The Dolphins’ offense started 2023 on a record-setting pace. What happened to it?
In the first month of the season, the Dolphins had garnered comparisons to some of the best offenses in NFL history. A 70-point outing in Week 3 put the unit on a record-setting pace in the second year of the Mike McDaniel era. But by the Dolphins’ season-ending loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round, the offense was unrecognizable.
Miami’s timing-based passing game wasn’t hitting the middle of the field with as much regularity. Its running game wasn’t breaking off as many long runs. And quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was in the Most Valuable Player conversation for much of the season, had arguably his worst game of the year in Kansas City’s frigid conditions as the Dolphins scored a season-low seven points.
Throughout the offseason, much of the talk surrounding the Dolphins is sure to be focused on Tagovailoa’s play, especially in the final month of the season and as he enters a contract year. However, analysts and experts see issues beyond Tagovailoa, including the need to evolve the scheme and personnel to avoid the pitfalls from 2023. Scheme There was a stark difference when the Dolphins’ offense faced stiffer competition.
Against non-playoff teams, Miami’s offense averaged 33. 5 points. But against playoff teams, which the Dolphins had a 1-6 record against in 2023, the offense averaged just 12 points.
In the passing game, Cover 2 and other concepts that allowed the defense to pack the middle of the field with protection over the top gave Miami trouble. Since McDaniel arrived as head coach before the 2022 season, the Dolphins have been among the best teams targeting the middle of the field with pre-snap motions and play-action schemes that put defenders in a bind and open windows for Tagovailoa to hit speedy pass-catchers with his quick release. But to Bobby Peters, who has written multiple books breaking down NFL offenses, Miami became a bit one-dimensional and too reliant on those middle-of-the-field concepts.
In a video posted to X (formerly known as Twitter), former NFL quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner also pointed out issues with the Dolphins’ response to Kansas City’s blitz packages. “Those are things that they’ve just been really good at the last two seasons and they’ve really leaned into them,” Peters, who played college football at Division III University of Wisconsin-Platteville, told the Miami Herald in a phone interview. “Now the issue with that, though, is they’ve leaned so hard into them to the point where defenses can gameplan and say OK, if we take these things away, there’s not much and they’ve gone so far down those rabbit holes, but they’re kind of stuck in the rabbit holes.
” The Dolphins use play-action at one of the highest rates in the league but Peters said the offense’s standard dropback concepts could use more work, especially in third-and-long situations in which the quick-hitting pass over the middle of the field isn’t immediately available. Peters also saw situations in which the ball was intended to go to either wide receivers Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle but didn’t have clear safety valves if those options weren’t open. Miami’s running game faced a similar issue, Peters said.
With Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane, two former track stars, in the backfield, Miami used a bevy of creative outside run concepts where the duo could get to the perimeter and showcase their speed. But the better defenses in the NFL rendered those runs less effective and Miami couldn’t counter with a consistent inside running game. “One of the best ways to hurt Cover 2 defenses is to hit them inside,” Peters said.
Interestingly enough, the Dolphins’ top backs got their most explosive plays on outside runs but were more effective on inside runs in 2023. On outside runs, directed either off tackle or off a tight end’s outside shoulder, Mostert had 118 carries for 487 yards, a 4. 1-yard average, according to Pro Football Focus.
But on runs that were between the tackles, Mostert had 94 carries for 531 yards, a 5. 6-yard carry. Achane had 53 carries for 364 yards, a 6.
8-yard carry, on outside runs. On inside runs, he had 47 carries for 337 yards, a 7. 1-yard average.
McDaniel’s play calling has come into question in his first two seasons, more so on the number of runs he’s called but the types of runs he leans on next season could also change. Personnel While the numbers show the Dolphins were better on inside runs, Peters acknowledged that the Dolphins’ offensive line situation over the last two seasons likely could have swayed McDaniel’s play calling. “It’s a lot of bully ball,” Peters said of inside runs, “where outside zone, you can have guys use technique and let the running back kind of make you right.
” With each of the Dolphins’ opening-day interior linemen — Robert Hunt, Connor Williams and Isaiah Wynn — set to become free agents, Miami might need to beef up its offensive line again to be able to use a diverse set of run concepts in 2024. As for the passing game, better health and upgrades could also allow McDaniel to feel more comfortable calling longer-developing concepts for Tagovailoa. In 2022, the unit had one of ESPN’s lowest-rated pass block win rates, defined as how often linemen sustain their blocks for at least 2.
5 seconds. In 2023, there was a bit of improvement but Tagovailoa’s quick release played a big role in Miami allowing the fewest pressures in the NFL. The offensive line also dealt with a litany of injuries, using 12 different starting combinations.
Peters said another pass-catching option, possibly a tight end with more receiving chops, could help Miami expand its profile but with the current core, “they’ve got guys who can get the ball. ” When McDaniel first arrived as head coach, he said he would tailor his system to the skill sets of his players. But as he does a deep dive on the offense’s struggles against the best teams in the league, a major question will be whether the current scheme has maximized those talents and how far he needs to pivot in 2024.
Profile Image of Daniel Oyefusi Daniel Oyefusi covers the Dolphins for the Miami Herald. A native of Towson, Maryland, he graduated from the University of Maryland: College Park. Previously, he covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun.