Mike McDaniel's Dolphins aren't 49ers East. They're something elevated

It’s easy to make the link between the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers, who play each other in Week 13.

Head coach Mike McDaniel worked under Kyle Shanahan for almost his entire career prior to joining the Dolphins and brought with him a plethora of players from the 49ers roster. 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 pre-snap motion, the Dolphins using it 71 percent of the time and the 49ers 65 percent, per the Sports Information Solutions.

Oddly enough, that’s where the similarities end.

While the two teams’ rushing games are very alike, they differ schematically when it comes to the passing game. The hallmark of the 49ers' offense in the Shanahan era has been the team’s ability to wrack up yards after the catch (YAC) by getting the ball into the hands of their playmakers in space and letting them churn out chunk plays down the field. San Francisco has ranked first in YAC per completion since 2018, and that includes this year. The Dolphins, meanwhile, rank 30th.

How could this be? How could a Shanahan disciple like McDaniel who’s been lauded for his creativity diverge from what made the 49ers so good over the past five seasons?

It’s a combination of game plan style and quarterback skill sets.

Dolphins don't run your father’s Shanahan offense

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

That offense was constructed, primarily, to beat the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams defense, 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 preventing teams from going over the top on them. This stems from both their coverages (hello, two-high safeties) and the fact the Rams have a bull-rusher 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 for the past few years: an offense with a lot of quick passes and a creative running game. It’s part of the reason why he’s 8-1 against the Rams since 2019 with a plus-93 point difference. Players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle have been instrumental in the 49ers’ recent success because of their YAC ability, and the outside zone runs (or the perception of outside zone, as Scangarello says) and gap runs spread the defense out laterally to open up lanes for the running backs.

The downside of this offense is that it isn’t always conducive to lots of touchdowns. As the chunk plays add up and the offense moves closer to the end zone, the field gets smaller and the opportunity for touchdowns decreases when your offense relies on catch-and-run plays rather than over-the-top shots. (It should be noted, though, that the 49ers ranked first in red zone touchdown percentage in 2021.)

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

“I feel like Mike has kind of applied what they did in the old days where he took the fastest dudes, dynamic dudes and he is threatening you down the field constantly, which is allowing the run game to be efficient because of that threat and what it does to the safeties,” said Scangarello, who worked with McDaniel under Shanahan with the 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. “And when he does take his shots, those guys are scoring touchdowns.”

This is perhaps the biggest difference — ideologically, at least — between McDaniel and Shanahan. While Shanahan appears content with grinding out a tough game so long as it ends in a win, McDaniel wants to completely devastate teams.

“[McDaniel] is an attack guy,” Scangarello said. “He is a go-for-the-throat kind of guy. He kind of doesn't come off that way ‘cause he is kind of funny. He’s got this great, like, quirky personality. But he's a mad scientist. He's just a genius and he will go after you and he wants to cut you down.”

Miami’s tool chest

The Dolphins were never going to be the 49ers of the Atlantic Coast because of the players already on the roster and the ones they eventually added. Rather than retrofit his players to the offense, McDaniel did the opposite.

Tua Tagovailoa came from an RPO (run-pass option) background in college, so McDaniel tailored his iteration of the offense he knew to his quarterback, similarly to how Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III in Washington, Matt Ryan with the Falcons and eventually Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers.

Because of this, the Dolphins use a lot of play action (36 percent, second-most in the NFL per SIS) rather than traditional dropback passing attempts (64 percent, second-fewest in the NFL). The 49ers, meanwhile, rank 21st in play action and 12th in dropback. Leaning into Tagovailoa’s strengths helped him become one of the most accurate passers in the NFL: He ranks first in yards-per-attempt and completed air yards per attempt and second in completion percentage and on-target passes through Week 11.

McDaniel kept the running game the same to maintain the foundation of the offense, too, by bringing Raheem Mostert over with him from San Francisco and eventually trading for Jeff Wilson Jr. Both running backs gained notoriety for their understanding of the offense and have brought it with them to Miami.

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

And so far, it's worked. Tagovailoa is the most efficient quarterback in the NFL right now, while Hill and Waddle rank first and fifth, respectively, in receiving yards on the year, as well as 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 out of their bye week and are a game back of the No. 1 seed in the conference.

“Mike McDaniel is the smartest football coach I've met in the profession,” Scangarello said. “And his imagination and his ability to reinvent the offense and make it look different is such an extraordinary trait that it keeps it fresh, it keeps it innovative, and I think the way that data is collected today and people could watch films so quickly keeps him ahead of other people. And … that's a big reason why it's so efficient.”

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