Mike McDaniel And Don Shula – A Tale of Two Coaches – Part One

June 17, 2022

Mike McDaniel came to the Miami Dolphins this offseason with a large amount of fanfare and media interest. His career as an assistant coach and offensive wunderkind has turned heads for years. Some say he has an offensive mind that’s on a level with legendary coaches Joe Gibbs, Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh, Andy Reid, and Hank Stram.

From Shula To McDaniel

Right now, at least to me, McDaniel reminds me of another historic coach…Don Shula.

Let’s borrow the Wayback Machine from Mr. Peabody and his pet boy, Sherman. Setting the dial back to 1970.

Don Shula, just turning 40 years old, is the head coach of the Baltimore Colts and the youngest head coach in the NFL. For seven years in Baltimore, he consistently took his teams to the playoffs, but couldn’t win a title. He changed that in 1968, leading his Colts to the NFL (now the NFC) Championship game. They beat the Browns in a 34-0 blowout and were the favorites to win Super Bowl III against the AFL Champion New York Jets.

You may remember a guy named Joe Namath guaranteed otherwise.

Thanks to Namath, and a great supporting cast of AFL stalwarts, tired of being told their league was inferior, dominated the Colts and won decisively, 16 – 7.

The word around the league was that Shula couldn’t win the “Big Game”. In an era when NFL and AFL owners were licking their wounds after an almost decade long war, the opinion among the older, more established NFL franchises, Shula’s reputation as a wunderkind diminished.

Enter Joe Robbie, the cash strapped owner of the Miami Dolphins, who back in 1966, could barely afford to pay the cleaning bill for game uniforms, and other necessities. Now in 1970, thanks to the AFL – NFL merger, had seen the value of his team increase. In turn, he had additional revenue that he could use to improve his team. He needed a big splash, the question was, would that big splash be signing a big-name free agent? Maybe a hot young draft pick? Does Robbie entice an established head coach to come to Miami? One who could turn the crop of young talent into a consistent winner.

Robbie noticed Shula’s consistent ability to keep his teams in the hunt regardless of injured starters. Earl Morrall often came off the bench while Johnny Unitas recovered from various injuries. How Shula utilized his position coaches to change up schemes tailored to whomever was in the huddle. Robbie knew that current head coach George Wilson, despite his previous success in Detroit, was not up to the task to take the Dolphins to the next level. He was intrigued by the rumblings heard amongst league executives that Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom had lost faith in Shula.

As for Shula, he had heard the gossip, and he knew his relationship with Rosenbloom had soured. However, he still had faith in himself, and what he called the “Winning Edge” philosophy. Perhaps another team could provide a fresh opportunity to prove himself. Joe Robbie gave him that chance, and lured Shula to Miami with a big contract and a seat at the table in the front office.

Miami had some young talent at the time, but Coach Wilson couldn’t get them to gel and finished the 1969 season 3-10-1. Shula watched the film and saw that these young players had flashes of brilliance and began looking for ways to utilize their skill sets.

The 1969 roster included future legends Bob Griese, Dick Anderson, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, Jim Kiick, Manny Fernandez, Mercury Morris, and the acquisition of Nick Buoniconti from the Patriots. But at the time, they seemed far from legendary.

Except for Buoniconti, no one really knew who these guys were. In 1969, most football fans didn’t really care who they were either. The few fans that did could barely fill a third of the seats in the Orange Bowl.

1970 – Shula’s First Year With The Dolphins

In 1970, Shula’s first season at the helm, he traded for wide receiver Paul Warfield from the Browns. Shula also brought on board Michigan tight end Jim Mandich, South Dakota State guard Jim Langer, and an Armenian-Cypriot college soccer star turned kicker named Garo Yepremian. The fans and the media were nonplussed.

In 1970 the X-Factor was Shula’s “Winning Edge” philosophy. A no nonsense work ethic combined with tailoring the game planning around the strengths of each of these players. In fact, this became Shula’s stock in trade for the rest of his career. The Dolphins secured a 10 – 4 record, including the Dolphins’ first ever postseason appearance of his career. In 1970, he had a core defense, 3 able running backs, and an improving offensive line. Shula built the game around that. This allowed Griese to throw less, but when he did, Warfield, Mandich, and others made big plays. The payoff was the Dolphins first winning season, going 10 – 4, capped off by their first trip to the playoffs.

Time to say goodbye to 1970 and hitch a ride back to the present in the Wayback Machine. Thanks again Mr. Peabody.

McDaniel (just two years younger than Shula was when he arrived in Miami) finds himself this year in similar circumstances. The core of a potentially stout defense, some strong playmakers on offense (Jaylen Waddle, Mike Gesicki), and, still under the microscope, third year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Who, along with the rest of us, is hoping that a new system can maximize his talents.

Just like with Shula decades before, there are questions about McDaniel. Can he transition from play design to play calling? Will his laid-back personal style prevent him from getting his players to work hard? Is he really that brilliant, or is he piggybacking off the Shanahan offensive model? Will the front office partner with him to make his vision a reality?

The free agency pickups this offseason suggest that the answer to that last question is a resounding “Yes”! McDaniel apparently had a wish list of players, and GM Chris Grier delivered. Signings include running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, receiver Cedrick Wilson, guard Connor Williams, and veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to serve as a capable backup/mentor to Tagovailoa. The icing on the cake, of course, were the big splash signings of superstars Tyreek Hill at WR, and Terron Armstead to help bring some much-needed help on the offensive line.

No one in 1970 expected that group of players to achieve success, yet just a few short years later, Shula led Miami to three straight Super Bowl appearances (winning two) and a perfect season. Six of those “nobodies” from 1970 are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Shula and personnel genius Bobby Beathard, a key figure in Miami’s scouting and drafting, have also been enshrined in the Hall.

With the signings of Hill and Armstead, along with the returning core group of players, the expectations are much higher than in 1970. McDaniel has heavy tasks ahead of him – Reviving an offensive line and providing tools for the unfairly maligned Tagovailoa. The restoration of a once proud and consistently successful franchise is at stake.

To be sure, McDaniel must win games. That’s the only true measure of success. His track record shows he has a positive impact on the players he’s coached and getting them to perform consistently at a high level. During OTA’s his player focused approach has won him fans in both the locker room and the media. The players seem to be both relaxed and focused. Like Shula, he doesn’t force square pegs through round holes. Perhaps that’s McDaniel’s “Winning Edge.”

Throughout the upcoming season, during training camp, preseason games, and at various points across the 18 weeks of play, I’ll be documenting McDaniel’s journey in his first year and see where he might meet, or possibly even exceed the benchmark set by Shula 52 years ago. Will Mike McDaniel repeat history and coach his team to double digit wins and a playoff spot? Can he demonstrate the same flair for improvisation and adaptation that made Shula a 347-game winning Hall of Famer?

You only need to look at the past to see the potential of this moment. That alone is cause for anticipation and excitement.