By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
MIAMI — If quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was going to take the conservative route in the Miami Dolphins‘ victory over the New England Patriots, then coach Mike McDaniel was, apparently, going to get aggressive.
Perhaps in an effort to compensate for his dink-and-dunk QB, the play-caller attacked New England with a few well-timed gutsy decisions.
If there was any play that exemplified the difference that McDaniel makes running this offense, it was his decision to go for on it on fourth-and-7 from 42 yards out. Tagovailoa linked up with receiver Jaylen Waddle, and they got all 42 yards for a touchdown.
The play came with 18 seconds left in the half and gave the Dolphins a huge boost going into the break.
“He’s got a lot of cajones. Gutsy call,” Hill said of his first-year coach.
Waddle established himself as a star in the NFL with more than 1,000 yards during his rookie season in 2022. But this is a new offense — which now includes one of the best receivers in the league. Waddle is no longer the top target. So it wasn’t a sure thing, particularly given his injury during training camp, that he’d pick up where he left off last season. But he has.
“Tua put the ball in the perfect spot. Jaylen did a great job of catching the ball and really just splitting three defenders,” Hill said. “We talk about that all the time. If you want to be good, you make the catch. The great ones get drunk off the YAC.”
Running back Chase Edmonds said the Dolphins have been preaching a message of playing with confidence — and above all, playing without fear. Well, you can bet McDaniel abandoned fear when he dialed up that call for Tagovailoa. And the quarterback seemed to do the same, zipping the ball into a tight window with three defenders in the area.
“He threw a great ball. The offensive line held up. Great ball placement. I couldn’t do nothing but handle up on it,” Waddle said.
The cornerback in coverage, Jalen Mills, was a step behind Waddle. Mills seemed to anticipate safety Kyle Dugger making the tackle, but he whiffed, in part because linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley attempted a tackle at the same moment. Even with three defenders in the area, the Patriots barely got a hand on Waddle.
The Dolphins only attempted one fourth-down conversion on the stat sheet, but in reality, they converted two. They lined up for a fourth-down attempt and drew Patriots defensive tackle Carl Davis offsides for an easy first down.
Let’s be clear: The Dolphins defense was the reason Miami won the game, with an interception and two forced fumbles, one returned for a touchdown. New England’s offense looked incompetent thanks to an impressive series of blitzes that left Mac Jones with an injured back.
The stars of the day were cornerback Xavien Howard, who managed to break up a end-zone pass that ended up as an interception on the Patriots’ opening drive, and safety Brandon Jones, who had 11 tackles and a strip sack that Melvin Ingram returned for a touchdown.
But to win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL, the Dolphins will need an offensive identity. That’s why they added McDaniel, an offensive-minded head coach who replaced the defensive-minded Brian Flores. Tagovailoa didn’t attempt a pass that had 25 or more air yards, and the rushing attack averaged 2.8 yards per carry. It wasn’t pretty. But McDaniel and the Dolphins might have found their identity on the touchdown that ended the second quarter.
They can lean into McDaniel’s aggressive approach. Lean into the elite playmakers on the outside. Lean into Tagovailoa’s accuracy. And see how the offense takes shape around that.
One thing was abundantly clear: McDaniel had every intention of feeding Hill, who had eight targets and one carry in the first half.
“Every day, I just try to set myself apart just to be the engine. I’ve always been the engine of every team I’ve been on, ever since I was a kid,” Hill told FOX Sports when asked about how he has seamlessly found a place as the top threat in this new offense.
Waddle and Hill accounted for 163 of the 270 passing yards. They’re likely to account for an even greater percentage in the weeks to come. Even if they don’t, they should start to open up more running lanes. At least, that’s what Edmonds said. He preached patience as the offensive line learns the new system, an outside zone scheme that often takes acclimation.
Edmonds said that once everyone gets on the same page, the “two demons on the outside” should help set up the run — and then the run can help set up the pass.
“Right now, it’s rough patches, and it’ll be rough patches because you’re installing a new offense. The guys aren’t totally comfortable,” Edmonds said. “The guys don’t know exactly where to go for every pre-snap look, so McDaniel and the staff that we have — they’re going to make sure we get those details because when one mistake happens, that mistake doesn’t happen again.”
The Patriots are going through a similar transition. And for a team like Miami, which is searching for an identity without continuity on the coaching staff, the Dolphins should be pleased to get a win while they keep up the construction tape around their offense.
But you can bet that as they consider what went right, they’ll look at that 42-yarder to Waddle. That was the play that completely changed the game — and perhaps the complexion of the AFC East, where the Patriots finished ahead of the Dolphins last year.
But the Bills are not a team in transition. They look like one of the NFL’s very best groups. So the Dolphins need to make progress before the two teams square off in Week 3.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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