MIAMI — As the NFL descended on PSD Bank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany, earlier this month, the Miami Dolphins‘ communication staff had to adapt, because the home of fourth-tier German soccer club FSV Frankfurt had no dedicated media room.
Instead, a large VIP room was fitted with several long tables in front of a makeshift lectern, with a canvas Dolphins backdrop behind it. It’s where the team conducted its news conferences.
Before the first practice of the week on Wednesday, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel made his way to the front of the room dressed as if he never left Miami — in a black hoodie and matching sweatpants, with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his pants above his calves. A large gold watch on his left wrist reflected the fluorescent lights.
“I know what you guys are thinking,” the 5-foot-9 coach said as he stepped to the microphone. “I’m bigger in person.
The joke didn’t land with the international media who had never seen him before, but he kept going.
“This is a bigger room, I could get used to this,” he said before gesturing toward a Dolphins staffer. “Make a note.”
If the news conferences of laconic New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick are defined by short, terse answers that don’t convey much information, such as “It’s on to Cincinnati,” then McDaniel is the anti-Belichick. With an often-sarcastic, deadpan delivery, McDaniel’s comedic replies to otherwise mundane topics have endeared him even to fans of rival teams.
Ever since the Dolphins gave him his first head-coaching job in March 2022, McDaniel has been unapologetically himself. He has been introspective about his history with alcohol abuse, emotional when discussing the concussions of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and never afraid to attempt humor. And he’s also considered a top candidate for Coach of the Year.
“My intent is never to go viral, and honestly, if I say something in jest that nobody laughs at, sometimes that’s the funniest outcome for me,” he said. “So I pay it no mind.
“I’m not trying to be anything but myself. I’m very aware that sometimes myself doesn’t come off hilarious to everybody, and it is what it is.”
McDaniel’s lighthearted approach does more than inspire Halloween costumes or attract millions of views on social media.
It creates an environment his players enjoy.
“The dynamic we have in the locker room, and even with the coaching staff and everything … it’s probably the favorite thing about this sport for me,” Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips said. “It’s really a beautiful thing, and I really appreciate Mike and [general manager] Chris [Grier] and really everyone in this building, who like I said, [it] starts from the top down.”
On the field
During the Bears’ home game against the Dolphins on Nov. 6, 2022, Fields passed for 123 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score and set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game with 178.
One of those scrambles led him right past McDaniel on Miami’s sideline.
“Stop it,” McDaniel told a smiling Fields as the quarterback jogged back onto the field.
“I just wanted him to stop scrambling, and it was pretty irritating because he didn’t listen at all,” McDaniel said after the game. “He didn’t take the coaching.
“I think other coaches can learn from my experience that he does not listen, so rely on other tactics.”
McDaniel’s sideline antics weren’t universally beloved in his first season as a head coach. He was criticized during the Dolphins’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills when television cameras appeared to capture him inconspicuously smoking a vape pen between plays.
It was widely discussed, albeit not by McDaniel, and even wound up in the Los Angeles Chargers’ schedule release video.
McDaniel didn’t publicly address it until an appearance on the “Pardon My Take” podcast in June, when he was asked whether he was actually vaping.
“Hmm, what a confusing question,” he said. “I don’t know this technology which you speak of.
“Having said that, I will leave you with this — in past lives, I have vaped. Regardless, just the idea of that being something that people are talking about after a playoff game is annoying enough to provoke me to never do it again, and I’ve since quit.”
In Miami’s season opener against the Chargers, McDaniel was featured on the video board at SoFi Stadium during a coach’s challenge. When he saw himself on the board, he attempted some misdirection by saying — and mouthing the words very clearly — “run the ball the next five plays,” several times.
While some coaches may ignore television cameras, McDaniel has taken the opposite approach. After a halftime sideline interview during a Week 2 game, McDaniel started jogging toward the locker room. He noticed the cameraperson was jogging alongside him, so McDaniel tore into a full sprint.
Mike McDaniel is funny for this 😂
📺: NBC pic.twitter.com/WPBYYsyjPF
— ESPN (@espn) September 18, 2023
He also ducked behind an assistant coach to hide from a camera when the Dolphins arrived in Germany.
Sometimes, there’s a deeper meaning to his quirks.
After practice on one particularly hot day in June 2022, McDaniel was asked whether the team had any moisture-wicking clothing for him to wear. He was wearing a perspiration-soaked version of his now-trademark sweatshirt and sweatpants.
He replied that staff members offer appropriate clothing to him regularly, but his attire was purposely curated out of empathy.
“Honestly, it’s the best way that I can keep in tune to what the players are going through,” he said. “At least I have an idea of how hot it is, otherwise you’ll kind of lose sight of that and then you’ll be doing too many reps, causing soft tissue injuries and all that nonsense.”
At the podium
Apparel is important to McDaniel, as was evident on Oct. 15, when he stopped mid-answer during a media session and stared over the lectern.
“Sorry, I got distracted,” he said to a reporter while continuing to look toward the floor. “I love me just a crisp, clean pair of shoes. And your shoes … I need to keep my eyes up.”
It’s the deadpan delivery that has become McDaniel’s trademark.
McDaniel’s sessions are so consistently lighthearted that to hear him take a somber tone is rare. When he does, it’s clear his transparent approach is not a gimmick.
Hours before the Dolphins’ final preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022, the team’s senior vice president of communications and community affairs, Jason Jenkins, died suddenly at 47 years old. A beloved figure in the community and within the franchise, he left behind his wife, Elizabeth, and three children.
McDaniel struggled to fight back tears after the 48-10 win. Gone was the sarcasm and dry humor, replaced by a man struggling to balance his responsibilities as a coach with his emotions.
“As the head coach, I didn’t really know what to do,” he said. “This was maybe a couple of hours before the game that we heard he was having trouble. Then speaking with the people that had worked with him for the longest that had spent intimate time with him for an extended period of time, I was really at a loss. Like, hey, what do I do about this, because I just couldn’t stop thinking about everyone that’s affected.
“I think it was Chris that said, ‘Dude, he would want you to do what you do.’ So that’s all I thought of. It at least gave me direction. When Chris said that, I was able to say, ‘OK, I have a job to do,’ and then it was just all right.”
On his own
Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. was a nervous wreck — his words — in the minutes leading up to his workout with McDaniel at North Texas in 2018.
McDaniel, who was the San Francisco 49ers‘ run game coordinator at the time, had used a vacation day to fly to Denton, Texas, to work out undrafted free agents. Wilson said he felt uptight before the workout, sweaty palms and all.
Until McDaniel did what McDaniel does.
“The first thing Mike does, comes in and he makes a joke, and I just bust out laughing,” Wilson said. “It was like the ice was broken, so after that, it just felt as if I’d been working with this guy all my life.
“You just felt the love. We didn’t even know each other then, so that was real cool. I’ll never forget that day.”
McDaniel was fired from his job as an offensive analyst for the Houston Texans in 2008, when then-coach Gary Kubiak believed the 25-year-old McDaniel needed a life lesson.
“Your priorities are a little mixed up, and you’re going out too much,” Kubiak told him. “And I think you need to get that figured out.”
McDaniel told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington that Kubiak had a habit of calling his assistants’ phones to make sure they were at work on time. On two occasions, the calls to McDaniel went unanswered.
McDaniel admitted his alcohol abuse led to his excommunication from the NFL. He spent two years with the now-defunct UFL’s Sacramento Mountain Lions under late coach Dennis Green.
He worked under offensive coordinator Mike Kruczek as the team’s running backs coach, living at a Hilton hotel near Sacramento State’s campus.
“The thing that impressed me was obviously his intelligence, his outgoing personality,” Kruczek said. “He had a good sense of humor and related to players extremely well, especially the guys he coached.”
Kruczek said McDaniel spoke repeatedly about his goal of returning to the NFL, which he eventually did with Washington in 2011. McDaniel told Darlington that during his 865 days in the UFL, he vowed to be at work before the sun rose so as to never squander another opportunity. That number, 865, is written on an index card pinned to a wall in his office — a daily reminder of his motivation to keep showing up.
McDaniel’s struggles with alcohol abuse continued until 2016, when he checked into a rehabilitation center. He has been sober ever since.
Now McDaniel is an early riser, often arriving at the Dolphins’ facility at 3 a.m.
So when does he sleep? Former 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur said McDaniel used to catch up on rest during team flights.
He had a specific process that didn’t waste much time.
“He’d get his Chick-fil-A, he’d have his eight sauces all lined up,” said LaFleur, now the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. “And by the time we even took off, that Chick-fil-A was gone, his table was cleared off, and he put that lay-flat bed down and he’d sleep for five hours. I’d have to wake his ass up, like, ‘Hey dude, we’re here.’
“Those 2 to 3 a.m. morning-type deals, not many people can do that. And so he’d catch up on those flights.”
Work ethic is one of the foundational elements of McDaniel’s reputation. Offensive creativity is another. The 7-3 Dolphins lead the league in yards per game (434.0) and scoring (30.5 PPG).
But McDaniel’s legacy won’t be limited to X’s and O’s. It will include moments of authenticity that some coaches more worried about their image might not be willing to share.
“I still haven’t mastered the art of acting like a camera isn’t there,” he said. “So when I see a camera, I feel super awkward to pretend that I don’t know it’s there already. If it’s running away from it or it’s just something I’m doing in the moment, hopefully that isn’t what I’m known for ultimately, when my tenure is done whenever that time is.
“That’s kind of how I look at it and all the other stuff, it’s easy to not get caught up in viral moments when you have to be told that you went viral, and you don’t really experience it yourself.”