As witnessed during games in Baltimore and Los Angeles over the past year, there is seemingly no limit to the chaos that Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle can collectively create when the Dolphins’ passing game is humming.
Apparently, there’s also no limit to the creativity that mad scientist Mike McDaniel can concoct in his football laboratory.
Even after overseeing an offense that finished sixth in yards last season, the Dolphins coach knew more was needed. So McDaniel added fresh wrinkles, new nuances that so far this season have flummoxed a brilliant defensive mind (New England’s Bill Belichick) and another defensive-minded head coach (the Chargers’ Brandon Staley) who helped devise a game plan that slowed the Dolphins last December.
“During OTAs, I thought there were a lot of wrinkles,” fullback Alec Ingold said of what McDaniel has added in his second year on the job. “And during training camp, there’s more wrinkles. And in Week 1, there’s more wrinkles. I don’t know if there’s a limit to the creativity. I’m not going to put that limit on coach Mike because I don’t think there is one.”
When new Dolphins backup quarterback Mike White arrived this offseason, he quickly determined that things were different.
The volume of offensive wrinkles is “definitely more than New York [or] more than I’ve seen in the league in general,” White said. “It’s very detail-oriented. We do a really good job of changing up formations and where guys line up.”
Presnap motion is at the heart of much of what the Dolphins do. Per NBC, the Dolphins have been motioning before 81 percent of their plays — more than any team in the league — and often, the player in motion isn’t the one who gets the ball.
On one play Sunday night, when Salvon Ahmed motioned to the right — just before the snap — two Patriots defenders each took a step to the right, creating a left-side hole that Raheem Mostert plowed through for his 8-yard TD. That was one of many plays where presnap motion has given Miami a clear edge in its first two games.
Hill distracted the Patriots by going in motion on a 32-yard passing play to Waddle on Sunday night.
“I’m tired as hell from it,” Hill cracked afterward about his perpetual preplay movement. “It opens up the offense a lot. It gives us leverage. It’s sexy, flashy, fast, what Miami is about.”
But it also involves considerable studying, which isn’t necessarily sexy or flashy.
“There’s a lot where if you’re not on your Ps and Qs and looking at the stuff nightly, it’s really hard to go out there and execute,” White said. “This is a very professional group. There’s not a lot of complacency or lack of studying.”
White then added: “Guys think we’re more talented than anybody. And a lot of times we’re very talented [compared] to the teams we’re playing. But it’s the studying and daily grind of coming and not letting success cloud you” that makes a difference with this group.
White points out that “normally going on the road you wouldn’t use as many motions because of [crowd noise, which could making communication more difficult]. But we use just as much motions on the road as at home.”
Creative deployment of players is another McDaniel staple. Erik Ezukanma, a wide receiver, has been stationed in the backfield on some of his snaps. Ingold, a fullback, is lining up in a pseudo tight end role on some plays and even lining up wide, like a receiver, at times. Mostert has lined up in the slot.
McDaniel prioritizes acquiring smart, diligent players on offense because, as Ingold said, “coach Mike is going to put a lot of guys in a lot of different positions to complement the rest of the team. If you can handle it mentally, he’s going to test you and challenge you.”
Ingold admitted how fun it is when executing a creative wrinkle fools an opponent.
“It’s the game within the game,” he said. “It’s that chess match. You love being that piece they can move a little bit. It gives you juice. It means a little bit more when you’re building toward something.
“I love the diversification of the motions, how it can set up so many different things. All of us are in motion pretty much all the time. I love being able to set up Tyreek for his stuff and vice versa. Durham Smythe, moving in motion. You have everybody moving and I think it helps open up windows for Raheem Mostert in the backfield or whether we’re throwing the ball. I really love it.”
ESPN’s Ryan Clark said Miami’s presnap motion often is “about drawing the eyes of the second level [linebackers] and allowing Mostert to use that and cut back.”
McDaniel comes from the Mike Shanahan/Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, and tight end Tyler Kroft — who for played Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco last year — said the characteristic of Shanahan that has most rubbed off on McDaniel, in his view, is “the overall understanding of the offense and how pieces fit together and how the run game can impact the passing game and vice versa. He’ll always looking for any little edge we can get, trying to make motions and shifts look the same so defenses can’t get a beat on what they’re doing.”
Offensive coordinator Frank Smith, who is intricately involved in game planning, said motion is such a fundamental part of the Dolphins offense that “Mike laughs at me sometimes when I’ll bring up a play that there’s no one moving. And he looks at me, and I’m like, ‘[I’m doing it] because it works!’ And we have those in our game plan where we line up and do different things where we don’t move as much…
“We have a purpose for everything that we do. When coaches would say, ‘Hey, that’s window dressing, that movement.’ That’s not the way we operate. We move people for a reason.
“Whenever we move someone one way, we have a complementary play for another reason. The guys own it and they understand why we do it. So that’s why they do it so well. And then the quarterback’s used to it. When we don’t move some times,... they’re all just like, ‘that’s it!?’ ‘Like yeah, sorry. Don’t worry. We’ll get you on the next play.’”
Smythe and the players appreciate the creativity.
“That’s why this offense is fun, because there are a lot of different things every week,” Smythe said. “The [Dolphins coaching] minds come up with things that aren’t done often in this league and are new to a lot of us on a week-by-week basis.”
What all of this says about McDaniel and Smith, according to Ingold, is they’re “creative, intuitive and have a pulse of the guys in the locker room. They know what works, what doesn’t and how to push guys to the best of their ability.
“We’re exploring entire new chapters of the playbook that we started on Week 1… [And] you see people enjoying coming to work. I don’t think there’s a limit [to any of this creativity]. I think it will continue to evolve.”
The Dolphins - who had one opening on their practice squad - officially added safety Verone McKinley and veteran defensive tackle Byron Cowart to their practice squad and cut safety Joshua Kalu from their practice squad. McKinley was released from the 53-man roster on Saturday.