Last winter, as Mike McDaniel was named coach of the Miami Dolphins, he wanted to hire veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as his alter ego.
Given Fangio is one of the top defensive minds in the league with the ability to marry his experience to McDaniel’s youth, this seemed like a no-brainer. That isn’t how the brains running the Dolphins saw it.
McDaniel was told the job came with Josh Boyer, a source said. The idea was to keep a good defensive system intact, an idea that melted as the season went on.
Now Boyer is out, and the question is if Fangio is in play again. The issue is if McDaniel is flexing organizational muscle, ala Adam Gase after his first season, or more likely if the Dolphins higher-ups came to their senses about a head coach getting to pick his staff.
There’s no scar on Boyer’s career for being fired here or his defense trending down this year — not if you look at the big picture involving the secondary’s injuries and the manner McDaniel ran the offense.
This defense won as many games as the offense, if you go down the schedule. You can question Boyer, especially about his constant proclivity to blitz and play press, man-to-man coverage, no matter the game or situation.
“Against New England, they don’t have (top cornerback) Xavien Howard and spent the first quarter-plus in man-to-man they way they did in pretty much every game,” one NFL scout said. “They finally switched to zone (against New England) after getting roughed up.”
Boyer’s idea is to attack and attack more. Maybe occasional moderation was the better idea. But you know what that makes Boyer?
The McDaniel of the defense.
McDaniel attacked defenses with the passing game — and only the passing game. It was odd for a coach with a run-game background to abandon the run in most games, as ranking last the league in rushing attempts showed.
That means a primary item for any defensive coordinator — “it’s got to be at the top of the list,” an NFL defensive coach says — is to work with McDaniel on coaching complementary football to help this offense and defense work together. Because they didn’t do it well enough this season.
Let’s put that in perspective: McDaniel was asked to do two primary things his first year. He was asked to make the playoffs with as talented a team as the Dolphins have had in years after a massive, three-year rebuild. Check.
He also was asked to solve quarterback Tua Tagovailoa considering the big investment in him and a looming decision on his fifth-year option at $28 million. He did that to the point all the information on Tagovailoa is there. Double-check.
So McDaniel’s first year was a big-picture success. But there are issues to get under control, pronto. Gase, Joe Philbin, Tony Sparano, Nick Saban, Dave Wannstedt and every coach not named Brian Flores had a good first year followed by years of trending down until they were out.
Why? Because they were blind to problems. Everyone saw McDaniel’s time-management mess in the Buffalo playoff game. Three time-outs wasted. An embarrassing delay-of-game penalty on a crucial fourth down. You could say it didn’t help having rookie quarterback Skyler Thompson, except Tagovailoa called out McDaniel for similar problems earlier in the season.
Another prime issue: Penalties. Don Shula would puke hearing how the Dolphins tied for the most penalties (118) in the league. They had a third-worst 46 pre-snap penalties, which is simply discipline and coaching.
That’s a signal for a team lacking discipline in the details of their work. Small problems, as Shula said, become big problems. Does McDaniel not care about penalties like Gase never really did in ranking at the bottom in penalties his first two years? Is that the model here?
The better model is Flores, whose team ranked second in penalties in an over-achieving 2020 with Chan Gailey running the offense, and 15th in 2021 even with a failed offensive system of three offensive coordinators.
While receivers ran surprisingly wide open in McDaniel’s offense until the Chargers game in mid-December, being last in rushing attempts led to one big-picture problem. It meant they never controlled the clock, ranked 26th in time of possession and contributed to the defense being on the field more than all but six teams.
How do you improve the defense?
Have it play 28 minutes a game — not 32.
It’s not an end-all statistic. But only one team in the bottom third of time of possession (Dallas at 25th) is alive in the playoffs. Six of the eight were in the top half.
The larger point is you don’t want glaring deficiencies anywhere and the Dolphins had some obvious ones this year. Penalties. Rushing attempts. Time of possession.
All are issues a veteran NFL mind and strong defensive coordinator like Fangio could help McDaniel, if in fact McDaniel tries to get him again this offseason.