Sometimes even a “dream job” can turn into a nightmare. Happens all the time. But it happens way too frequently to the man occupying the biggest office among Miami Dolphins coaches.
Not only was Mike McDaniel living that dream, but things could not have started better. Players love him. He’s eccentric. It’s funny. It’s authentic. It’s cool. He’s the “mad scientist.” He’s not Brian Flores or Adam Gase.
And, he was winning while doing something no one else could, developing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The national media was hooked.
That all changed during Week 4 of his first year on the job following a much-celebrated victory over the Buffalo Bills. Not the players loving him part. That remains. And he’s still the same innovative, cool guy. But the 39-year-old who looks like you’d run into him at the skatepark is no longer the national media darling.
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Like so many before him, McDaniel has been sucked into the black cloud hanging over the Dolphins.
McDaniel shot to the top of the Coach of the Year favorites, albeit through just three weeks of the season. But the clouds started forming during the four days between that 3-0 start and last Thursday’s game at Cincinnati. The vision of Tagovailoa wobbling, stumbling and unable to walk off the field on his own power late in the first half against the Bills after his head snapped backed and hit the turf was all anyone saw.
That turned into the worst case scenario when the image of that moment was replaced by one even more frightening – Tua taken off the field in Cincinnati on a stretcher moments after his hands froze in a “fencing response” that indicates a traumatic head injury.
In an instant, McDaniel went from poster boy for the next generation of rising, likeable coaches to the most vilified coach in the league. And not just for sending Tua back on the field for the second half against Buffalo and then four days later at Cincinnati, but for comments following the incident that made you wince.
Everyone from coaches to TV analysts ripping Miami Dolphins’ McDaniel
Fellow coaches, former coaches, former players turned analysts, anyone with access to a microphone or a keyboard (and that’s a lot of people) have an opinion about the Tua situation and most start with crushing the Dolphins and their coach.
McDaniel has remained unflappable throughout the scrutiny.
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“It’s one of those things that you recognize as part of my job,” McDaniel said Friday. “I don’t do anything without being extremely accountable and hard on myself. I can say with conviction certain things because I went back and I made sure that the due diligence, that I’ve done everything correctly with all the information given.”
McDaniel has been unwavering in his belief that Tua was handled with caution and care after he struggled to walk off the field against Buffalo. He continues to stick by the story. Tua did not suffer head trauma that game and the cause of his unsteadiness was a back injury.
Even after Thursday’s scary scene that saw players on their knees, some in tears, as Tua was wheeled off the field.
Even with some getting personal, including coach-turned-analyst Rex Ryan who asked: “Would you put your son back in the game?” A question clearly directed at McDaniel for Tua playing the second half against Buffalo.
Or even with one of his peers, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, making strong comments on how another team treated an injured player, a practice that is highly unusual.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw (Thursday) night,” Harbaugh said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw last Sunday. It was just something that was astonishing to see. I’ve been coaching for 40 years now, college, in the NFL, almost 40, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
McDaniel hasn’t helped himself by continuing to double down on his decision to play Tagovailoa in Cincinnati, even after so many publicly feared that what we saw was exactly what could happen. And his postgame news conference, although measured and emotional, will be mostly remembered for one cringeworthy comment.
“The best news that we could get is that everything is checked out, that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”
There is a long list of former NFL players who have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain condition thought to be caused by repeated concussions.
McDaniel linked to Brian Flores, Adam Gase, Joe Philbin …
McDaniel now is part of a beleaguered Dolphins fraternity.
One that includes Flores, who learned quickly what it’s like to be a Dolphins coach. He started his tenure 0-7 and after being fired after the 2021 season, alleging owner Stephen Ross attempted to incentivize him to purposely lose games by offering Flores $100,000 for every loss.
Then there was the NFL investigation that concluded Ross tampered with quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton and cost Ross a $1.5 million fine and suspension.
And Gase, who was fired after three years that included two losing seasons but more embarrassingly, an offensive line coach, Chris Foerster, resigned after a video was posted online showing Foerster snorting two lines of cocaine with a $20 bill. The video was taken while Foerster apparently was working for an NFL team, in his office and preparing for a meeting.
And Joe Philbin, who took the blame for the locker room environment that led to the “Bullygate” scandal in which Jonathan Martin and an assistant trainer were subjected to harassment from fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito and others that included racial slurs, homophobic name calling and sexual taunts.
The list also includes an under-contract Tony Sparano having to deal with Ross wooing Jim Harbaugh; Nick Saban sabotaging Miami’s future by choosing to sign Duante Culpepper over Drew Brees before announcing on Dec. 21, 2006, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” and two weeks later becoming the Alabama coach; Jimmy Johnson starting his tenure with the Dolphins being accused by Don Shula as lobbying for Shula’s job.
“Football is a unique sport,” McDaniel said Friday. “One of the reasons that we love it is there is so much unpredictability, so many variables. It’s also one that is violent and can have injuries. You really comb all things that come across your plate to make sure that you are doing right by everyone involved, specifically – and most importantly and non-negotiable – the human beings, the players.”
With weeks or months of investigations, others will make that determination for McDaniel and the franchise. Games will be secondary until everything is answered and Tua recovers.
It’s all just part of being a coach for the Miami Dolphins, no matter how good it appears things are going.
Tom D’Angelo is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach him email@example.com.