Mike McDaniel hasn’t been able to find the answers.
He hasn’t found the answers to what defenses are doing to his offense, he hasn’t found the answers for why his defense allows 28 points per game on the road and 16 points per game at home, and he hasn’t found the answers to his team’s five-game losing streak heading into Sunday’s finale against the New York Jets and aging quarterback Joe Flacco.
Here’s hoping McDaniel, the Dolphins’ rookie head coach, can find answers to these problems Sunday, and continue finding the answers to similar problems next season.
One truth is emerging about the Dolphins this year — a large part of what we’ve witnessed during the disastrous second half of the Dolphins’ season is the learning curve of a rookie head coach.
Actually, McDaniel’s learning curve is a large part of what we witnessed during the first part of the season, too. The difference is the Dolphins were winning while playing inferior opponents.
Look, it’s great that McDaniel is different, that he cracks jokes frequently, that he believes in positive reinforcement instead of cursing and tearing down, that he shook up the traditional locker room seating chart (offensive line sits in this area as a group, defensive lines sits in this area as a group, and so on) and has players from all units mixing and mingling and getting to know each other. That’s all refreshing.
However, none of that helps you win games.
Talent helps you win games. Coaching helps you win games. Good health helps you win games. And to a lesser extent, a mixture of intangibles such as luck and emotion helps you win games.
McDaniel must find a way to improve on each of the first three next season.
As for improving the coaching, the focal point for this purpose, this starts at the top with McDaniel. He must be better Sunday, the final regular season game of his rookie year with playoffs hopes on the line, and he especially must be better next season.
To a large extent, it appears McDaniel’s creative offense devolved into a simple trend of passing to wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle late this season. That becomes predictable and one-dimensional, and easier to stop by things such as dropping your linebackers deeper or challenging the receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the passing game. Ask San Francisco, the Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo, Green Bay and New England. They all succeeded against a previously troublesome Dolphins passing game.
A veteran coach has multiple ways to address such problems (more run game, diversify the passing game, etc…); a rookie coach struggles with such problems.
Defensively, the Dolphins haven’t made the big plays the past few weeks that they made earlier in the season. That’s also a big problem. And while it might not be McDaniel’s fault, it’s his responsibility. Again, a (good) veteran coach finds other ways to be effective while a rookie coach struggles.
Perhaps next season’s defensive improvement comes through a coaching change, meaning defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, and perhaps others, gets replaced.
Whatever. It’s on McDaniel to get it right.
Those are the on-field worries for McDaniel.
Off the field, McDaniel has to be able to squeeze one more victory out of his team, which has been in a funk for the past few weeks. Whether this comes down to concrete things such as fundamentals/strategy or abstract things such as motivation, McDaniel must find a way to get this team to perform better. That’s his job.
As for improving the talent, that’s not solely on McDaniel. General manager Chris Grier and others also come into play on that one.
But know this: The Dolphins are 2-5 against teams better than .500, and 6-3 against teams .500 or worse. That tells a story whether it’s talent, coaching, or a combination of both.
The Dolphins went 2-4 against teams with a winning record in games quarterback Tua Tagovailoa started, including an 0-3 mark in December.
I’m in the minority that thinks the Dolphins are pretty much playing to their talent level, that the offense has under-achieved and the defense isn’t necessarily talent-rich. For the most part, I believe the old saying, “You are who your record says you are.” But that’s another discussion for another day.
The immediate issue is McDaniel finding a way to scratch out one more victory this year, and at least 10 victories next year.
It’s tough being a head coach. Issues you didn’t have to deal with as a coordinator suddenly become your concern, and sometimes major concerns. Press conferences. Injuries. The front office. Fans. Optics. You’re not free to do or say what you want, as you could as an assistant coach. Your words matter. Your appearance matters. Your demeanor matters. Everyone comments on your actions and judges you whether they’re on social media or national TV.
It can be a tough balance to maintain, and sometimes it’s overwhelming.
McDaniel will be better at handling all of these situations next year. But right now, as a rookie head coach, it’s his year to learn.