Adventures in crashing and recovering with the NFL’s most dynamic coach.
November 11, 2023 at 9:00 a.m. EST
“If I’m focusing on just one thing,” McDaniel says after one long day, his words a heap of dead leaves, “how many other things am I ignoring?”
So much talking and thinking. It wears on a man: leading an organization, fine-tuning one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history, rebuilding a talented quarterback. When McDaniel watches film in his office, usually it’s on the TV and the projector screen. Visitors pop in, and the coach engages with each one. Eventually the cranial dam springs a leak, and McDaniel starts forgetting stuff. Basic things, such as that the human body requires water. One colleague is always issuing reminders that he hydrate, lest he attempt to survive on junk food and energy drinks alone.
“No one signed up for 50 or 25 percent of me,” he says. “They deserve the best that I have. I’m always wearing the idea that you can’t be two places at once, so … um … the second that …”
This is next to go: McDaniel’s ability to complete a sentence. When this happens, a co-worker says, McDaniel isn’t talking. He’s buffering.
“Uh … that … the second that …” he continues. “The second that all things are taken care of to the esteem of my particular … um … level of expectation, whatever the … that?”
The machine needs a reboot. McDaniel can feel it.
He’s an NFL coach, though, with a formidable to-do list. He could always grab a nap on his office sofa, just past the Yale football helmet and fake ferns — something McDaniel’s wife, Katie, encourages. After all, this is a business in which the great ones never step away; the 100-hour workweek is an unquestioned path to the Super Bowl.
That’s precisely why McDaniel does question it.
Just 30 minutes away, he says, “the greatest energy reset known to man” is waiting. So with this in mind, pro football’s most against-the-grain figure does something truly revolutionary. He turns off the film and heads home.
A SIZZLING DAY ON THE MIAMI PRACTICE FIELD, and McDaniel is in sweats, bouncing from one position group to the next. He goes up on tiptoes to rest a hand on a lineman’s shoulder pad. He glides toward the wide receivers, some of the fastest men to ever suit up and the key to the Dolphins’ warp-speed attack.
The coach is 40 and slender, 5 feet 9 in a land of giants. Elsewhere in the multiverse, his Ivy League education, aviator shades and off-white Air Force 1s would make him the swaggy but unusual fellow in your office’s internal audit division. He eats like hell, too, an affront to the NFL’s veer toward monitored micro-diets. He claims to have avoided vegetables until college, after an uncle “traumatized” him years earlier with a plate of green beans. “I dry-heave to this day,” he says.
But here’s the weird part: At work, he doesn’t yell or berate or shame, tools as central to the coaching arsenal as the whistle. He allows players to control the music, assistants to establish their own work schedules, everyone to ask the NFL’s most taboo question: Why? From the crustiest veteran to the greenest rookie, McDaniel isn’t “Coach.” He’s Mike.
“It’s amazing what can happen,” he says, “if you just let go of doing anything out of insecurity.”
If the last century has proved anything, it’s that success in the NFL relies on a few unarguable principles. The first is that sleep is for losers. Kansas City’s Andy Reid worships at the altar of the 22-hour workday, and the staff of Mike Shanahan used to go through 20 pots of coffee a day. Those guys won two Super Bowls each.
The second is that family is critical. Nothing matters more, so long as a coach’s wife is willing to raise the kids, manage the household, clear the decks while her husband does the “important” stuff. When Joe Gibbs coached Washington, his wife, Pat, recorded fake dinnertime conversation so Joe could catch up on what their two sons were doing. He won three Super Bowls.
The third and most important: Players aren’t people. They damn sure aren’t peers. In America’s most cutthroat sport, a $20 billion-a-year industry in which everyone is fighting for their professional lives, thinking of anyone in terms beyond that of a fungible asset is a trap. New England’s Bill Belichick has proved this one six times over.
One of Belichick’s many disciples, Brian Flores, coached the Dolphins before McDaniel. He did things the old way. The proven way. When quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggled as a rookie, Flores lit him up. If Tagovailoa looked rattled during a game, Flores benched him. Then started him the next week. Then benched him again.
But Flores got fired, the Dolphins hired McDaniel, and in came a philosophy that’s unusual in this business — albeit less and less in the rest of society. Miami’s rise comes amid a cultural reexamination of leadership, people management and parenting, a growing belief that successful, confident people should be neither brutalized nor micromanaged. That it’s possible to be good at your job and be happy.
McDaniel is the only child of a single mother in Colorado. He grew up being reminded that he was so smart, so driven, so special that he could do anything. His grades earned him a Game Boy when he was a kid, a Ford Mustang when he turned 16, and his mom never withheld (or threatened to withhold) her affection if he fell short. When he someday had his own children, he wanted to raise them the same way.
“I had this whole theory,” McDaniel says now, “that a kid has a chance in this world if they feel like they’re the most important thing in the world to someone.”
So when he got the Dolphins job, he didn’t turn over a table or punch through a whiteboard to assert his dominance. He strove for emotional connection. He showed players vulnerability and shared his own failures, not snapshots of his brilliance. He wanted co-workers to see his devotion to work, not the appearance of work.
“I know in the course of my career I’ve been worried about people seeing me at my desk,” he says. “And at some point, you’re like: Why?”
This represents a full-on confrontation of the steel-sharpens-steel handbook that supposedly creates leaders, raises high-achieving children and wins Super Bowls. It’s the handbook Tagovailoa grew up on. If he had a bad game or bad grade, his father didn’t exactly spare the rod. A fear of failure may, in fact, have pushed him into the starting lineup at Alabama, onto the national championship dais, into the NFL.
But last year, when he suffered a gruesome concussion and crumbled to the turf, it wasn’t Flores or Nick Saban or his dad Tagovailoa called out for. Medical and team personnel had no doubt who he wanted because he kept muttering the same thing.
“Where’s Mike?” he said.
MCDANIEL GREW UP not just watching his friends’ dads but studying them. He did the same with his coaches. Some were frothing drill sergeants. Many were impatient. A few were listeners.
This was a generation taught to value obedience, toughness and respect. Emotion was weakness; if insecurity and doubt couldn’t be overcome, they were to be ignored. The boss was the boss, and, yeah, he pushed you. Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six national championships, kicked a player after he collapsed with heatstroke. Vince Lombardi screamed at his quarterback and forced his tight end to play on a broken foot.
This wasn’t bullying or abuse. It was tough love. The price of greatness. And anyone who didn’t understand that was either disillusioned or soft.
When McDaniel was in fifth grade, a friend lived in a big house with otherworldly comforts: lights that turned on with a button, for instance, not a traditional switch. Donna McDaniel worked for a beef distributor in Colorado, making ends meet without such frills. Her son was confused by what he saw at the friend’s; the boy was terrified of disappointing his dad, McDaniel says, and the “whole house was miserable.”
“People don’t even have a chance to be themselves if someone doesn’t unconditionally love them,” he says. “They’re inherently trying to be something else.”
Without his father, that’s what McDaniel did. Maybe, if he were different, his dad would come home. He made straight A’s and became a Denver Broncos ballboy, where he met Coach Mike Shanahan. He fell in love with football and observed how Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak interacted with their sons. Kubiak’s three boys ran around on the field, playfully competing for who could be fastest to get the ball back to the huddle. Shanahan’s son, Kyle, was always at his old man’s side. They seemed like best friends.
McDaniel wanted that, so, just like Kyle, he played wide receiver for his high school team. At the Broncos’ facility, he glued himself to Kubiak, almost a fourth son. The kid could remember everything, a walking computer, and it showed when he got into Yale. He studied history and walked on to the football team as a wideout.
When he was done, Mike Shanahan offered him an internship with the Broncos, where McDaniel tinkered with data and technology as new ways to identify patterns and holes in coverages. When the Houston Texans hired Kubiak as coach in 2006, he filled his staff with young and determined iconoclasts: Robert Saleh, Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shanahan. McDaniel, then 23, wasn’t so much a coach as Kubiak’s personal assistant.
“Presentations for players, daily routines, schedules — the guy you work hand-in-hand with,” Kubiak says.
It was grueling, sometimes keeping McDaniel at work until 5 a.m. The boss believed in him, but it wasn’t Kubiak’s approval the young man craved. So McDaniel transformed himself, this time into someone who didn’t need a father.
Booze helped. Sometimes he would show up to work still wobbly from the night before. Other times he overslept.
“Where in the hell is Mike?” Kubiak says he boomed more than once. LaFleur or Kyle Shanahan would be dispatched to McDaniel’s apartment to pound on the door.
After one of those times, Kubiak had to fire him.
“I hate having to do this,” he says he told McDaniel. “But sometimes things like this are the best things that can happen to you.”
ONE NIGHT IN 2010, Katie Hemstalk was at a nightclub in Sacramento when she met a scrawny guy who didn’t believe in secrets. A few nights later, she was wearing his Yale football ring. Her grandfather joked that the guy must have a drawer full of them.
She had just moved back to small-town Northern California from San Diego. Her parents were there. So were her grandparents, just one pasture down. There was something different about McDaniel, whom she had run into while celebrating a friend’s birthday. Something new.
McDaniel told her that he wasn’t here because coaching in the United Football League was his dream. He had gotten fired from his last job for getting drunk too often. Now he was in transformation mode, banished to the pro football hinterlands, trying to fix himself.
“From a young age,” McDaniel says, “I was set on righting my own life’s wrongs.”
Almost immediately, Katie learned that among McDaniel’s many ambitions was to be a dad. A good dad. It’s something he never had, having met his father only a few times, and it made him curious about what had scared the man off and why other fathers seemed more committed than others.
This was a little before Thanksgiving in 2010. Katie absorbed McDaniel’s story, felt the resolve in his voice, told herself the Yale ring was unique and that he was serious when he vowed to marry her. A month after they met, Katie invited McDaniel to meet her parents, who themselves had married just two weeks after meeting. A few weeks after that, Katie flew to Denver to meet Mike’s mom, Donna.
“This is real,” Katie remembers thinking.
If it wasn’t, it was about to be. A few weeks later, Kyle Shanahan, McDaniel’s old work buddy from Houston, called. His dad was set to be the coach in Washington, and Kyle would be his offensive coordinator. A few old Houston guys would fill out the staff. There was a job for McDaniel if he wanted one. He did.
Katie wanted to come with him.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You need to know what you’re going into.”
The life of a football coach isn’t easy; neither is that of an NFL spouse: long hours, questionable priorities, chronic stress that can be corrosive to marriages and good health. Coaches’ wives have a grim name for their club: “football widows.”
But there was something bewitching about McDaniel’s positivity. Katie had never left California. She had gone to school to be an aesthetician and would have been happy to live simply, on the pasture or in a salon. She had just gotten swept up by a force of nature, and three months after meeting McDaniel, Katie was ready to follow him anywhere.
EVERYONE SAID TO MAKE TIME FOR A DATE NIGHT, the NFL wives’ secret to connection. So Katie made a reservation at a nice restaurant on one of the first Fridays of the 2011 season. McDaniel was asleep at the table before the entrees came.
“This sucks,” Katie remembers thinking. “Mainly for him.”
NFL coaches, like lots of ambitious people, are notorious self-deniers: of rest, sustenance, hobbies. These aren’t necessities, they claim. They’re luxuries. Signs of a lack of commitment and grit.
McDaniel barely slept unless it was on the team plane. He bragged about going four days without a shower. It made no sense to Katie.
She turned their sofa into “Couch Fort,” layering it with blankets and pillows. Next to it was a selection of McDaniel’s favorite snacks: chips, pizza, one time a hunk of chocolate cake. After work, whenever work ended, he could walk in and crash. When he awoke, something odd happened: He could . . . function. When he spoke, his words made sense. He noticed important things he had forgotten hours earlier, and on Friday evenings, McDaniel and Katie could watch “Dateline” or Netflix without him dozing off.
“He’s like a machine,” she says. “He gets an update, a reboot.”
And once running smoothly, Katie decided, it could operate that way longer without additional strain. During the season, she paid bills and oversaw the home. If there was a problem or financial issue, Katie handled it. If she felt worry or loneliness or anxiety, she internalized it. She wanted McDaniel to succeed, to focus entirely on football, so she kept everything quiet and kept the runways clear and the planes landing.
It was astonishing how well the system ran. At work, McDaniel saw holes in coverages that few other coaches noticed. By then, Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was beta-testing a modernized version of his dad’s famous offense, a never-before-seen combination of power, speed and surprise.
McDaniel’s role in this elaborate production was modest: assembling video montages to demonstrate what Shanahan and his lieutenants were imagining. McDaniel took it seriously, though, not just stuffing plays into a video but using it as a form of explanatory storytelling. Then at practice, McDaniel would tell the quarterback to ignore his instincts. Don’t throw to a receiver. Throw to a space. Play design and physics would take care of the rest.
“After practice, he’d tell you: ‘See, I told you,’ ” says Robert Griffin III, Washington’s quarterback in 2012. “You immediately feel like, ‘Holy cow, this guy knows everything.’ ”
It was around this time that the American workplace began changing. Talented Millennials tuned out dictatorial bosses who expected blind fealty to their preferences and impulses. Younger workers pushed back on being productive beyond the point of burnout. These habits even reached NFL offices in 2013, after McDaniel’s mentor, Kubiak, collapsed on the Texans’ sideline during a game and Denver Coach John Fox was hospitalized with a heart problem.
“We all kind of realized it around the same time,” McDaniel says. “ ‘Whoa, we need to chill out.’ ”
Some coaches established boundaries between their work and home lives. McDaniel set aside distractions and electronics, devoted himself to being “super present” and becoming “notoriously impossible to get a hold of.”
“I can’t talk to you,” he says, “and be on my phone at the same time.”
Younger workers also shoved aside the old one-size-fits-all management structure in favor of a need to understand the individual. McDaniel saw this in the coaches’ office, too: He, for example, could see coverages so clearly in his mind. But different aspects of the job come easier to others, he realizes, such as the way Sean McVay, then Washington’s wunderkind tight ends coach, just seemed more mature.
“He’s got this manhood thing figured out,” McDaniel recalls thinking, and he had a hunch why: McVay was close with his father. “So many life obstacles that were a result of having zero direction as a man.”
Again in transformation mode, he tried to simulate this psychosocial concept. Many of his players were in their first jobs, and some felt isolated and vulnerable while separated from their families for the first time. McDaniel could relate, so why not share this piece of himself?
“We’re subconscious geniuses,” he says. “You feel when people give a s—. You feel when people are working; you feel when you’re a priority.”
Griffin was his first big test case. In 2013, Griffin was simultaneously one of the most famous and isolated people in sports. Teammates stayed away. Coaches, even the younger ones, kept their distance. McDaniel, though, probed Griffin’s well-being, his motivations, his hopes on and off the field. He told Griffin about his drinking, about Katie, about the absence he felt in never knowing his dad.
He and Griffin went to dinner sometimes and saw comedian Mike Epps together. They talked long and deep about relationships and humanity. They met and got to know each other’s significant other.
“That’s dangerous for coaches,” Griffin says. “It was a unique approach, and I didn’t understand it in the moment. Mike knows how to get guys motivated. They look at him like, ‘I don’t want to let this guy down.’
“Because you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be human.”
KATIE’S ANXIETY WASN’T SO BAD WHEN MCDANIEL WAS HOME. He’s a calming presence, she says, and the summer months were blissful getaways from the NFL grind. Because Kyle Shanahan kept hiring some of the same guys and because nepotism and troublesome “coaching trees” famously power the football leadership structure, the couple had a built-in friend group in Washington, then Cleveland, then Atlanta.
“You didn’t really ever feel alone,” says Mike LaFleur, Matt’s brother, who joined the crew in 2014 as an offensive assistant for the Browns. “Just kid-less couples, all having a good time.”
Then training camp started and the husbands disappeared. Katie took cannabidiol, or CBD, to ease her loneliness and calm her thoughts. She called her mother in California. She went to Pilates with Mandy Shanahan, Kyle’s wife, then to happy hour. Any relief was temporary.
She and McDaniel had set a wedding date for June 2014. But after Washington fired Mike Shanahan’s coaching staff, she worried they couldn’t afford a wedding. Where would they live? Without a return address, was it a mistake to send out invitations?
Kyle and Mandy Shanahan had three children. Matt LaFleur had a son, too. Katie hadn’t grown up playing with dolls or associating her identity with possible motherhood. She had been “A-OK,” she says, “not having a kid.” But after marrying McDaniel, the pressure accumulated. Her mother’s friends asked when the couple would start a family. They were already in their early 30s. Did they not want kids?
In fact, she had changed her mind. She now yearned to be a mom and build a family. “I wanted a little Mike,” Katie says. But seasons and breaks kept ending without a pregnancy.
In Atlanta, when she and McDaniel went out, small talk invariably led to family plans. Wasn’t it time to grow up, put down roots, settle down? Katie’s brother was already a father; then his wife delivered their second child, then their third. What were the McDaniels waiting on?
“Like, everybody” was asking, Katie says. “It’s the most isolating feeling.”
BY 2016, WITH THE CREW NOW COACHING THE FALCONS, Kyle Shanahan was perfecting his offense: an outside zone rushing scheme that allows ballcarriers to read and hit openings mid-play. Football is ultimately a contest about who can exploit the field’s geometry. Shanahan and Co.’s concepts kept defenses off balance and challenged them to patrol impossibly large spaces.
McDaniel, meanwhile, established a gift for identifying mismatches and stumping for the little guy. One was Mohamed Sanu Sr., a wide receiver Cincinnati had drafted but discarded, eroding Sanu’s confidence. This wasn’t a red flag, McDaniel believed. It was an opportunity.
“That feeling where you get picked first in Little League,” Sanu says. “The best feeling, that somebody believes in you that much. Why not believe in yourself as much as they believe in you?”
The Falcons went 11-5 in 2016 and made it to the Super Bowl. San Francisco announced immediately after the Super Bowl that it had hired Shanahan to be its coach, so now the friends were heading west: McDaniel, Saleh, Mike LaFleur. Saleh and his wife had their fifth child in 2017, and Mike and Lauren LaFleur welcomed a second baby boy.
“You’re a dad,” McDaniel said to Mike LaFleur, his eyes wide with fascination. “You made a human being. What are you even going to do tonight?”
“Well, Mike, it’s a baby,” LaFleur told him, “so not much.”
McDaniel went home to his wife. He fell into Couch Fort while Katie worked on a puzzle, then he woke up and they watched TV together, their weekend routine.
“This is my life,” Katie says. “This f—ing sucks.”
But with football going so well, she didn’t tell him that. Katie loved him and didn’t want him to feel guilty about work. Besides, McDaniel, now in his mid-30s, was climbing the organizational chart, and coordinating San Francisco’s running game. Katie suppressed thoughts that she had done what nobody wants to do: let Mike McDaniel down.
She “wanted to give him a family,” she says, but the years passed and nothing changed. If someone asked about when they would have children, Katie snapped at them. If a friend recommended in vitro fertilization, she would reply with sarcasm. She increased her CBD intake to 50 doses a month, went to weekly acupuncture appointments, took herbs to soothe her churning mind.
“Praying, as hard as it is, for a miscarriage,” she says. “Just give me a positive [test]. Just give me a hope here.”
When McDaniel came home, she insisted she was fine. A blood test in Atlanta had revealed low levels of a hormone that suggested poor ovarian reserve. She said nothing to McDaniel about the persistent and mysterious pain in her abdomen, severe menstrual cramps, intensifying fears that sometimes kept her awake.
“It’ll happen,” McDaniel says he assured her. Of course it will, Katie replied.
When he went to work, Katie scream-cried into a pillow. She confided in no one. After co-workers in Atlanta again confronted McDaniel about his drinking, he quit entirely. But not Katie. When she went out with friends, she pretended to be carefree. She ordered another Casamigos and soda, lots of lime, then another and another until she blacked out.
“No stop switch; I’m going full-bore,” she says. “You shut your brain off, just don’t think about it, beep-boop.”
McDaniel, who keeps no secrets, sensed his wife’s torment but couldn’t understand why she kept everything to herself. Why wouldn’t she talk to him? No matter how Katie masked her stress, he says it was always lingering.
“I had been gearing up to be a father my whole life. And she knew that,” McDaniel says. “The burden of me having a child, that’s not for her to bear. But literally, try telling her that.”
He took a fertility test, almost wishing for a poor result so he could adjust his lifestyle or be the reason they were struggling to conceive. He considered lying, no matter the results, and telling Katie the problem was his. But, no, NFL wives take care of the medical stuff, so she called the doctor’s office to learn that McDaniel was plenty fertile.
“ ‘Oh, well, f—, it is me,’ ” she says. “It’s not fair. ‘You can leave me and, like, ‘Go! Be with somebody else and have a family.’ ”
She didn’t tell him that, either. McDaniel, feeling this widening gulf, insisted this was their journey, not just hers.
“What do you do,” he says, “when you literally can’t make something better?”
“You can’t,” he says.
All he could do was transform. McDaniel accepted that children wouldn’t be part of their story. He says he did, anyway.
“I had to,” he says. “I got so invested in her emotional journey that I just …”
“I stopped thinking about being a dad,” McDaniel continues. “It’s a loss. A loss of identity has to be similar to the loss of a loved one. You don’t fix it. You scar. And go about your life.”
ONCE THEY MOVED ON, they could focus on recalibrating. They wanted to see Europe together. Katie took a girls’ trip to San Diego with her best friends, and when the guys disappeared before the NFL draft in 2019, Mandy Shanahan took the wives to Cabo San Lucas, where her iconic father-in-law has a home.
“I wasn’t really worrying about the things I had been,” Katie says. “Mike is with me; he has my back.”
That’s all that mattered. She took up intermittent fasting, got into barre, slowed and eventually stopped her drinking. The pain in her side was still there, but it had always been. Weekly acupuncture all but eliminated her anxiety.
McDaniel believed he had fixed the problem, or at least patched it, which allowed him a renewed focus on work.
“It’s very easy to change course,” he says. “I’ve done it multiple times. It’s just something that you do. That wasn’t my story. And that doesn’t mean I can’t affect people. That doesn’t mean I can’t do things that fathers do.”
He bonded with players who felt as broken as he did, in particular Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel, two speedy multitools with backgrounds scarred by trauma. Mostert has no relationship with his biological parents, and his stepfather has been in prison since 2014, when he was convicted of shooting Mostert’s half brother four times. Samuel’s father had helped raise him, but his biological mother had fallen into the streets. McDaniel shared his own story, including the uncertainty simmering at home.
“He’s got nothing to hide,” Mike LaFleur says. “Everyone knew how bad they wanted a baby. Mike is pretty comfortable being uncomfortable, you know?”
San Francisco started the 2019 season 8-0, with Mostert and Samuel combining for 15 touchdowns. Even with the team surging to a 13-3 finish, Shanahan reserved one night for family time, and McDaniel noticed how this seemed to re-energize colleagues. If senior-level coaches finished their tasks, they were free to go home.
McDaniel had no children, though, and Katie was in “a really good place,” she would say. So McDaniel kept working. Often the last thing colleagues would see as the left work was McDaniel fine-tuning the running game, his face illuminated by a computer screen.
One morning Mandy Shanahan picked up Katie for a workout. The pain in her side was unbearable, and Katie threw up in the car. She did so again after Mandy drove her back home before insisting she go to the hospital. She underwent a blood test that usually screens for ovarian cancer, and a specialist suggested exploratory surgery.
There were no tumors, but the surgeon found severe endometriosis, a common but difficult-to-diagnose gynecological disease that leads to scar tissue and near-constant pain. The disorder is rare, leads to significant inflammation, almost certainly had affected Katie’s fertility. The surgeon used a laser to remove the damaged tissue, and McDaniel broke down film next to her hospital bed and slept in a chair.
On the last Saturday of January 2020, with the 49ers preparing for the Super Bowl, McDaniel was in his office, ranking run plays on his computer. Katie was at home, and with her period seven days late, she took a pregnancy test. Then a second one.
She called McDaniel, but his phone was … somewhere. She kept trying, FaceTiming coaches and co-workers, until finally someone answered. A colleague walked through McDaniel’s door. He saw Katie’s face on the colleague’s phone, tears streaming. She held the two testing sticks near the camera.
“Positive!” she said.
THE PREGNANCY WASN’T EASY, but with the coronavirus pandemic shuttering all NFL facilities, McDaniel was able to be home for much of it. Then, in October 2020, McDaniel blew off the first team meeting of his career because here at last came Ayla June McDaniel, born with her eyes open.
Her daddy just stared into them.
“I’ve been an ambitious person my whole life,” he says. “I’ve been obsessed with trying to achieve things, and now I feel like I’m closer to proper perspective because I live, work, shape myself, model myself after her.
“I immediately have a purpose. A real purpose. Not a hamster-wheel purpose or a self-indulgent purpose. God, it is — it is so — gratifying to live life with something else driving you.”
The 49ers’ season didn’t end because McDaniel missed a few meetings. Nor did it in 2021, when McDaniel noticed that his work actually improved when he spent time at home. He ignored his phone, as did he any temptation to watch film or sketch out plays while holding Ayla. He found that this emotional lift gave his intellect a break, allowing the productive part of his mind to recharge.
“I need that part to be the man that I want to be,” he says. “And I need her, and I need my wife, and I need my family. It makes me feel bulletproof in my job.”
When Miami hired McDaniel in 2022, the new coach called his new quarterback from the jet. Over the sound of a squeaking toddler, the coach told Tagovailoa that he was why McDaniel had gotten into coaching. He had greatness within him. Almost immediately, McDaniel set out to prove it — mostly to the player himself.
He would call Tagovailoa to remind him that he’s special. He even compiled a 700-play tape of Tagovailoa’s most impressive moments to bolster that message. In doing so, McDaniel discovered a trend: Rather than hesitate until a receiver beat a defender, Tagovailoa could sense an opening before it happened. His release came quicker even than most star quarterbacks. He wasn’t naturally afraid of mistakes. This fear had been learned.
The quarterback says now that he and McDaniel bonded over having been “raised differently.” Tagovailoa is close with his father, Galu, but his left-handed dad had forced his naturally right-handed eldest son to throw with his left arm. If Tua threw an interception or had a bad game, he could expect to come home to his father wielding a belt.
“He can go 15 for 15 with four touchdowns,” Galu Tagovailoa told ESPN in 2018. “But when he throws a pick, it’s the worst game. It’s the worst game.”
Tagovailoa’s first NFL coach tended to agree. Under Flores, Miami ran a no-frills power rushing scheme designed to minimize risk. Tagovailoa rarely threw downfield. If he did or if he missed a read or threw a pick or if he looked rattled after getting sacked six times against Denver, Flores benched him. The pressure built and threatened to cave in on the young man.
Reports surfaced that Flores demeaned Tagovailoa and openly lobbied for his replacement, claims the coach has denied. Still, the young man wilted under the psychological strain.
“Do I suck?” he has said he asked himself while looking in the mirror.
One night McDaniel was working late, something he still does occasionally, and when he went home, he was too excited to sleep. He came back to the office and called a staff meeting for 8 a.m. The Dolphins’ front office was considering free agent blockers to give Tagovailoa more time in the pocket. McDaniel argued that he didn’t need them. The offense instead needed speed: playmakers who could beat defenses and get open. The NFL game hadn’t been too fast for him. If anything, Flores and his staff had slowed the game down too much for Tagovailoa.
The Dolphins traded for wide receiver Tyreek Hill, lining him up across from speedster Jaylen Waddle. They signed McDaniel’s old friend Raheem Mostert and drafted De’Von Achane. Miami recently traded for Chase Claypool, a big and fast wide receiver. All were capable of blazing speeds, but each needed a quarterback who could anticipate the space they could create. It took time, but Tagovailoa started to believe.
“Basically I was able to be myself,” he says. “He told me that being myself is enough.”
Last fall, as Tagovailoa recovered from multiple concussions that roiled the league, he spent hours each day in McDaniel’s office. By then coach and quarterback had become close, and after Tagovailoa was carted off the field in Cincinnati last season, McDaniel told reporters that, if not for his obligations to the rest of the team, he would have left Paycor Stadium to be with Tagovailoa at a nearby hospital.
A joint investigation by the NFL and NFL Players Association found that the Dolphins had correctly followed existing concussion protocol, and it had been McDaniel who, last December, spotted unusual behaviors in his quarterback while reviewing video. He encouraged Tagovailoa to see a doctor, who then placed him in the concussion protocol. The investigation led to more specific symptoms, including a visible loss of balance, being added to the guidelines’ “no-go” checklist. The quarterback said last offseason that he consulted with neurologists and his family before deciding to continue his career.
“Oh, he comes back,” Galu Tagovailoa told a reporter during a brief interview last January at the Polynesian Bowl.
As Tua recovered, he and McDaniel talked ball, of course. But Tagovailoa couldn’t help noticing the calendar with monthly postcards picturing a little girl, the photo of a small family posing outside the Dolphins’ jet, wooden frames decorated with ladybugs and acorns.
He learned all about Ayla, and because McDaniel keeps no secrets, her mom and dad’s journey to parenthood.
“A lot of the conversations turned to that,” Tagovailoa says.
Tagovailoa asked questions, shared his deepest thoughts, revealed to his coach why he was so curious about being a dad. He and his wife, Annah, were expecting a baby boy. They would name him Ace.
Any advice to a first-time parent?
“Be present,” Tagovailoa says McDaniel told him. “Just the joy, the unconditional love that I’m able to give him, that he gives me.”
ON THOSE NIGHTS MCDANIEL’S HARD DRIVE OVERHEATS, after he shuts off the projector and walks past the Yale helmet and fake ferns, Katie unlocks her phone. She shows the screen to Ayla, she says, and together they follow the dot as it moves from Dolphins headquarters to Fort Lauderdale, where the family lives.
Katie is on hype duty, and she builds anticipation by singing their “Daddy” song.
We’ve been waiting on him
Driving is the one time McDaniel puts his mind into quiet mode. It’s the middle of the week, and the Dolphins have a game to prepare for. Miami’s offense isn’t remarkably different from Shanahan’s, though McDaniel’s version uses more speed, more presnap motion, more attacks on the boundary. His plays aren’t complicated. They’re just presented in new ways, and they take advantage of something McDaniel discovered about himself long ago: that one person cannot be in two places at once.
By the time Ayla was born, McDaniel had decided how to right his life’s biggest wrong. The one that had shaped him, threatened to destroy him, tortured him. It was as simple as coming home. Parenthood, he learned, isn’t hard. Sometimes a dad is good just because he cares. Not because he’s perfect but because he’s human.
“I just do my best, and I think that’s good enough,” he says. “To me, it was pretty bottom-line: If I was going to be a dad, that child would know how important they are to me. So I just try. I’m going to be happy about certain things I do as a dad. I’m going to be mad about certain things; ‘Maybe I should’ve handled that differently.’
“The key to the whole thing isn’t that you retroactively regretted it. You were mindful and working at it and humble enough to not be comfortable or complacent, and that is an absolute home run for kids. It’s all it is: just trying.”
Some nights, Ayla’s dad reads to her or watches a movie with her. Usually they dance or sing. They play on the floor. Then he tucks her into bed.
When the dot reaches Fort Lauderdale, Katie says, she and Ayla begin cheering it on: “Come on, come on, come on!” When it gets to their neighborhood, Ayla and her mom move into the foyer. Katie says her 3-year-old’s hands feel like McDaniel’s. She’s restless like him, a comet of energy like him, a hater, just like him, of any food fibrous and green.
They wait, watching through the floor-to-ceiling windows. When she sees the headlights veer toward the neighbor’s house and illuminate the palm trees, the girl starts jumping. Then the vehicle parks, and it’s not “Coach” or “Mike” who steps out. It’s Daddy, and when Katie opens the door, here comes little Ayla June, sprinting and smiling as she jumps into his arms.