Dolphins' Mike McDaniel: first-year head coach with a lifelong obsession with football
MIAMI GARDENS — Cory Ross spent two years as a backup running back for the Baltimore Ravens before an ankle injury cost him his third season and with it, a job. Other NFL teams didn’t call, but a former NFL coach did. It was Dennis Green, offering a fresh start.
The team: the Sacramento Mountain Lions. For those who don’t recognize them — possibly everybody — they were part of the United Football League. When Ross arrived, he discovered his position coach had unique ideas — so much so that a dozen years later, Ross recalls his knee-jerk reactions to what he was hearing:
“Oh, I don’t know if that works.”
“This never works.”
“Some crazy things.”
The coach was Mike McDaniel, who Thursday was introduced as the 14th head coach in Dolphins history.
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Also fresh in Ross’ mind is what happened next.
“We would do it in practice and I’m like, ‘Oh, that works!’ ” Ross says. “You kind of got locked into everything he said and everything he tried to do because he was just creative in that way. And you knew he was going to be some kind of offensive genius or whatever he’s become now.”
Ross went from being the running back with a bum ankle to the UFL’s offensive player of the year.
Dolphins fans are just getting to know this new coach. Even though McDaniel is only 38, he arrives in South Florida leaving a trail of those who have known him for years. They testify to his creativity, smarts and ability to relate to players. Together, they support why owner Stephen Ross and general manager Chris Grier chose McDaniel despite an absence of head-coaching experience.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Joe Philbin, Adam Gase and Brian Flores also arrived as first-time head coaches. Maybe this try turns out differently, maybe not. Even McDaniel admits winning the news conference counts for nothing in the standings.
Broncos taught Mike McDaniel value of hard work
If you want clues on what the future holds, dive deep into how Mike McDaniel got here.
The story about McDaniel growing up in Greeley, Colo., and riding his bike to Denver Broncos training camp every day at age 8 is well known, but its impact on him, not as much.
McDaniel explained how those days began at 7 a.m. and didn’t end until 7 p.m. How he’d see Broncos players having breakfast, then working, and having lunch, then working some more.
“I think it built sort of this idea that cool things, you have to work for,” he says.
Eventually, he’d land an internship with the Broncos. But back then, the only work he knew involved out-hustling the other kids.
“All I wanted to do was get autographs and be around them,” he says of Broncos players. “I was and continue to be pretty obsessive-compulsive.”
That small receiver ‘had a big heart'
Fast-forward to when McDaniel arrived at Smoky Hill High, a school in suburban Aurora that sends three-fourths of its students to college and is a rival to Cherry Creek, alma mater of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, McDaniel’s friend and former boss. When Dan Gallas arrived at Smoky Hill to coach football, he wasn’t sure what to expect out of a certain receiver.
“I was curious as to what this young man had,” Gallas says. “Because he wasn’t the biggest of stature, but at the same time, he had a big heart.”
When news broke that McDaniel — all 5-feet-8 of him — was hired as an NFL head coach, veteran faculty members shared memories of Mike the student and the high school player.
Bob Kennedy, a post-graduate counselor in McDaniel’s day, recently chatted with a former coach who can’t be surprised at where McDaniel is now.
“His recollection too was ‘not a real big kid, but he had good hands. And he read defenses well,’ ” Kennedy says. “And so he was smart that way, even in high school. He was a wide receiver and I’m sure he took some of that brainpower he had and put that with one of his stronger assets — that he could catch the football.”
“I think he understood the game of football way more than his peers,” he says.
All those summer days, McDaniel hadn’t been just collecting autographs from the Broncos. He was collecting information. Playing, but working.
“As you get older, you figure out that if you want to be good at something, you better be passionate about it,” McDaniel says. “And my OCD made me passionate about one thing and I chose to go after it.”
Tough classes help punch his ticket into Yale
Before he could tap into the connections he formed with the Broncos, including with Mike Shanahan, there was one more chapter to write in his life.
At Smoky Hill, McDaniel excelled in advanced-placement classes — calculus, physics and the like. He asked Kennedy to explain how those credits could apply to college. McDaniel was about to become a Yale man, joining the Class of 2005 and earning a degree in history.
“You could see in him at that young age how much football knowledge he had,” Yale coach Tony Reno says. “ … You could tell it was just saturated in him. And for as bright as he was off the field, he was equally if not more savvy and astute on the field.”
Reno appreciates when players offer suggestions, especially if they have the kind of football knowledge McDaniel did.
“Remember now, he’s spending his time watching meetings with Mike Shanahan and the Broncos,” Reno says. “So his ability and understanding of things was at a different level than our players.”
McDaniel says it “would’ve been irresponsible for me to have all these great leaders in front of me and not bear witness.”
McDaniel was an offensive assistant on the Falcons in 2016, 11 years removed from Yale, yet still wanting to help beat Harvard.
“Mike calls me up and goes, ‘Coach, we’ve got a bye week. I’d love to come up and be with you guys,’ ” Reno says. “So he flies up to Boston on his own dime. He’s with us in the hotel, with us on the sideline, celebrating with us after we won because he was that invested in the legacy of Yale football.”
More recently, Reno asked McDaniel to deliver a pep talk and tell players how his hard work was paying off.
“He spent more time on the phone with me preparing for that call, like he was preparing for a regular-season game,” Reno says. “And he was incredible with the guys on the call. He’s so genuine, he’s so real and our players loved him.”
Not afraid to try unique concepts
After leaving the Houston Texans following the 2008 season, McDaniel was briefly out of the NFL. He spent a year in the United League, battling the same first impressions that continue to amuse him today.
“This is a little guy, doesn’t look like he was a running back,” Ross recalls thinking. “But once you set out in a meeting with him, you already knew he was invested in just learning the game of football and he already had a knowledge that was already pretty crazy.”
So were his ideas.
“He just saw the game different, you know what I’m saying?” Ross says. “He created some things and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if that will work.’ ”
One concept involved a running play that usually began with a handoff. McDaniel drew it up with the quarterback pitching the ball, which told the linebackers and safeties it was an outside-zone run. Except it wasn’t.
“I didn’t know how I was going to slow myself down and be able to hit that hole or be able to hit those two ‘A’ gaps,” Ross says.
They figured that part out. “I do that now when I coach with my running backs,” says Ross, coach of the Quad City Steamwheelers of the Indoor Football League.
McDaniel knew Ross had experience as a receiver, so he turned him into a dual-threat back. Put that together and what do you have? Outside-zone plays that roam inside. Backs catching passes. Receivers taking handoffs. Some of concepts the 49ers run with Deebo Samuel, McDaniel was dabbling in back then, Ross says.
“I’m telling you, he’s always thinking,” Ross says.
They’d go out to eat “and all of a sudden he would pull a napkin out (to diagram a play) and be like, ‘Man, this will work. What do you think about this?’ ” Ross says.
One last thing, Ross says. There was a time McDaniel raved about a quarterback who was a first-round pick but had one touchdown pass entering his fourth NFL season. It was Aaron Rodgers, stuck behind Brett Favre at the time.
“He said, ‘Watch, he’s going to win a Super Bowl. He’s going to be a player of the year,’ ” Ross says.
While Rodgers became a legend, McDaniel made stops in Houston, Sacramento, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta and, for the past five seasons, San Francisco.
“I’ve been preparing for this my entire career,” McDaniel says.
Some in his past might disagree.
The preparation, they’ll say, began when he was that kid pedaling that bicycle and hanging over that restraining rope, knowing one more signature would make his day.