Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins are not the 49ers of the East. They are something sublime

It’s easy to make a connection between the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers playing each other in Week 13.

Head coach Mike McDaniel worked under Kyle Shanahan for most of his career before joining the Dolphins and brought a host of players from the 49ers roster with him. Both teams also use a lot of 21 personnel groupings (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers) and rank first and second in the pre-snap movement, the Dolphins using it 71 percent of the time and the 49ers 65 percent , according to Sports Information Solutions.

Oddly enough, that’s where the similarities end.

While the two teams’ rushing games are very similar, they differ dramatically when it comes to the passing game. The hallmark of the 49ers’ offense in the Shanahan era has been the team’s ability to gain yards after the catch (YAC) by getting the ball into the hands of its playmakers in space and allowing them to throw partial plays down the field. San Francisco has been first in YAC completion since 2018 and that includes this year. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are ranked 30th.

How is that possible? How could a Shanahan follower like McDaniel, who is lauded for his creativity, deviate from what has made the 49ers so good over the past five seasons?

It’s a combination of a quarterback’s style of play and skill set.

Mike McDaniel didn’t just bring Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense with him to Miami. He built on it, at least in the passing game. (Mo Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

The Dolphins don’t run your dad’s Shanahan offense

To understand what McDaniel has done, you must first understand where his offensive style comes from. He was in Shanahan’s system (both with father, Mike, and son, Kyle) for 15 of the 17 years he coached football. And over the past five years, McDaniel has helped build the 49ers into what they are today.

That offense was built primarily to beat the defense of the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams, according to former 49ers quarterbacks coach and current University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. The Rams force offenses to get the ball out quickly while not allowing teams to overrun them. This stems from both their coverages (hello, two tall safeties) and the fact that the Rams have a speedy player like Aaron Donald in the middle of the defensive line to pressure the quarterback.

To counter that, Shanahan created what we’ve seen in San Francisco over the past few years: an offense with a lot of pass rush and creative play. That’s part of the reason he’s 8-1 against the Rams since 2019 with a plus-93 point differential. Players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle have contributed to the 49ers’ recent success because of their YAC ability, and outside zone runs (or outside zone perception, as Scangarello puts it) and gap runs spread defenses to the side to open up lanes for running backs .

The downside to this offense is that it doesn’t always result in many touchdowns. As the pieces of the play pile up and the offense moves closer to the end zone, the field gets smaller and the opportunity for a touchdown diminishes when your offense relies on a catch-and-run game rather than overhead shots. (However, it should be noted that the 49ers ranked first in red zone touchdown percentage in 2021.)

McDaniel went the other way when he took over the Dolphins. Because of the team around him, McDaniel has opted for less of a methodical offense and more of one that hits hard and fast.

“I feel like Mike has kind of implemented what they did in the old days where he would take the fastest guys, dynamic guys and he threatens you constantly on the field, which allows the game to be effective because of that threat and what that affects at safety,” said Scangarello, who worked with McDaniel under Shanahan with the 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. “And when he makes his shots, those guys score touchdowns.”

That’s perhaps the biggest difference — at least ideologically — between McDaniel and Shanahan. While Shanahan seems content to play a tough game as long as it ends up with a win, McDaniel wants to completely devastate teams.

“[McDaniel] is an attacking guy,” Scangarello said. “He’s a guy who grabs himself by the throat. He kind of doesn’t look like that because he’s kind of funny. He has a great, quirky personality. But he is a mad scientist. He’s just a genius and he’ll go after you and want to cut you down.

Miami’s toolbox

The Dolphins built their offense around Tua Tagovailoa (1), and former 49ers like Jeff Wilson Jr. helped round it out.  (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Dolphins built their offense around Tua Tagovailoa (1), and former 49ers like Jeff Wilson Jr. helped round it out. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Dolphins were never going to be the Atlantic Coast 49ers because of the players already on the roster and those they ended up adding. Instead of realigning his players on offense, McDaniel did the opposite.

Tua Tagovailoa came from RPO (pass option) in college, so McDaniel adapted his iteration of the offense he knew to his quarterback, similar to what Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III in Washington, Matt Ryan with the Falcons and finally Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers.

Because of that, the Dolphins use a lot of play action (36 percent, second in NFL for SIS) instead of traditional dropback attempts (64 percent, second fewest in NFL). Meanwhile, the 49ers rank 21st in passing games and 12th in turnovers. Relying on Tagovailoa’s strengths has helped him become one of the NFL’s most accurate passers: He ranks first in yards per attempt and passing yards per attempt, and second in completion percentage and completion percentage in Week 11 .

McDaniel kept the running game the same to support the foundation of the offense as well, bringing Raheem Mostert with him from San Francisco and eventually trading him for Jeff Wilson Jr. with them in Miami.

The final piece was Tyreek Hill. The Dolphins already had a solid 2021 first-rounder in Jalen Waddle, but Hill adds an extra layer of speed to the offense. Instead of trying to find his receivers in space, all Tagovailoa had to do was hit pass catchers in the right spots — which most of the time are at least 10 yards downfield.

And so far it has worked. Tagovailoa is the most effective quarterback in the NFL right now, while Hill and Waddle rank first and fifth, respectively, in receiving yards on the year and fourth and seventh in average depth of target among wideouts with at least 50 receptions, per SIS. The Dolphins lead the AFC East with a 7-3 record coming into their bye week and are a game back of the conference’s No. 1 seed.

“Mike McDaniel is the smartest football coach I’ve ever met in the profession,” Scangarello said. “And his imagination and his ability to reinvent the crime and make it look different is such an outstanding feature that keeps it fresh, keeps it innovative, and I think the way data is collected today and people can watch movies so quickly , he keeps from other people. And… that’s a big reason why it’s so effective.”

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