The McDaniel Conundrum
Mike McDaniel arrives in Miami with a proven system and an unusual quarterback. Something has to give.
By all the traditional beats of football, Mike McDaniel arriving in Miami makes a ton of sense. He’s the hotshot assistant who helped power the Shanahan run game at varying spots over the past nine years. With a quarterback the Dolphins are still unsure of, it made sense to go get one of The Guys whose reputation holds that he makes life easier for somewhat limited quarterbacks.
It is the classic cycle: Pair the young quarterback who’s yet to reach his full potential with the offensive guru – then sit back and anticipate parades.
And yet the McDaniel-Tagovailoa fit is a funky one. McDaniel majored in the outside-zone-then-boot world, crafting nifty ways to create leverage advantages in the run game (typically from under center) before punishing defenses with play-action from those same initial run actions. Tagovailoa, by contrast, has played his best football in the league’s most RPO-laden offense.
They’re two styles that flow inorganically. Flow being the keyword. Offensive play calling is all about sequencing — setting up one action with the next action; gathering information on the defense so that you can hit them with a payoff play, or punish an obvious tendency. There should be a rhythm to things. Offenses that typically look disjointed are too often a grab bag of the league’s top concepts — they look great on a whiteboard individually, but they don’t pulse as a collective *cough* Zac Taylor *cough*.
Trying to blend the McDaniel style with what Tagovailoa has done at his best is a tough one to project. Flowing from wide-zone under the gun to a post-wheel RPO from the pistol isn’t a natural fit — you’re bouncing from one offense to the other (Tennessee style) making it all too predictable for the defense.
Trying to marry those styles would inevitably lead to an offense scotch-taped together with ideas rather than one that has an overriding philosophy — and it’s the latter that gets the best out of play-callers as sequencers.
It’s worth going back to what Miami ran with Tagovailoa last season. There was nothing else like it in the NFL; there was nothing else like it anywhere in football!
Listen to any analyst discuss Tua Tagovailoa for more than 15 minutes and you will hear a common refrain. The greatest RPO quarterback of all time. The GREATEST RPO quarterback of all time. The greatest RPO quarterback of ALL TIME.
Hand up. I confess. I’ve used this too. Back in his college days, Tagovailoa ran one of the most creative RPO systems in the country, not so much because of the complexity of the concepts themselves but because of Alabama’s ability to flop reads (switch the read side) on concepts that would not traditionally be flopped. Tagovailoa was part coordinator, part contortionist reading the field one way as he snapped and angled his body the other.
It was magic. It was effective. Tagovailoa served as the conductor of Steve Sarkisian’s wider symphony, reading and ripping the ball to a bevy of first-round picks on the perimeter who would catch the ball on the move (typically wide-open) and go make plays in space. Plugging that quarterback into that system was borderline unfair.
To call it easy would be demeaning to the complexity of what Tagovailoa was asked to do. But it wasn’t as difficult as operating a full-field, multi-progression system, the kind quarterbacks still need to operate at the NFL level.
And while the Tagovailoa refrain was somewhat true at the collegiate level, it has remained a common go-to for analysts in the pros. Left on the cutting room floor are the necessary follow-ups:
Is it true?
What is the value of having the best RPO thrower of all time, at the NFL level?
Is the gulf between the best and the average (or the best and the second-best) big enough to be meaningful?
The answers: No; who knows; most certainly not. By the end of last season, Tom Brady and the Bucs had integrated some intriguing RPOs into their system, RPOs that Brady operated just as effectively (if not more so given how it married up to the rest of the scheme) as Tagovailoa.
Add to that: One of the first things that jumps out when watching Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ brand of RPOs in 2021 was how often Tagovailoa blew the read. Some of that is likely due to how sloppy Miami’s offensive line played. It was brutal in the run-game, and so it’s plausible that Tagovailoa opted to pull the ball on muddied up 50-50 reads because he trusted his arm and Jaylen Waddle’s legs over his offensive line and running back in the run-game.
But that’s not how RPOs are intended to work. There is supposed to be a right choice. What’s the mantra of the RPO movement, the one you hear chanted by offensive coaches and defensive coaches at every level? They make it so that the defense can never be right.
Tagovailoa’s vision remains as strong as ever. The Dolphins flopped reads and changed up the read man consistently, making it tough for defenses to get a beat on what was coming and was being read. Yet that’s no longer a distinguishing feature of a Tua-led offense. It’s that’s the same in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes; at this stage, barring those who abstain from the post-snap RPO world altogether, it’s pretty much the same across the league.
Two things were different about the Dolphins’ idiosyncratic style last season: How far they leaned into the RPO game as the base of their entire offense; the specific designs of their RPOs and what they were intending to get from them.
At the NFL level, given the differences in rules between college and the pros (a lineman can only be one yard downfield instead of three) the RPO game is naturally restricted. Indeed, NFL offenses now (essentially) use RPOs as a layering device so that they can get to deep play-action shots – you run the RPO over and over again as part of your run-game and quick passing game; as opponents start to squeeze down, you set up the same initial run-based action but then sink into a play-action shot.
The Dolphins did things differently. They embraced the second-level and third-level RPO worlds, reading linebackers and safeties. And they did so with the regular intent to push the ball down the field, often to the perimeter, rather than gripping and ripping any number of slants or posts targeting the middle of the field – though such designs also made up a decent bulk of the offense.
Rattle through the team’s games last season or flip through their designs and you can do nothing but laugh. Wait, what is that? Tagovailoa would be routinely asked to read the first-level – typically an unblocked edge defender – before looking to take a downfield shot on a more sophisticated, typical NFL concept: Post-Wheel; Rail-Wheel; Double Snags; Levels.
It. Was. Bonkers. Yes, you saw that right: That’s a post-wheel passing concept tagged with an inside-zone run, from the pistol, off a jet-motion, with an unblocked edge defender standing in the quarterback’s face. Yeesh. The beauty: Both the post and the wheel are open! Take your pick, Mr. Tagovailoa.
Watching the Dolphins’ offense was not for the faint of heart – unless you’re a true-blue football dork. It was aesthetically asphyxiating. In many ways, it was the NFL’s answer to The Power of the Dog: It was visually striking, it spoke to a higher ideal, you knew it was objectively important, but my God was it boring.
For an offense featuring Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki – two of the league’s premier matchup threats – there was little sizzle, just a succession of the same-old, same-old read-and-react concepts, the offense cycling along in seven-yard increments, hitting the same beats over and over again.
Still: This weird, whacky, strange offense kind of, sort of worked. It chugged along.
It was a philosophical stance. The two coordinators – George Godsey and Eric Studesville– settled on the notion that they needed only a handful of concepts, dressed up in a handful of ways, and that by tagging everything with an option, Tagovailoa could read it out, never be wrong, and keep the offense moving. It was, in many ways, the fever dreams of those who loved Rich Rods’ West Virginia team or who spent countless hours mashing the buttons on NCAA 14: Here was an honest-to-goodness NFL offense running the true spread option, basing its entire attack on RPOs.
Did a mention this was IN THE NFL!
From a cojones standpoint, you can only tip your cap – to the designers, play-callers, and quarterbacks. Yet a whole bunch of Miami’s concepts were in essence kamikaze missions for Tagovailoa. Reading an unblocked NFL lineman in order to take a deep shot down the field? Those guys are bigger and quicker in real life than in the playbook. The best of luck to you and yours.
This was really the most efficient way to move the football? The only way to get it upfield in a hurry?
A spread-option-style offense is built on the foundation of attacking with a horizontal stretch and vertical stretch on each design. That can be a motion, a set-up for a bubble, a perimeter running action, or whatever. The goal is to stretch the defense two ways at once – with their eyes or feet – opening seams to puncture down the field, be it with the run or pass.
Miami’s horizontal action was based predominantly out of a bubble (the threat of Waddle on the catch-and-run) or a jet-motion, one that typically turned into a wheel – adding a second, post-snap vertical threat to the proceedings to overload one of the outside zones (a tidy coaching tweak).
The vertical stretch: Mashing the run inside. And, as you know, the quarterback takes his read by optioning one of the defenders. If that read man flows to fit the run, there goes the ball fizzing past his helmet in the passing game. If he stamps his feet or drops out to play the pass, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back.
There’s another Miami classic: The rail-wheel RPO tagged with an inside run — the one diagramed earlier. It’s a basic design. There’s a jet motion that converts into the wheel. On the outside, the receiver has a two-way go, his break based on the leverage of the corner in front of him. Inside, the tight end aligned on the line of scrimmage has a simple rail route, right up the field.
Once again, it’s a first-level read – an unblocked edge defender – aimed at hitting the second-level, a tight end streaking down the field untouched behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties.
It worked as designed. A Giants safety inserted into the box late, fuzzing up the read. The jet motion carried the safety out of the box at the snap, with the boundary corner and safety switching responsibilities. That left a void in the middle of the field, one that the Dolphins’ tight end sidled into.
Tagovailoa pulled the ball. Prancing into space went the Dolphins tight end. The defense can never be right.
Tagovailoa had the seam ball but instead took a beat, even with the unblocked EMOL bearing down. He patted the ball, scanned, reset, bobbed and weaved, and then pushed it out to the flat. What was a well-choreographed look that should have popped for 15 easy yards wound up as a so-so pickup with a free runner in the quarterback’s face – the quarterback then having to dance just to get the ball out before he was rocked. Is that good design or bad design?
What was unique (read: odd) about Miami’s offense as a whole was how self-limiting they were to their quarterback. Everything was about dividing the field in half, and forcing him to quick-trigger a decision with a free runner flying in his face, rather than trying to read the movement or feet of a linebacker or safety, as is traditional on second-level and third-level reads.
The goal, the Dolphins would claim, would be to swamp zones, to overload certain portions of the field on read-or-throw decisions, making life easier for the quarterback – and to force the quarterback into instant decisions. And there’s validity to that. But this isn’t the high school level where QBs must be spoon-fed. It’s the pros: Anything that purposefully annexes large portions of the field makes life all sorts of easier for the defense rather than the offense.
Yet as Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ staff settled on their own brand of second-level and third-level RPOs, as they leaned all the way into the run-after-the-catch threat, the offense took off. Sure, it was unlikely to make its way into the footballing Louvre any time soon, but it was effective for this quarterback playing behind a dodgy offensive line.
Over the course of the first six weeks of the season, Tagovailoa sat a worrying 18th in the EPA + CPOE Composite. EPA+CPOE is about as close as you can get, statistically, to calculating how valuable a quarterback is to his team. It doesn’t use raw output to measure a quarterback’s success. It pairs nerdy metrics with the NFL’s Next Gen data – the chips in the pads of players – to spit out a composite score. It’s measuring both the value of the play and how much the quarterback impacted that play above what would be expected based on historical baselines.
From week seven onwards, when things started to click for the Dolphins, Tagovailoa jumped up to 13th, ahead of Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray, a banged-up Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson.
The use of the post-wheel contraption — sometimes reading the end man on the line of scrimmage, sometimes a second-level defender, and switching up who ran what routes — as a way to push the ball vertically took on near meme-level proportions.
Yes, that’s pro football in 2021. This too:
Running such a pedestrian read-and-react system in the NFL, however, comes with a basic structural flaw. Defensive coaches know the solution: Four down, four deep. The Jets ran a basic brand of match-quarters coverage during their Week 11 matchup against Miami and stifled the offense – anything that headed vertical was hit with man-coverage, anything that slipped underneath was left alone, with the DBs sliding into deep zones. The answer to RPOs has long been to play bump-and-run coverage to disrupt the timing of the pass portion. And when you’re routinely leaving the first-level unblocked, you don’t exactly have any time to be faffing about with receivers trying to separate from press coverage, which leads to pitch-then-hope football, and an offense bogging down.
After struggling early, a ropey Jets defense moved into its four-across look later in the second half, and beat up on Miami’s predictable set-up. They forced the give, the Dolphins’ iffy line unable to push the Jets front off the ball. Pushing the Dolphins into third-and-medium or third-and-long, into a traditional dropback offense, was the best way to get off the field vs. Tagovailoa in 2021. He ranked 24th among eligible quarterbacks in opponent-adjusted EPA per play on third downs, behind Daniel Jones, Teddy Bridgewater, and a fossilized Ben Roethlisberger.
That’s not all (or even mostly) on the quarterback. He was playing behind an offensive line that allowed a historic amount of pressure. And he was playing in a system that was stilted by design.
To allow Tagovailoa to really cut it loose as a traditional dropback quarterback, they needed to give him a shot to do so, to remove the training wheels to see what they had. Instead, the Dolphins took the safe route; they settled into a read-and-react offense that emphasized Tagovailoa’s strengths (that’s good!) while becoming all too predictable (that’s bad!), with too obvious a solution (that’s a problem!), one easy enough for stinky defenses to enact without any issues (that’s a major issue!).
Miami’s answer to any and all stylistic issues between coach and quarterback appears to be: Tyreek Hill!
We can go back and forth on whether trading five draft picks for a 28-year-old wide receiver whose principal asset is his game-breaking speed is a smart move or not. NFL history indicates that it’s probably not.
But for this team with this quarterback, it makes sense. Hill is the only offensive player in the league who completely tilts the geography of the field. Deebo Samuel gets there some, but only Hill commands the attention of three-four-five defenders on a snap-by-snap basis. And this now for a quarterback who so often has worked to pre-defined areas of the field rather than scanning.
Look at this: It’s the most basic of bubble-zone RPOs. Hill is on the bubble; the run is working away from Hill. Watch as the receiver moves at the snap.
Look! I mean… come on, people! What are we even doing here? The Bears have five defenders with their eyes or feet fixed on Hill, knowing they’ll need to effort over if he – as expected – makes the first man miss in space. Meanwhile, the running back goes shooting out the backdoor, with the Bears defense out-leveraging itself to the short side of the field.
That’s not coaching. That’s not smarts. It’s a natural instinct. That dude is SO much faster than us that we need to cheat over to make sure we get there in time. And you can stack up double-digit examples from any of Hill’s games.
You can’t teach that. Most often, you can’t defend it either. Oh, and Miami now has two of those guys – Jaylen Waddle to go along with Hill.
In the RPO world, there has been no greater force multiplier than Tyreek Hill: He forces radical shifts in the set-up and coverage shells of the defense, in a way no other receiver in the game does – allowing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to rip off easy, chunk yardage, both by getting the ball to Hill on the move with an advantage (the defense fitting the run) or running the ball into a lighter box.
All of which raises an interesting question: Will McDaniel run his traditional wide-zone-then-boot system from under center with Tagovailoa, Hill, Waddle, and Mike Gesicki (a glorified wide receiver who identifies as a tight end)? Will he spin the gravitational pull of Hill and those vintage deep-over routes that he ran in KC to buy Tagovailoa a little extra time as he learns to operate in a more traditional, play-action centric, footwork and timing-based offense?
Or, would it make more sense to lean back into the RPO, athletes-in-space world? If you have a point guard style quarterback, one who wants to flick his wrist and get on with the game in double-time, surrounded by some of the best one-on-one playmakers in space in football… would it not make sense to continue to push the approach the Dolphins adopted in 2021 rather than try to squeeze them into McDaniel’s already well-calibrated system? Should the coach adapt the style that got him his shot at the job or should the players?
McDaniel could try to juggle the two. When Trey Lance came into the line-up in San Francisco last season, the Niners run-game coordinator showed off a whole bunch of fancy new designs from the pistol – almost all ripped right from Greg Roman’s playbook in Baltimore. There were stylish hesitation blocks, an uptick in RPOs, and play-action shots that flowed nicely off those same run and RPO actions.
But Lance is a rushing threat. Tagovailoa is not. To flip from one offense to the other (wide zone to the pistol-centric get-up) is easier when your quarterback accounts as an extra man in the run game – be it the designed run-game or taking off on boot-actions.
Tagovailoa doesn’t offer that. Which will inevitably lead McDaniel to a simple series of options: does he want to try to find a way to blend the two styles? Does he want to shift towards Tagovailoa’s approach to get his best athletes in space, utilizing more spread principles? Or does he remain a doctrinaire, giving his young quarterback a shot to embrace the new system, before pulling the ripcord and moving to ‘ol reliable Teddy if Tagovailoa’s skill-set does not match with McDaniel’s core principles?
Bringing in Teddy Bridgewater felt like Miami taking out an insurance policy against Tagovailoa being unable to fully command and operate the McDaniel system – working from under center (turning his back to the defense and then having to reset and re-scan, unlike the full-field vision systems he’s operated in both in college and the pros); setting and resetting protections; his play-action ball handling and footwork to plant and throw (this, for Tagovailoa specifically, matters, because he’s shifted how he loads and throws since his hip injury, something I discussed in more detail here).
Consensus holds that the Shanahan-McDaniel system makes life simpler for its quarterback. There’s truth to that. But a number of the principal designs call on a quarterback to layer the ball, dropping it over linebackers and in front of safeties, an area that has been a particular bugaboo for Tagovailoa in the pros.
On none play-action throws last year, Tagovailoa averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt, comfortably below the league average, tossing eight touchdowns to eight interceptions – a wince-inducing ratio. The number of concerning, what-was-he-thinking throws doubled that.
Tagovailoa ranked 28th among eligible quarterbacks in the volume of throws he targeted to the intermediate level last year. By comparison, he ranked 11th on throws under ten yards and 14th on throws aimed at 20-yards or more. Sure, he missed time, and that blurs some of the figures, but the discrepancy is stark – and matches his college days: It’s pump or dump football.
And there’s no shame in that! Players should play to their strengths, and play in systems built around those strengths. A McDaniel-Shanahan offense targets move routes at the second level, catch-and-run opportunities that fall over the linebackers, and offer a tight or receiver the chance to out-pace the secondary. Misdirection helps to shuffle those linebackers to open up passing windows (Jimmy Garoppolo, for instance, stinks at layering the ball) but that’s not an every down workaround. At some point, the system calls for a quarterback to take a straight drop back and flip it into the bucket.
Can Tagovailoa do that? Who knows! Some players grow in increments, using one tool to unlock another. Tagovailoa has not been a particularly potent, effective, or efficient layer-er of the ball at any point in his career (at Alabama or with the Dolphins). Six of his ten interceptions charted last season came in the intermediate zone, a gnarly figure. That’s not unusual for aggressive quarterbacks, so long as the good in that zone outpaces the bad. For Tagovailoa, it did not: He finished with a passer rating on throws between 10-19 yards of 68.6, almost 30 points below the league average, per ProFootballFocus.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be a player who lights up the intermediate part of the field; he’s just a long way from being that player right now. For some, it never clicks. Most do not have to overhaul their lower body mechanics due to an injury.
If Tagovailoa is to ever operate the McDaniel offense as we know it, there would need to be an immediate leap in his ability to target that area. It’s why handing Bridgewater $6.5 million feels like more than injury cover — Bridgewater has spent the bulk of his career in play-action-focused offenses.
McDaniel has walked into a great spot: He has as strong a pass-catching corps as anywhere in the league; the Dolphins added Terron Armstead in free agency, an elite left tackle (when healthy), and as big an upgrade from one player to the next as any team managed to pull off this offseason; they have oodles of cap space and draft picks moving forward, too, even after the Hill deal – allowing them to pursue a big-name quarterback in the future, to continue to build around a talented core, or to move up to try to land a talented quarterback in the draft next season.
As starting points go for your first head coaching gig, it doesn’t get much better. And yet the biggest question for the self-styled scheme nerd is the most basic of all: What exactly will he run?
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