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Chris Perkins: Dolphins are winning and having fun, and coach Mike McDaniel is a big reason for both

MIAMI GARDENS — The Dolphins lead the league in offense, points, and fun.

Yeah, you read that one correctly. Fun.

In short, the first-place Dolphins (8-3) are mixing business with pleasure in a way that’s hardly ever seen in the NFL. They’re always laughing and joking and smiling.

“I feel like we have more fun than any other team in the NFL from meeting with a couple of guys on different teams and asking around and talking,” running back Jeff Wilson Jr. said. “I’m not going to put any names out there, but I feel we have one of the most fun teams to be on.

“But we’re still about business. Don’t ever get it misconstrued.”

The Dolphins have a different approach to the game. They like to have fun. It’s something I’ve never seen in 15 years covering the Dolphins, and something I didn’t often see in 10 years of covering the Miami Heat. It’s definitely a bit unorthodox.

In that way, it’s very Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins’ 40-year-old head coach.

Granted, it’s easy to have fun along the lines of that post-touchdown conga line when you’re beating teams by 50 points.

Players say it’s deeper than that. Players say McDaniel allows them to be themselves. It’s one of the biggest ways he’s breathed life into this previously wheezing franchise.

“I think the fact that he lets everybody be themselves allows an atmosphere of people having fun and not stressing out,” said Justin Bethel, the 12-year veteran cornerback and special teams ace who spent the 2019-21 seasons in New England.

The Dolphins’ fun is initiated by McDaniel and his philosophy on football, work and life

“I think it starts with Mike,” old-school defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of coach Mike McDaniel, a new-school coach.

“That’s his approach. He wants that, instigates it, and players follow that lead.”

At one of the first team meetings that safety DeShon Elliott attended as a member of the Miami Dolphins this year, McDaniel played a player’s hip-hop video on the big screen in the meeting room.

Elliott said the video had explicit language. Elliott, who had played previously at Baltimore and Detroit, was amazed.

“I’ve never seen anything like that ever in my life,” the sixth-year player said. “I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ This is a different team, this is a different coach. The video was very explicit and I was like, ‘Wow.’ We watched the whole video. All four minutes and 30 seconds of it. I was like, ‘OK.’ That gave me an example of how (McDaniel) really cares about his guys. He’s open to letting guys be themselves.

“He said he let that guy play his song on ‘Hard Knocks’ (the TV show/documentary that airs every week on HBO) so he could get a little more views. I think that’s cool that he cares about his players.”

Here’s something else about McDaniel that’s a departure from most other coaches – we’ve never seen him yell, even during a training camp practice.

Wilson, who spent four seasons with McDaniel in San Francisco before re-joining him in Miami last season via a midseason trade, said McDaniel will yell.

“It’s like a rare sighting,” Wilson said with a smile, “but you’ll see him turn red, man. You hear that voice raised. He’s not going to do it long and dragged out. But you’re going to know. You’re going to know for sure.”

OK, we’ll give him the yelling.

But we’ve never seen McDaniel publicly criticize a player.

In fact, McDaniel turns negatives into positives.

“Everything he says is constructive criticism,” Elliott said. “He knows how to talk to each person individually, in a different way depending on who that person is. But everything is always constructive criticism. Even if there’s something negative in there he tries to figure out a way to twist it to where it doesn’t come off negative and it can still be positive for that player.”

And we’ve never seen McDaniel, the Dolphins’ stylish, quirky and hugely popular second-year coach, lose it.

He drops ‘F’ bombs. He drops lots of ‘F’ bombs. We know that from watching “Hard Knocks.”

But it’s a more cerebral, philosophical approach to coaching with McDaniel.

Yeah, there was that incident on the sideline last season against Detroit where, after an offside, if you read lips, he seemed to mouth to an assistant coach, “Bro, get that (expletive) fixed!!”

That’s about as nasty as McDaniel gets publicly.

For example, McDaniel was recently asked about his approach with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his 10 interceptions, which is two more than last year’s total. McDaniel put his “up with people” approach on display.

“What I don’t do is just scream, ‘Don’t throw picks!’ ” McDaniel said, “because that’s like the coaching point, ‘Catch the ball’ for me.

“I’m pretty sure everyone is trying.”

McDaniel views football and life differently from most other coaches. 

Yeah, winning helps his approach. 

“Obviously, winning helps,” Fangio said. “Winning’s cured more ails than penicilin.”

But what also helps is players say McDaniel holds himself to the same high standard that he puts on his players. 

“The one way I think he’s able to hold us to a standard or coach us hard,” fullback Alec Ingold said, “is he’s always going to take accountability first and explain how he could have coached us better or how the coaches could have taught us better.”

It’s tough to say McDaniel has this coaching thing figured out. He doesn’t even have two full seasons of experience. But it’s safe to say he has the player relations thing figured out.

His team is having fun, and you suspect that might be the case even if it didn’t have an 8-3 record and sit atop the AFC East standings. In short, McDaniel makes football fun.

“I think there’s something to be said about, ‘To be your best self, you have to be yourself,’ ” McDaniel said.

Dolphins players would agree.

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