The Miami Dolphins are in the midst of their best season since 2001, and it’s no coincidence this all comes less than a year after hiring first-time head coach Mike McDaniel.
The Dolphins have changed coaches 10 times since 2001. During that time, no coach lasted more than three years, and the lack of chemistry and culture within the franchise showed in the standings.
But Miami took a chance with McDaniel, the 39-year-old career assistant whose most recent job was in San Francisco as the 49ers offensive coordinator. And as the NFL enters into its playoff push — and with the Dolphins alive and well in that race — that chance seems to have paid off.
“I really believe in always progressing and trying to find things to do better at,” McDaniel said last week. “So, that every win we’ve had, I felt that same way.”
McDaniel, a Yale graduate, began his coaching career in 2005 as an intern under Mike Shanahan. A dozen years later, Mike’s son, Kyle Shanahan, hired McDaniel as an assistant, after a number of stops in different organizations.
The Dolphins, who desperately needed a new voice in the locker room after the dramatic departure of Brian Flores, have responded. They’ve beaten the teams they were expected to, they’ve pulled off an upset or two, and have often set the league’s spotlight on South Florida.
Flores served as coach of the Dolphins from 2019-2021. The former New England Patriots assistant relied on his calling card — defense — and combined with Miami focusing on that side of the football in the draft, significant improvement showed during his tenure.
But offense lagged, so much so that a change was considered. Miami posted a 24-25 record under Flores, not enough to compete in the AFC East, so the Dolphins moved on from him.
Shortly after the firing, Flores made stark allegations against both the NFL and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross claiming he was offered money to lose games. Flores would end up filing a class action lawsuit against the NFL.
“My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL,” Flores said in a statement released by his law firm at the time. “Others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”
The lawsuit is still ongoing to this day, but it is safe to say Ross and the Dolphins are not letting the drama affect them this season.
Ross and general manager Chris Grier signed McDaniel to a four-year, $30 million contract over the summer, and with how things have started for the team under the rookie head coach, the front office may considering an extension.
How does McDaniel stack up against his peers?
The Dolphins were one of nine franchises who had a passing of the torch last offseason. Of those nine, five, including McDaniel, were named head coach for the first time in their careers.
McDaniel’s 8-4 record to start his career is good for the second-best out of the five rookies in his class.
Three of McDaniel’s four losses came in games in which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa either left early or did not play due to injury. One of these games came against Kevin O’Connell and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings defeated Miami back in Week 6 and now hold a 10-2 record, giving O’Connell a slight edge over McDaniel for rookie coaches.
“Knowing how hard it is to win in this league, and coming from an organization that we were able to accomplish the ultimate goal in winning a Super Bowl, I know what it take,” O’Conell’s said in his introductory message to Vikings fans. “I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it, and I know how hard it can be.”
O’Connell, like McDaniel, is another offensive-minded head coach and has made it apparent so far this season. The Vikings’ offense has gone to another level with the emergence of wide receiver Justin Jefferson, as well as the always-steady play of running back Dalvin Cook.
It will be interesting to see how the two coaches pan out for the teams, but at the moment both front offices have to be content with what they have shown.
After McDaniel, the rookie head coach with the next best record has been New York’s Brian Daboll. The former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator has had a solid start to his tenure with a 7-4-1 record. Daboll was brought to New York in hopes of assisting third-year quarterback, Daniel Jones, to progress as he did with Buffalo’s Josh Allen.
Daboll has been well received amongst the franchise and fan base thus far. Unfortunately for him, the NFC East is looking like the strongest division in the league with all teams at least two games over .500.
Daboll can be seen on the sideline firing up the crowd and his team after big-time plays and victories for his squad. His coaching style is very different than McDaniel’s, which is much more reserved and subtle, but it appears to be working and the Giants seem to have an identity because of it.
“(Daboll) made a big difference,” superstar running back Saquon Barkley told reporters after a victory. “We have unbelievable coaches and the big thing; we got players that trust in our coaches and trust in the system.”
The Giants, similar to Miami, have had bad luck with coaches as of late, but as it stands, may have found the solution with Daboll.
The final two rookie coaches have not been as impressive this season. Matt Eberflus of the Chicago Bears is just 3-9 to start his coaching career, including a 35-32 loss to McDaniel and the Dolphins back in Week 9. Expectations were not very high for the Bears and Eberflus will likely be given a few years to rebuild the roster before a decision is made on him.
On the other hand, Nathaniel Hackett of the Denver Broncos has fans of the team concerned with the front office’s decision after a 3-8 start to the season. Unlike Eberflus and the Bears, Denver made significant moves in the offseason, including bringing in superstar quarterback Russel Wilson in a blockbuster trade.
The expectations for this team were as high as Super Bowl contenders this season, however, even making the playoffs would take a miracle at this point. Hackett is the obvious pick for the first of the five rookie head coaches who may lose his job as a result of his team’s performance this season.
Miami is in a great spot considering the struggles they have had to be consistently good for over a decade at this point. Tagovailoa has taken a huge leap under McDaniel, and if not for his injury in Week 4, Miami could still be undefeated this deep into the season. Miami has a tough schedule to close out the season, but remaining atop the AFC East is not out of the question with how well the Dolphins have played.