Very nice that the Dolphins’ bye week synced up perfectly this year with the lead-in to Thanksgiving week. In this spirit, I’ve been pondering some of the aspects of this 2022 squad that have brought me joy - something that we Fins fans haven’t often felt in Thanksgiving weeks past.
Given the team’s success so far this season, there are easily more than five things that one could write about. I’m keeping it to five for the sake of brevity (we’ve all got food to prepare and/or eat right about now) and to allow me to focus on the most striking differences between the 2022 version of the Miami Dolphins and the perennially frustrating versions of the last 10 to 15 years.
These are in no particular order:
#1: A Reliably Excellent Passing Attack
Serious question: when was the last time the Dolphins finished a season top 10 in passing yards? Surprisingly, it was the Wildcat year of 2008, when they finished in exactly the 10th spot (thanks, Chad Pennington and the rest of the Wildcat QB Committee, Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown). The last time the team finished top 5 in passing? A full twenty-five years ago, in 1997. Currently, the Dolphins are #3 in the league in passing yards per game, and it’s been a blast to watch.
The people behind this are many. A top-notch receiving corps, headlined by Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle. Reliable next-level guys like Trent Sherfield and Mike Gesicki. A savvy, modern offensive coaching staff that includes experienced coaching minds and some great former players like Wes Welker. Under new head coach Mike McDaniel (I’ll get to him later), it’s all come together to create a dynamic passing attack that fits third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s impressive skillset to a T.
The result has been an offense that, for the first time since the Jimmy Johnson era, I have tremendous confidence can move the ball through the air nearly at will. With Marino as my witness, I had forgotten what that was like as a Fins fan.
#2: Tyreek Hill
As a member of the Dolphins, Hill has exceeded the lofty expectations that fetched the heap of draft picks and cash Chris Grier exchanged for his services. A good part of this wasn’t surprising. Anyone who watched more than a few Chiefs games between 2016 and 2021 could see the insane speed, the hands, and the route-running that were such a huge part of the Chiefs’ historically berserk offense. With the Dolphins this season, all of those skills have been there in spades. What I didn’t realize was how damn strong the guy is for a 5’10” speedster. Or how willing he is to scrap and claw for 50/50 balls. Or how he constantly fights for the extra yards. Or how he’s a hype man on the level of Flavor Flav or B Real. Or how much his swagger just raises the bar of expectation for everyone on this offense. “Get me involved,” his every movement seems to scream, “and I’m gonna fight like hell to create some magic to make damn sure we win this game.”
Along with Tua and Terron Armstead (more on him in a moment), Hill is the player more responsible than anyone for the massive leap this offense has taken.
#3: An Offensive Line
It’s not world-beating, but this offensive line has done nothing but improve over the season and has served the offense well. Not the easiest thing to manage, either, when you lose your starting right tackle from early in the first game through week 10 and counting, along with your starting left guard in game eight. Granted, neither Austin Jackson nor Liam Eichenberg was going to be confused with a Pro Bowler, but Jackson was looking OK and Eichenberg was starting to show some signs.
When injuries like this happened in the past, especially under Brian Flores, we would see head-scratching shifts of linemen all over the place. I can easily imagine how Flores would have directed his offensive coaches to move Connor Williams from center to left guard, where he has more experience. Then moving at least one other guy, and/or bringing up a less-talented backup or two, shattering as much continuity as possible. That’s not what happened, though. Instead, the coaches kept the three healthy linemen in the places where they were excelling: Armstead at left tackle (naturally), Williams at center, and Big Bob Hunt at right guard. They elevated Robert Jones and Brandon Shell, and while it hasn’t been totally smooth at all times, it’s been plenty effective in recent weeks. And just how good has Terron Armstead been? Phenomenal. It’s baffling how seemingly easy that man routinely embarrasses opposing pass rushers (trust me, I know it’s vastly more difficult than he makes it look), all while nursing several leg injuries.
The last time I recall having even a semi-reliable offensive line was during that roughly seven or eight-game stretch in 2016 when Mike Pouncey got healthy mid-season and rounded out a really talented group that included then-rookie Laremy Tunsil (at left guard), perennial Pro Bowler Branden Albert, and Ja’Wuan James before his horrific injury luck started striking after leaving the Fins. It's just nice to once again see a line that, with decent consistency, can provide some running lanes and pass protection that allows an offense to flow the way it should.
#4: The Interior Defensive Line
I love these dudes. To me, Christian Wilkins still just doesn’t get enough credit for everything he’s done with and for the Dolphins. He was the very first draft pick of the Dolphins in 2019, one of the most scorched-earth rebuild seasons in NFL history. Despite knowing that he was joining a team that had so little legitimate NFL talent, Wilkins was always immensely positive and always brought his A-game. And it hasn’t stopped since, with the man playing at a Pro Bowl level for a couple of years now, even if he hasn’t gotten the nod from the voters. He’s been terrorizing interior offensive linemen for three and a half seasons now and shows no signs of stopping, all the while keeping spirits high with his laughter, swagger, and (mostly) good-natured trash talk.
Wilkins has not been alone, either. With nary a “marquee” free agent acquisition or draft pick, the rotation of Dolphins defensive tackles has been monstrous. John Jenkins. Zach Sieler. Raekwon Davis. They’ve all pitched in, with Sieler especially coming up big again and again. For a few years now, this defensive interior has been about as difficult to run against as any in the NFL, and it’s a delight to behold. In the same way I feel about the passing offense’s ability to move the ball, I feel just as confident that any attempt by an opposing offenses to run up the middle is going to get stuffed like a turkey this November 24th.
#5: Modern Head Coaching
You knew it was coming, right? I couldn’t put together a list like this and not devote a long passage to Mike McDaniel.
I was skeptical, like many. By all accounts, the Yale grad who looks like an IT department manager wasn’t Stephen Ross or Chris Grier’s first choice. When he was selected, I convinced myself to be happy that they at least weren’t going with a retread or some complete no-name. McDaniel did have a fairly solid resume, if not exactly the look of a classic, steely-eyed head coach from the jaded Nixon era that produced Don Shula and Chuck Noll. McDaniel’s enthusiasm also had a tinge of the try-hard college T.A. attempting to win his tutees over with sly jokes and knowing gazes.
But you know what? The dude is good. Yes, he’s wry. Yes, he’s brainy. No, he’s never going to pass up a chance for a quip at a press conference, which can have a mild “smartest guy in the room” feel to it. He also feels completely authentic, and he has long since embraced something that many old-school football coaches have still yet to figure out: that more and more 21st-century professional athletes want to be treated like fully-formed people and not the Marine Corps basic trainees in Full Metal Jacket. The “my way or the highway” system is dying with Bill Belichick - just ask all of his many acolytes who have tried it in the last 15 years and had large swaths of their players turn on them in two seasons or less. McDaniel has embraced a far greater amount of transparency with everyone, which works really well when you understand human psychology and know that the hell you’re doing. And Mikey McD sure seems like he’s really good at both.
No, he hasn’t been perfect. No coach is, not even the greats. This is especially true during a head coach’s first season or three. But here are just a few not-so-insignificant accomplishments of Mike McDaniel, despite a few little warts:
- Week 1: bags a win in his very first game over none other than Bill “Second Most Wins in NFL history” Belichick, a man who eats rookie head coaches for breakfast. Instead of shrinking under the resume and ice-cold gaze of the inhuman Belichick across the sideline, McDaniel oversaw a steady, 20-7 choke-out of the Patriots.
- Week 2: Kept his team together after they were down 28-7 at the half and 35-14 after three quarters on the road against the Ravens, a team that has bullied them worse than any team in the last 15 years. They whipped up a historic comeback without ever losing hope.
- Week 3: He keeps his team together enough to finally bag a win against Buffalo, against whom they had lost 7 straight. It wasn’t pretty, and the south Florida climate lent a helping hand, but the team pulled off an improbable win.
- Weeks 4 through 6: Minus Tua Tagovailoa, the Fins lost all three of these, but McDaniel never lost poise. He never whined about the league’s inconsistent concussion protocols or rules. He never made excuses. And despite the bizarre QB carousel he had to employ, he kept his teams in all three games, with the 4th quarter of the Jets game being the lone exception.
- Weeks 7 to current: McDaniel has brought it all together and given us the first three things this article describes my gratitude for: an offense that looks quite literally good enough to carry a team through a nice playoff run.
Honestly, Mike McDaniel feels like such a vast improvement over all the previous 21st-century, permanent head coaches Miami has had. It’s not even that they were necessarily all bad. Some had redeeming qualities. It’s just that by the time they all got fired, it was very clear that they were in over their heads with the HC gig. Wannstedt was good on defense but one-dimensional on offense. Saban was similar, and a monstrous A-hole to boot. Flores was also creative and motivational defensively but utterly lost in managing the offensive side of the ball. I know it’s early yet, but I really don’t see any of those red flags with McDaniel - the red flags that we all saw but consciously ignored with so many of his predecessors. He didn’t just hire his buddies or random yes-men from further down the coaching chain. He was self-assured enough to hire or retain experienced hands and he’s gotten out of their way when the situation calls for it. Like everything else on this list, Mike McDaniel gives me a sense of confidence unlike any I’ve felt in a long time with the head coaching position.
For all of these things listed here and many more in the professional American football world, I am grateful. For those who have found some time to break away from the family, friends, food, and football to read this humble article, how about you? What in the world of Fins football are you thankful for? Any of the things I go on about here? Others? I know there are plenty to be had (I barely mentioned QB1 in this article, amazingly). Drop a comment down below, and let’s celebrate together.
I hope everyone has a happy, safe, and enriching Thanksgiving.