Mike McDaniel couldn’t get through the Texans’ postgame news conference without being reminded of the highly-anticipated reunion that was looming.
“Can I get a day?” the first-year Dolphins coach wisecracked.
Throughout the week, McDaniel — who spent the previous five seasons as an assistant in San Francisco — has reiterated that Sunday’s road game against the 49ers (7-4) is not about him.
But to understand the success the Dolphins (8-3) have had this season, you have to look, at least in part, to the offensive ingenuity of McDaniel. And to understand the offensive ingenuity of McDaniel, you have to understand the relationship between him and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
At each of McDaniel’s stops in the NFL before becoming Dolphins coach, he coached alongside Kyle, the son of former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan.
McDaniel started as an intern for Denver in 2005 — years after serving as a ballboy for the Broncos in the ‘90s.
“I think I recognized him as an ambitious coach that got into it to help players,” McDaniel, 39, said of Kyle, 42. “I recognized in him early that he really could help players grow and live out their dreams. He knew more than anybody that I’d been around about football so you try to be a resource and you try not to miss opportunities, especially ones right in front of your face. So maybe he felt bad for me or maybe he recognized that I was listening. Either way, it was a great working relationship that I’m very much grateful, indebted and really don’t know where I’d be without it.”
When Kyle was hired as wide receivers coach on Gary Kubiak’s staff in Houston the next year, McDaniel was paired with him as an offensive assistant.
“When I was a receiver coach at 26, he was the [quality control coach] but they put him in my room,” Kyle told San Francisco-area reporters. “So wherever I went, except a couple years he was out [of the NFL], he was always my assistant, so we were always grooming him and working on things together.”
By 2008, Kyle had been promoted to offensive coordinator with the Texans and he’d move on to coordinator positions with the then-Redskins, Browns and Falcons. Though McDaniel was also elevated to coaching wide receivers, Kyle said McDaniel may have benefited the most from several years in a quality control role, where he was exposed to all aspects of the game as opposed to overseeing one position.
“I’d always say he was our computer,” Kyle said. Like, ‘What did I say on this last year at this time,’ and Mike could always retain that stuff and was really good at it.”
McDaniel’s star quickly rose when he went to San Francisco with Kyle in 2017. As run game specialist and then run game coordinator, he helped design one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL before he was promoted to offensive coordinator last season. McDaniel has had aspirations of being in the NFL since a young age and he has often credited his preparedness to closely watching Kyle, visualizing how he would handle certain situations — from play-calling to in-game decisions — even before he was hired as a coach.
The Dolphins’ first season under McDaniel has taken on a 49ers flare, from the Shanahan offense McDaniel has installed to the handful of former San Francisco players and coaches who are with him in South Florida. The early returns have been successful, with the 8-3 Dolphins on a five-game winning streak and possessing one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
“It’s cool to watch,” Kyle said of the Dolphins’ offense. “Right when he got Tyreek [Hill], you knew how much that was going to help. Just Tyreek, there are a number of fast people in this league and to me, he’s different than everyone else, probably ever. Just the physicality and speed he runs with. So just some of the things that they can do with him is cool to watch, but the question was watching Tua [Tagovailoa] in the offense and I wasn’t totally sure of that. I remember turning it on in the preseason and watching his first game and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy looks totally different and looks very comfortable,’ and then turned it on Week 1 and I thought he was playing in Week 1 as good as anyone in this league and I don’t think he’s had a game not like that.”
While McDaniel has deflected the attention that has come his way ahead of his return to San Francisco, the game will likely be decided by the wits of two men who spent over a decade together — sharing football knowledge and rising up the coaching ranks.
“It means a little bit more,” running back Raheem Mostert said. “Maybe [McDaniel] might not say it as much, but I know it does, just because he worked with Kyle Shanahan all them years and he was able to do some unbelievable things. Just going back, you get a little anxious. But you get excited because it’s a good opportunity for us to go out there and try to be 9-3. That’s the ultimate goal.”