Mike McDaniel sits in the seat where Don Shula lost Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese and still navigated The Perfect Season, where Jimmy Johnson lost Hall of Famer Dan Marino and still went 5-1 to help a playoff push.
McDaniel lost a good, young quarterback, not a risen Hall of Famer like those two Dolphins coaches, when Tua Tagovailoa was diagnosed with another concussion this week.
This season shouldn’t sink because veteran Teddy Bridgewater takes over for Tagovailoa on Sunday. This team shouldn’t even waver, just like Adam Gase’s Dolphins didn’t when Ryan Tannehill was injured 10 games into 2016 and Matt Moore took them to the playoffs.
Everyone wanted to see Tagovailoa close out this season because of who he is, what this franchise has invested in him and how he left playing his worst football over this four-game losing streak.
“Terrible,’ McDaniel said Wednesday about Tagovailoa’s injury, standing silent for loud seconds before and after that answer.
Sure, he felt terrible. Honesty is one of McDaniel’s good calling cards. But he should have gotten over that terrible, horrible, not-so-good feeling by Thursday when addressing the media and by extension, the team. This Sunday in New England means too much.
There’s a playoff spot to be won, the Dolphins have the inside track and McDaniel still has the best quarterback these final two games against the New England Patriots’ Mac Jones and the New York Jets’ Mike White (or Zack Wilson). Bridgewater passed for 329 yards in three quarters against Minnesota despite not having a week of practice.
Part of the reason the Dolphins shouldn’t miss much at quarterback goes beyond the quarterbacks. It’s that receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are the real centerpieces of this offense. They create the space and McDaneil the concepts to make it work.
McDaniel was the toast of South Florida in November when the Dolphins were 8-3, a half-game behind Kansas City for the AFC’s top seed and the offense, like the season, was full of possibility.
He’s still that coach even in this four-game losing streak. He just has to prove it again with a backup quarterback and some hard questions that have been laid out over the past month.
One question: Are they riding Hill and Waddle too much? The Dolphins, for instance, rank last in the league in rushing attempts. It’s not they can’t run. They average 5.6 yards a carry over this four-game losing streak.
But their lack of a running game hurts the idea of “complementary football.” With the Dolphins running just eight times, San Francisco had the ball 40 minutes and 34 seconds to the Dolphins 19 minutes, 26 seconds. That’s the second-biggest differential for any NFL game this season. The biggest was Buffalo’s 40:40 of possession time to the Dolphins 19:20 in September.
A week after San Francisco, the Los Angeles Chargers had the ball for 39 minutes and 38 seconds. Time of possession was even in Buffalo, where the Dolphins ran 25 times (the season high is 27 at the New York Jets),. But Green Bay had the ball 32 minutes, despite playing from behind, to the Dolphins’ 28 minutes.
The Dolphins defense gave up long drives at the end of games to the Chargers, Buffalo and Green Bay for possibly a simple reason: They were on the field too long those games. They wore out. You want the opposing defense on the field at least 32 minutes – not yours. And the Dolphins defense played 39 and 40 minutes?
Running the ball more is one remedy to help both your quarterback and the defense. The other one? Decide how to handle these next two quarterbacks.
One common narrative to this season is a veteran like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers having an 88.7 grade when blitzed by the Dolphins and a 53.8 grade when not blitzed, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The Dolphins blitz a lot – the fourth-most in the league – but too many opposing quarterbacks do better again it than a fundamental, four-man rush.
Will blitzing help a struggling Patriots offense by allowing Jones to simply throw to his outlet receiver? Will not blitzing more make him read the defense and struggle to find a target among his bland receiving corps?
That’s for defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and, above him, McDaniel to decide. This is a big ending for McDaniel. His team did little wrong until December. Now it’s lost Tagovailoa, and McDaniel must prove his way again.
Earl Morrall came in for the 1972 Dolphins, Damon Huard did for Marino in 1999 and Moore took the Dolphins to the playoffs in 2016. It doesn’t always work as Chad Pennington went out early in 2009 and the season collapsed under a second-year Chad Henne.
Tagovailoa is like Pennington – smart, accurate, not strong-armed and hurt too much. Bridgewater isn’t Henne. It’s up to him and McDaniel not to let this season sink any more than it has.