through the years, including Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. The process of creating a game plan spans a day and a half, McDaniel said, spending “half a Monday and then all of Tuesday” to watch film of the upcoming opponents before practice and installation begins Wednesday.
The responsibility doesn’t just fall on McDaniel, though. The various position coaches take part in the process with an “area of expertise,” whether it’s short-yardage situations or red zone, for example.
“If your game plan is sound and tied together and complete — I tell the staff all the time — there should be a ‘why’ attached to every single thing that you’re doing,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said the offense enters every game with 24 plays — 12 runs and 12 passes — it wants to use, excluding third-down plays.
“The point of it is so that you can get another orchestrated walk-through of plays that you know you’re going to hit and try to hit early, that sometimes you can abort mission on play six,” McDaniel said. “Sometimes you make it all the way through. Sometimes you skip around. But generally, we’ll go into a game with a vision of how we will execute our offense and that’s something that you work tirelessly over the week, and you kind of digest what your players are executing well during the week and what you think you’re going to get.”
The Dolphins’ well-developed script is perhaps best seen in their first-quarter performance. According to Football Outsiders metrics, which are adjusted for quality of opponent, the Dolphins have the fifth-most efficient first-quarter offense in the NFL. Entering Week 12, only the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys have scored more first-quarter points than the Dolphins in the last three games.
Tagovailoa said what stands out about the team’s offensive game plan is that it changes from week to week and is specific to the opponent they are playing, which Garrett also noted.
“Week to week, we have some carryover,” Tagovailoa said, “but a lot of things are new in our passing game, in our running game. [McDaniel is] always working on things that can grow the offense and help the offense. There are a lot of nuances to the offense.”
The Dolphins’ offense hasn’t been perfect, though. Fourth-down conversions have been a struggle at times and mishandled end-of-half management has left the unit with fewer points than it could have scored.
However, in a league where scoring is down compared to previous seasons, the Dolphins have fielded one of the most high-functioning offenses — and it’s the top reason for the team’s emergence as contenders in the AFC.