Sunday’s coaching matchup of McDaniel vs. Ron Rivera at FedEx Field was essentially unfair. One could teach the football version of differential calculus; the other struggles with basic addition. One masters three-dimensional chess; the other wrestles with tic-tac-toe.
All you need to know about how Sunday played out is that Rivera fired his defensive coordinator last week and took over play-calling himself, and it took McDaniel all of thee plays to get wideout Tyreek Hill — he of the fastest-in-the-league legs — in one-on-one coverage with rookie defensive back Quan Martin and the safety shaded to the wrong side.
Watch the clip of the ensuing 78-yard touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Hill, and it clearly and cleanly shows Hill beating Martin from the slot, a superior athlete excelling at his assignment against an overmatched opponent. But that play was less Hill over Martin than it was McDaniel over Rivera. The mismatch on the field was obvious. The mismatch on the sideline might be greater.
“That’s just us in preparation on Thursdays,” Hill said, referring to the day the Dolphins work on third down. “Our coaches, they do a good job of reminding us of certain looks.”
In everything the Dolphins did Sunday and are doing this season, you can feel the preparation. Tagovailoa saw the safety shading away from Hill. The quarterback locked eyes with his receiver: Adjust your route. Go for it.
“That was something that we discussed during the week,” McDaniel said. “And it was really in the hands of the quarterback to — if he thought Tyreek would have a shot on the slot fade — to adjust his route. … It was something we had kind of planned to have that option.”
This has got to be loads of fun for McDaniel, the Yale-educated, 40-year-old football savant who has at his disposal the talented Tagovailoa, the blazing Hill, third-year receiver Jaylen Waddle — Tagovailoa’s old teammate at Alabama — and a two-headed running back monster in Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane. That combination is now 9-3 and averaging 32 points per game, just a smidgen behind Dallas for the top spot in the league.
“This offense is fun,” Tagovailoa said. “I think any offense is fun when you’re scoring a lot of points.”
Wonder what that’s like.
Miami is a threat to put up video game numbers every time it steps on the field. That’s because of the excessive talent at the skill positions and Tagovailoa’s maturation as a quarterback, sure. But it’s also because of the guy with the joystick. He is fortunate enough to have uncommon speed at his disposal. He is smart enough to use it, and do so creatively.
“I’ve always looked at football and offense as a very fluid, kind of schematic thing where you’re adjusting to what your players are good at,” McDaniel said. “The offense, it wasn’t really planned that way. I didn’t really have any hard plans about what it was going to be.
“I have some philosophical beliefs in certain things. But it’s easy when you’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot of different players and different scenarios: When you have speed like that, you try to do something with it.”
That Harris, who took over ownership from Daniel Snyder over the summer, will be looking for a new head coach has morphed from assumption to certainty over the past several weeks. When Rivera fired Jack Del Rio and another defensive assistant after a 45-10 Thanksgiving Day drubbing in Dallas, it amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the S.S. Minnow.
At this point, Harris doesn’t need more evidence that Rivera’s time here should come to an end, but Rivera keeps providing it. In his first game making the calls on defense, Rivera’s unit gave up 24 points in the first half. There’s no leg to left to stand on. The unit now gives up 30.4 points per game, worst in the league.
So what matters is not only who’s next but what’s next. The reboot must, of course, include a new person to run the personnel department, because it’s fair to look at the roster Rivera has built and wonder what current players will be part of a winning program in the future.
But at head coach, there’s a choice to be made not just about leadership style and substance but about which side of the ball he coaches. That will help determine how the team is built and develops an identity. The preference here is not just for an offensive coach but for an offensive innovator. McDaniel qualifies, and it’s just a blast to watch a smart kid play with a fully loaded toy box.
Go down the list of coaches in this league who will be doing their thing five and 10 years from now — who will be thinking and rethinking about ways to do their jobs — and it would have to include Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Nick Sirianni in Philadelphia, Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams (presumably, unless he bolts for TV), maybe Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Kevin O’Connell in Minnesota, and McDaniel. They all came up on the offensive side of the ball. Their ages: 43, 42, 37, 44, 38 and 40.
This isn’t ageism. No one is kicking Andy Reid, 65, to the curb in Kansas City, and Pete Carroll, 72, will probably get to determine his end game in Seattle. Houston’s DeMeco Ryans checks the young box (39), but he was a defensive coach by trade and has the Texans among the most surprising teams in the league. This shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter league, and Harris shouldn’t make a cookie-cutter hire.
But he should make a progressive, forward-thinking choice that is in line with the way the league is going and gives a nod to what fans might find appealing. The ideal combination might be a young, inventive, offensive-minded head coach and a defensive coordinator who has seen it all. (Related: McDaniel’s defensive coordinator is 65-year-old Vic Fangio.)
So the logical names that could become the next McDaniel include Ben Johnson, the 37-year-old offensive coordinator in Detroit, and Bobby Slowik, the 36-year-old who’s in his first year as an OC in Houston. Interview them both, but don’t stop there. Change is needed, and badly. But it’s not change for change’s sake. The Dolphins are having a blast growing and exploding under McDaniel. There should be a way to replicate that in Washington.