Mike McDaniel: From the Missing Hat to the Missing Link in Miami

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A one and a half-hour drive northeast of Denver at the intersection of U.S. Route 34 and U.S. Route 85 in Colorado lies the city of Greeley. It was founded in the late 1860s by a reporter from the New York Tribune who was establishing a “union colony.” Around 110 years later, the project civilization had boomed into one of the more populous towns in the Centennial State and is home to the two-time back-to-back NCAA Division II National Champion, the University of Northern Colorado Bears football program. The college in Greeley hosted well-maintained facilities that served as the summer training camp location for the Denver Broncos, for two decades. 

Just another drive outside of Denver is the suburban town of Aurora. Many Broncos fans who lived in Aurora would take their orange and blue-laden pilgrimage up the interstate to watch practices in the sweltering midsummer heat. Unbothered by the temperature, those fans watched their team make eleven playoff appearances from 1982 to 2002 during their tenure at UNC; which included two Super Bowls victories and three other appearances. 

In the early 1990s, just before the prominence of the high-powered offense led by Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, Denver was fresh off three losses on the game’s biggest stage and fruitless attempts to return in playoffs since. That did not deter the fans, as one made the trip to Greeley frequently in 1992 – none other than football savant, Mike McDaniel.

25 Jan 1998: Coach Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XXXII at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Denver Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport

Mike McDaniel was a fanatic and became a student of the game while watching longingly from the roped-off section that allowed the fans to watch as the Broncos toiled in the summer sun. While rushing for an autograph of his favorite player, he lost his beloved Charlotte Hornets hat and could not locate it after the mad scramble. In a moment of youthful emotion, he broke down and cried by himself far away from the spectators. 

Gary McCune, Denver’s video coordinator, saw the young man alone and offered his assistance in tracking down the missing hat. After no luck, he took it upon himself to buy a replacement hat from the local mall and gifted it to McDaniel the next day. Moreover, he also invited him to bring his whole family to watch practice from inside the ropes upon his return. 

McDaniel brought his single mother to practice and she took an immediate and reciprocal infatuation with the same Broncos staffer that rescued her son’s missing hat. McCune and McDaniel’s mother married soon after and the nine-year-old was officially IN with the big boys in the NFL. 

An Education in Success and Intellect

A few years later, rocking the hoop earring and all the swagger of a movie star as a confident senior at Smoky Hill High in Aurora, Mike McDaniel soaked up all he could from a now two-time Super Bowl-winning staff in Denver while serving as the team’s ball boy. Being so close to the action is what started his analysis of how successful football is played.

McDaniel would go on to attend Yale and graduate with a major in history before he returned to Colorado in 2005 to join the Denver staff officially as an offensive assistant. Taking the typical coach pilgrimage, McDaniel hopped around the league for the next decade with stops in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, and Atlanta facilitating in various roles such as offensive assistant and wide receivers coach.

McDaniel would be reunited in 2017 with another member of the Shanahan coaching tree, Mike’s son Kyle Shanahan, who landed the head job in San Francisco. In the Bay area, McDaniel saw his biggest charge of responsibility as he was given the role of run-game coordinator. 

SANTA CLARA, CA – DECEMBER 23: Dante Pettis #18 and Run Game Coordinator Mike McDaniel of the San Francisco 49ers talk on the field prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at Levi’s Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. The Bears defeated the 49ers 14-9. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

After his promotion to offensive coordinator in early 2021, word spread around the league of his eye for the game and aptitude for a successful rushing attack. After the 49ers fell in the NFC Championship game this past January, McDaniel’s name began swirling in the rumor mill as an up-and-coming young coach and a candidate for multiple head coaching jobs around the NFL. 

One week before Super Bowl LVI, South Beach came calling and Mike McDaniel was named as the 13th head coach of the Miami Dolphins. 

McDaniel’s Inconsistent Inheritance

In Miami, the days of Hall Of Fame running back Larry Csonka and the “No-Name Defense” willing undefeated teams to eternal glory are distant memories from a half-century ago. Even golden-boy Dan Marino has been out of the league for over two decades, and his success can only be measured in statistics since even his talents could not capture football’s greatest prize for the Phins.

Since the turn of the millennium, Miami has only reached the playoffs four times, losing each game. A once-proud franchise has now been dealt a very sorry hand, and the yesteryears of dominance and competitive prominence are more of a punchline than a memory. 

So what has been the cause? Obviously, a generational talent like Dan Marino does not fall into your lap every draft day. Another factor that cannot go ignored is that, for the better part of these last twenty years, Miami had to go up against arguably the most dominant dynasty in football with divisional rival New England. The Patriots claimed six Super Bowls from 2001 to 2018 and appeared in nine altogether.

Poor drafting, sub-par quarterback play, abysmal defense, lack of special teams, and many other factors have reared their ugly faces since 2000 and Miami has compiled a losing record of 168-185 in this time span. 

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 09: Head Coach Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins in action against the New England Patriots during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Owner Stephen Ross and General Manager Chris Grier made the tough decision to let go of Brian Flores after two consecutive seasons above a .500 winning percentage, but no playoff appearances and the murmurs of a fractured locker room. Flores had seen his Dolphins’ squads amp up their production on defense, as that was his specialty after coaching New England for over 10 seasons.

Great secondary play, veteran linebackers, and tremendous growth from defensive linemen have anchored Miami’s slightly above par winning record these past two seasons.

Yet, the offense in three seasons had shown little to no improvement. 

Offensive Remarks

The Dolphins organization was criticized for selecting Tua Tagovailoa as their quarterback of the future in Flores’ second year. The Alabama product is left-handed and showed great promise in the mighty Southeastern Conference as a signal-caller and team leader. During his final year in Tuscaloosa, Tua sustained a dislocated hip and did not play another snap for Alabama. He was selected 5th overall in 2020 and after one year of very average play as a backup and in a relief role to journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, many fans felt that Tagovailoa was not the answer under center. While the play itself has been average, it is worth noting that he is 13-8 as a starter.

The Hawaii native started in 13 games this year after missing 5 games due to fractured ribs and fingers on this throwing hand. Tossing for over 2,600 yards and sixteen touchdowns on ten interceptions, Tagovailoa has yet to prove he can play week in and week out in the league at an elite level. However, he has shown flashes of extremely tangible presence, poise, and accuracy while playing.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 09: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins scrambles with the ball against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Known for a very quick release, and great understanding of the RPO (Run-Pass Option) game, he finished seventh overall this year in completion percentage while having to run for his life behind a line that ranked dead last this past season. 

Pro Football Focus did not grade a single Dolphins offensive linemen over 70.0, with the average grade across the line being 56.2. This line led the league in allowed quarterback pressures with 235 and have caused Tagovailoa to take 20 sacks in each of the past two seasons. Clearly, a point of emphasis on improving this unit is needed if success is the ultimate goal.

The Dolphins have talent in pass-catching roles. Rookie Jaylen Waddle broke the record for yards receiving in a season for a rookie. Tight End Mike Geisicki has hauled in almost 200 receptions in 4 years for 13 touchdowns, in addition to excelling in the blocking game.

DeVante Parker has also shown promise with flashes in the past, as he nabbed 1,200 yards in 2019, but that was the only campaign in his six-year career where he played a full schedule. A very noticeable contrast to the rushing attack that has never placed higher than 20th in the league rankings in the past three years. 

An Identity

After his hire, McDaniel made it very clear that he believed otherwise and placed his faith in Tua’s character and work ethic, as well as his natural talent to get the job done at the offensive helm. McDaniel noted that he sees the tools in Tagovailoa’s game that are an excellent match for the system he will be putting in place.

With the league taking a trendy turn towards hiring younger coaches in this time, Miami has tried its hand at this during its last two hiring cycles, and now McDaniel becomes the third consecutive coach under the age of 40 to be hired in Miami-Dade County. Adam Gase and Brian Flores were both hired from division rivals and compiled a record of 47-50 and a lone playoff shellacking by Pittsburgh in 2016. 

Since I heard about McDaniel possibly being named as the head man in Miami, I have done quite a bit of research to assess what the fit would be in the Sunshine State. After hours of pouring through game footage, interviews, and press conferences, I think McDaniel is a home-run hire. 

McDaniel is an Ivy League graduate and has devoted himself to being one of the more advanced scholars of the “X’s and O’s” when it comes to offensive play calling. During his introductory press conference, he spoke at length about his strategy with the Zone Run scheme and a continuation of advancements in the Run-Pass Option, which suits the quick release of Tagovailoa very well.

Furthermore, McDaniel claimed that his calling was to be a teacher and to help young men achieve the success that they desired. That can certainly be a promising attitude and Dolphins fans should see their “Perfect Season Memorial Drinking Glass” as half full. 

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 10: Miami Dolphins Head Coach Mike McDaniel talks to the media after a press conference at Baptist Health Training Complex on February 10, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. McDaniel will be replacing the Dolphins’ former head coach Brian Flores, who was fired on January 10 after back-to-back winning seasons. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Assembling The Coaching Staff

McDaniel has already aced the first test in his tenure during the NFL coaching carousel. In the trek from San Francisco, McDaniel brought position coaches Jon Embree and Wes Welker to coach tight ends and wide receivers respectively. Embree shares a Colorado brotherhood with McDaniel as he graduated high school in the state and had a short-lived stint as the headman for the University of Colorado Buffaloes. He was also a key factor in the development of standout George Kittle in San Francisco.

Welker recorded nearly 10,000 receiving yards in his career to pair with 50 touchdowns in his twelve-season career where he made three Super Bowl appearances.  

To anchor the development along the offensive front, Boston College offensive line coach Matt Applebaum was called in to fix the issues. His track record has been stellar at the mid-major collegiate level and has shown promise as a head coaching candidate in many searches over the years in college. 

Defensively, McDaniel did not want to change up too much about one of this team’s few bright spots. The Dolphins retained their standing defensive coordinator in Josh Boyer but beefed up their position coaching with a new coach for outside linebackers, Tyrone McKenzie via the Tennessee Titans. Practice footage from this year showed McKenzie fully immersed in a teaching moment during a tackling drill where he allowed himself to be tackled by ten NFL players onto the mat, time and time again to teach the proper technique.

That’s my kind of coach, a total “football guy.”

The return of not one but TWO team legends to help coach up the defensive side of the ball is also being heralded by all Miami fans who remember their stellar play for years. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain played alongside each other for seven seasons in aqua and orange, sharing seven Pro-Bowl appearances, and over 60 career interceptions. These two were a prolific shutdown duo that created a lot of problems for opposing teams.

Madison has been coaching cornerbacks for the Chiefs since 2019 and captured a ring during their run a few seasons past. Surtain has no NFL coaching experience yet, but he was named the 2020 High School Football America National Coach of the Year. Back at it again, they should help an already promising secondary evolve their game to an unstoppable level with Madison coaching cornerbacks and Patrick Surtain serving as a defensive assistant.

Darrel Bevell was signed to be the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach after serving as the interim head coach after the Urban Meyer debacle in Jacksonville. Bevell has an extensive resume with stops as an offensive coordinator for four NFL teams. He was the Seattle Seahawks play-caller for their Super Bowl XLVIII victory.

JACKSONVILLE, FL – JANUARY 9: Interim head coach Darrell Bevell of the Jacksonville Jaguars watches from the sideline against the Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field on January 9, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars won 26 -11. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Bevell has worked with talent like Russell Wilson and Brett Favre, as well rookie QB Trevor Lawrence. The Arizonian is a calm and experienced coach who brings a veteran presence to the game and will certainly serve as nothing but a help for Tagovailoa.

Mike McDaniel also nabbed Frank Smith to run the offense after some fantastic seasons manning the position of run-game coordination for the Chargers. Smith has experience with multiple positions working for three other NFL squads. Another bright, young football mind.

Is It The Right Hire?

McDaniel has already made all the right moves in terms of adding more substance and personality into his coaching staff in hopes of closing up the old wounds of a bad culture that was once proud and dignified. The 38-year-old is his own “brand” interpretation of the coaching post. He does not have the highest level of experience in playing the game, but he has been exposed to some of the best offensive minds the game has seen in years. 

Pure intellect often comes across as less regarded in football circles. The bad taste of analytical thinking has cost teams a lot of “fourth down and less than threes” with the emergence of new data teams can evaluate. That is the masque of masculinity that is associated with the violence and competitiveness spawning from this magnificent game.

McDaniel is not the type of coach to rip off his shirt or punch to drywall to motivate his team, yet that does not mean he lacks motivation. The Colorado native sees the game as a brutal war of strategy and attrition that requires an unmatched work ethic of preparation and intensity. In other words, something all fans can get behind. 

In almost every press release from the team, McDaniel’s comments were focused solely on teaching his players all the ways they can be successful and bring value to the organization, truly maximizing the potential of a struggling franchise. 

While there is still quite a ways to go until the dog days of October and November and the dust settles from the fight, I think fans should feel confident that McDaniel was the right hire. His confidence is not based solely on himself, but his staff and the identity of leadership that he is seeking to facilitate in Miami. He is a blend of positive football and leadership qualities while exuding a cool demeanor that seems calculated and concise.

This franchise was spoilt with Don Shula, and sometimes it feels like the ghost of the all-time winningest head coach in league history is laughing at their misfortune. 

Yet, chasing ghosts may not be a bad idea, as quite a few of those spirits know the glory of a championship season. McDaniel’s witching hour might come sooner rather than later, and we’ll pray the “Sunday Scaries” do not include the Dolphins getting blown out with the playoffs on the line.

Thanks for reading my article about Mike McDaniel’s staff in Miami! For more great content follow my Twitter: @_coltonlittle_ and @OT_Heroics! Also, make sure you visit And follow our main football Twitter account, @oth_football.

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