There’s been a noticeable change in the Dolphins’ Week 11 opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders.
Players have been lighting celebratory cigars after their last two wins, both of which have been coming after the firing of Josh McDaniels as head coach on Nov. 1. There’s been a loose and jovial mood around Las Vegas’ facility under interim coach Antonio Pierce.
While addressing local reporters, interim general manager Champ Kelly spoke about the opportunity to “create a culture” that’s collaborative and prioritizes “commitment and extreme communication.”
Both McDaniels and Mike McDaniel were hired in the 2022 coaching carousel, McDaniels joining the Raiders in late January and then the Dolphins hiring McDaniel about a week later.
But as McDaniels, whose second stint as a head coach ended just 21 months later, struggled to connect across the locker room and produced desired results, McDaniel’s unique style has proved to be a perfect fit for the Dolphins (6-3), who will host the Raiders (5-5) at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
There were questions about how the personality of McDaniel — humorous, quirky and at times self-deprecating — would resonate within a locker room. Could such a disposition work in a sport that has been littered with stoic, stone-faced leaders?
McDaniel, though, is showing how a different approach can be just as, if not more, effective, in Miami.
High morale is often associated with winning, but perhaps the opposite should be looked into more: how fostering a positive environment can lead to success. McDaniel has shown that through positive reinforcement and cultivating genuine relationships, accountability doesn’t have to be shortchanged in a high-pressure environment.
There’s no way to quantify that impact on a given team but player testimonials show McDaniel and his staff have brought marked change in the year-plus since their arrival in Miami Gardens.
“I think there’s something to be said about to be your best self, you have to be yourself,” McDaniel said. “It’s fun being able to do the passionate game that you dreamed about doing when you’re fully able to be yourself. I think there’s a part of it there. But it’s not just directly correlated where a happy work environment equals happy players. The players want to win. But if they think they’re doing something productive, regardless how hard it is, but that can help them win and do all the things in their individual and team-oriented goals, you’re going to have a more pleasant, more invested, more exuberant individual.
“I think it’s part of our jobs to create a situation where guys feel like they can assert their best selves. Because again, it makes no sense to me if we’re asking guys to be their best version of themselves. They have to find a balance of being themselves while being constructive and focused. Work can be fun if you know you’re not going to be judged for that fun.”
It’s been an intentional effort for McDaniel since he was tapped to lead the team.
When he first met with the team, he laid out a list of his priorities, fullback Alec Ingold told the Miami Herald. Within that first week, McDaniel told players about his journey, which included battles with alcoholism and overcoming an issue that at one point threatened his coaching career.
Along the walls when you first walk into the Dolphins’ locker room is a set of team rules and included among those is the saying that has served as a mantra during the McDaniel era: Adversity is an opportunity. No member of the Dolphins’ organization may embody that as much as McDaniel.
“That just validates so much of his journey and his path where you don’t have to be an ex-player for a bunch of other NFL players to relate to you or believe in you or have your emotions and adversity validated,” Ingold said. “So, I think he used it in such a profound and powerful way that allows guys to invest further into him and then further into ourselves because we know that we all have our own stories. Collectively, we kind of play for each other’s journeys and stories and kind of change that narrative to change all our lives together. That’s the goal.”
From early on, players could tell McDaniel’s method was vastly different from what they’ve been accustomed to.
When cornerback Xavien Howard, the longest-tenured player on the team, arrived for the start of the first offseason workout program under McDaniel, he said, “I felt like everything has been different since I got here. The energy, everybody is happy, and I feel like things could be special here with Mike McDaniel bringing that energy.”
Said defensive lineman Christian Wilkins: “Just really from day one, he’s always being himself and then encouraging guys to be themselves. He wants to create a fun environment. I’m all for that. But also don’t get that confused with the amount of work and focus that has to go into each and every day in preparing for a game, and preparing to be great and preparing to be your best. You can definitely find that balance and it’s good. I feel like guys come in with the right mindset, and we definitely created that environment here of being able to have fun, but also grind like crazy and try to get the results you want.”
Players have praised McDaniel for allowing the team to be player-led, leaning on the pulse of the locker room and its captains to make decisions. McDaniel’s impact is best seen in his relationship with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, though.
Tagovailoa’s first two seasons in the NFL were marked by his return from a serious hip injury he sustained in college, on-field struggles and a frosty relationship with former coach Brian Flores. Tagovailoa has acknowledged that his confidence was low and he questioned how good he was.
McDaniel, however, saw Tagovailoa’s potential. The implementation of an offensive scheme that accentuates his skill set and an influx of quality teammates have been a boon for Tagovailoa, who is one of the favorites for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. So has the presence of McDaniel, instilling confidence and allowing Tagovailoa to lead in his own way. That trust has manifested in the agency that Tagovailoa, a two-time captain, has taken over the offense.
With McDaniel at the helm, the Dolphins have the most innovative offense in the league. But they also have maybe the most unique leader in the sport, too.
“With Mike, Mike just makes you feel very comfortable in being yourself, and really, he’s A-OK with many, many things that I do and he’s comfortable with things that I do,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s really just talking to him about it, like, ‘Hey, I think I would want to do this. Are you OK?’ ‘I’m OK, thanks for telling me. Just continue to communicate to me, and then I’ll let you know when it’s just leave this because I know something, that’s why I’m calling it.’ Things like that. But for the most part, it’s really a testament to Mike and the guys that he’s brought in to help me, help our offense to continue to thrive and flourish.”