For eight months, you heard Mike McDaniel was smaller and funnier and more optimistic and uses the word, “cool,” more than any NFL coach.
On Sunday, you learned something more defining. For one day, on especially one play, you saw the mindset he’ll bring to help his era succeed.
You saw the kind of offensive aggression missing from the Dolphins in recent years, the kind that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said was, a “surprise,” and receiver Tyreek Hill put in more R-rated terms.
“Mike McDaniel’s gonna need a wheelbarrow for (a certain part of his anatomy) to carry them around,” he said after the Dolphins’ 20-7 win over New England.
The Dolphins defense carried Sunday from beginning to end. So Sunday, in that form, was no different than the previous few years. As McDaniel said he told the team Saturday night, “This is still the defense’s team until proven otherwise.”
Sunday wasn’t otherwise. There were glimmers of something, though, that showed McDaniel’s fingerprints on a team. It started on the first drive, when he had a third-and-1 at midfield. Tagovailoa threw deep to fullback Alec Ingold. Incomplete.
That risky call suggested they were going for it on fourth down, even though Tagovailoa said, “I never thought we would go for it. But Mike told me,’ Stay in there; we’re going for it.’ “
You can see why someone on the inside was surprised. The Dolphins ranked 29th last year among teams going for it on fourth down. Conservatism was their trump card. Now here was McDaniel pushing the accelerator down on the initial fourth down he faced.
“With it being the first drive, it was a little surprise, but really nothing should surprise me with Mike,” Tagovailoa said.
Patriots defensive tackle Carl Davis jumped off-sides that play. First down. They got a field goal out of the drive and didn’t have to show their fourth-down play.
It was left to later, then, to really understand the aggression McDaniel brings to a Sunday. This was with 24 seconds left in the half. Fourth-and-7. Ball at New England’s 42-yard line. The Patriots had no time-outs and hadn’t done much on offense, so this was a good situation to play it aggressive.
“You try to prepare yourself so it’s not the first time you’ve thought about that scenario,” McDaniel said.
A field goal was a possibility. But a would-be 59-yarder was at the edge of Jason Sanders’ range. The better call was to go for it.
It was, however, the first time he’s had to decide on this scenario. He went for it, calling for a play that had Jaylen Waddle sprinting down a seam in the Patriots zone.
“It was all on the players at that point,” McDaniel said.
Tagovailoa threw his best ball of the day, a strike that Waddle caught in stride and then proceeded to sprint by three defenders. That was the other theme to Sunday on the Dolphins. The speed of Tyreek Hill coupled with Waddle won against the Patriots.
Waddle, on this play, ran untouched for a touchdown that made it 17-0. That was enough this day.
“That was a cool moment for all of us,” McDaniel said of that touchdown. “You know, just wish we could have continued that momentum in the second half, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
They managed three points in the second half. Tua had nice numbers, completing 23-of-33 passes for 270 yards, but other than that one pass his day was defined by not making a big mistake.
There was some of the clunkiness you expect in a new system, too. The running game, McDaniel’s specialty, only generated 65 yards. There also was some concern with the loss of both tackles, Terron Armstead and Austin Jackson, to uncertain injury.
But the story of Sunday is McDaniel’s first game brought his first win. A new coach in the league beat the oldest in Bill Belichick. And so his era began.
“Man, I wish all you had to do is one won game, because that would be cool,” McDaniel said. “That’s not the case, so I’m kind of thinking about Week 2.”
That’s in Baltimore. McDaniel, you can expect, will pack some surprise. Maybe he’ll even need a wheelbarrow.