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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Mike McDaniel met Belichick’s challenge and had fun doing so

The play of the game, statement of the early season and moment that surely sent hardened NFL coaches into collective shock was right there on national television Sunday night.

National television caused it even.

Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel finished one of those drive-by halftime interviews and began a slow coach’s jog to the locker room. He then looked back over his shoulder to see — horrors! — that petulant NBC camera moving with him.

That’s when McDaniel showed who he is — and I’m not just talking about his Yale wide receiver speed. He broke into a full sprint across the field to escape the camera with a mock-straight-faced look of Forrest Gump running down the driveway.

In that un-football-coach moment, America saw what’s going on with the Dolphins as much as any creative play design in the Dolphins’ 24-17 win.


This is fun, isn’t it?

It’s a veritable joy ride of creativity and winning and, well, — is this word even allowed in football? — smiles on the sideline, not to mention in the post-game interview room.

First question: How would McDaniel describe the game?

“Long,” he said.

Didn’t I say McDaniel seems hellbent on showing a so-serious sport it’s OK to loosen up a little? And what better place to spread the gospel than opposite the coach famed for wearing a heavy armor of glum.

OK, sure, it wouldn’t be fun if the Dolphins lost. Winning is fun, and they’re 2-0 after coast-to-coast wins in Los Angeles and New England. They’re the toast of the league. Creative offense. An emerging defense as Sunday showed. They’re the suddenly hot pick in September to play in February in a way that career football people are seeing could alter the relentlessly straight-faced football world.

It’s not that football hasn’t had openly funny coaches. There was Mike Leach in college. And in the NFL, uh, Jerry Glanville left tickets for Elvis before games. That was funny, right?

But how many comically sprinted from a mid-game TV camera? How many were seen smiling, as McDaniel was, on the Sunday’s sideline? How many answer a question about getting a field goal blocked, as the Dolphins did Sunday night, like McDaniel did?

“It was a really cool schematic adjustment by the Patriots — hats off to them,’’ he said.

He’s right, too. It really was cool the way the Patriots sent the blocker sprinting to the line, wasn’t it?

Don’t read this wrong. McDaniel isn’t doing stand-up and isn’t any less a brain-picking technician than the Belichicks of football world. You don’t design an offense like the Dolphins have without film-seared eyes and a third-and-five worldview.

McDaniel broke down Sunday’s game like any coach would, especially after the gauntlet Belichick threw by playing three-deep safeties. That didn’t just say the Patriots were taking away the Dolphins’ beloved deep ball that’s the centerpiece of this fun team to watch.

Belichick dared McDaniel and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to be patient in running the ball and making short passes. He was suggesting they couldn’t lay off the sugar buzz of the home run.

“it was a unique game plan that, you know, I think guys did a pretty solid job of adjusting to the weird spots the guys were in,’’ McDaniel said.

That’s why 88 of the Dolphins opening 111 passing yards were on yards-after-catches mattered. It’s why Raheem Mostert’s 43-yard touchdown for the eventual winning points mattered . It’s also why Tagovailoa passing 30 times (for 244 yards) and the Dolphins running an equal 30 times (for 145 yards) told a bigger story.

“If they’re overplaying the pass game, if you want to be a good offense, you have to threaten them with the run,” McDaniel said. “And I told them early that if — they are telling you something when, you know, they’re coverage first. Generally, defenses aren’t that way. They felt good about their up-front matchups. And I thought the guys were properly prepared and took that personal.”

McDaniel had to as well. He abandoned the run game last year in ranking 31st in carries and did so again in the opening win when the passing game was on fire. It wasn’t all fun for the coach. He had to second-guess himself for attempting a 55-yard field goal near the end. Jason Sanders is four-of-12 on kicks over 50 yards the last two years. And the miss gave the Patriots the ball at their 45 with a chance to win.

Tagovailoa, too, had a mostly smart game with a lone bad pass that came because, “He was trying to win the game after a couple of frustrating drives,” McDaniel said. “And that’s something you have to learn from. You now, you don’t force the hand.”

On the other side, Belichick began his post-game talk by saying, “Not too much to say after that one. You know, tough loss. But got to learn from it. And you know, just keeping working harder and move on. So there’s really not too much to say.”

That’s how we’re cliche-conditioned to a football coach talking. Or not talking. Belichick took seven questions and averaged a sparse 24.8 words an answer. McDaniel averaged 172.7 words in his answers. Sometimes statistics tell a bigger story.

There’s another side to Belichick, one with humor and humanness he keeps hidden, as I once found out in a 45-minute talk. But it’s not there as the head coach. Football isn’t fun. It never has been to him or Bill Parcells or Don Shula or to so many Hall-of-Fame greats.

Then there’s McDaniel. He’s putting fun in the No-Fun League. Ask the halftime cameraman. Catch the coach if you can.


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