It’s easy to draw a 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 nearly his entire career before joining the Dolphins and brought with him a plethora of players from the 49ers roster. Both teams also use a lot of 21 manpower groupings (two running backs, a tight end and two receivers) and rank first and second in pre-snap movement, the Dolphins using it 71 percent of the time and the 49ers 65 percent , according to the Sports Information Solutions.
Oddly enough, that’s where the similarities end.
While the two teams’ running games are very similar, they differ schematically in regards to the passing game. The hallmark of the 49ers offense in the Shanahan era was the team’s ability to rack up yards after catch (YAC) by getting the ball into their playmakers’ hands in space and letting them crank out big plays down the field. San Francisco has ranked first in YAC for completion since 2018, and that includes this year. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are ranked 30th.
How can it be? How can a Shanahan disciple like McDaniel, lauded for his creativity, deviate from what has made the 49ers so good over the past five seasons?
It’s a combination of the game plan style and the quarterback’s skill set.
Dolphins don’t handle your father’s Shanahan offense
To understand what McDaniel did, you first need to understand where his offensive style comes from. He was in the Shanahan system (with both father, Mike, and son, Kyle) for 15 of the 17 years he coached football. And over the past five years, McDaniel has helped shape the 49ers into what they are today.
According to former 49ers quarterbacks coach and current University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, that offense was built primarily to beat the defense of the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. The Rams force offenses to get the ball out quickly by keeping teams from overplaying them. This stems from both their covers (hello, two tall safeties) and the fact that the Rams have a bull-rusher like Aaron Donald at center defensive line to put pressure on the quarterback.
To counter that, Shanahan created what we’ve seen in San Francisco in recent years: an offense with lots of quick passes and a creative running game. It’s part of the reason he’s 8-1 against the Rams as of 2019 with a 93+ point difference. Players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle have been instrumental in the 49ers’ recent success due to their YAC prowess, and outfield runs (or outfield perception, as Scangarello puts it) and gap runs spread the defense laterally for open up lanes for running backs.
The downside to this offense is that it’s not always conducive to many touchdowns. As chunk plays add up and the offense gets closer to the end zone, the field gets smaller and the touchdown opportunity decreases when your offense relies on catch-and-run plays rather than over-the-top shooting. (It should be noted, however, that the 49ers ranked No. 1 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 less for a methodical offense and more for one that hits hard and fast.
“I feel like Mike applied what they did in the old days where you wanted the faster guys, the dynamic guys and he’s constantly threatening you down the field which allows the running game to be efficient because of that threat and what the it does for safeties,” said Scangarello, who worked with McDaniel under Shanahan with the 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. “And when he throws him, those guys are scoring touchdowns.”
This is perhaps the biggest difference, at least ideologically, between McDaniel and Shanahan. While Shanahan seems content to grind a tough game as long as it ends in a win, McDaniel wants to completely wreak havoc on the teams.
“[McDaniel] he’s an attack guy,” Scangarello said. and he will chase you and want to shoot you down.
The Miami Toolbox
The Dolphins were never going to be the Atlantic Coast 49ers due to players already on the roster and those they eventually added. Rather than tailoring his players to attack, McDaniel did the opposite.
Tua Tagovailoa came from a run-pass option (RPO) background in college, so McDaniel tailored his iteration of the offense he knew to his quarterback, similar to how Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III in Washington, Matt Ryan with the Falcons and finally Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers.
Because of this, the Dolphins use a lot of game action (36 percent, second-most in the NFL for SIS) rather than traditional rundown pass attempts (64 percent, second-least in the NFL). The 49ers, meanwhile, rank 21st in play action and 12th in dropbacks. Leaning on Tagovailoa’s strengths helped him become one of the most accurate passers in the NFL: He ranks first in yards per attempt and completion yards per attempt and second in completion percentage and passes on target through Week 11.
McDaniel maintained the same running game to maintain the foundation of the offense as well, bringing Raheem Mostert with him from San Francisco and eventually trading for Jeff Wilson Jr. Both running backs gained notoriety for their understanding of the offense and l ‘they took with them to Miami.
The final piece was Tyreek Hill. The Dolphins already had a first-round burner in 2021 Jaylen Waddle, but Hill adds an extra layer of speed to the offense. Rather than trying to find his receivers in space, all Tagovailoa had to do was hit his pass receivers at precise points, which most of the time are at least 10 yards downfield.
And so far it has 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 50 or more receptions. for SIS. The Dolphins lead the AFC East with a 7-3 record following their bye week and are one game behind No. 1 seed in the conference.
“Mike McDaniel is the smartest football manager I’ve ever met in the profession,” said Scangarello. “And his imagination and his ability to reinvent the offense and make it look different is such an amazing trait that keeps it fresh, keeps it innovative, and I think the way data is collected today and people might look at the movies so fast you continue him before other people. And… that’s a big reason why he’s so efficient.”