Despite a commendable effort in his team's 34-31 defeat to the Bills during Super Wild Card Weekend on Sunday, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel came away with a clear understanding on what Miami needs to improve on this offseason.
Clock management, penalties, wide receiver drops and untimely turnovers doomed a Dolphins offense that was forced to start third-string rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson. Miami's four delay-of-game penalties on the day were a glaring sanction to its execution issues, right up until the Dolphins' final drive of the game.
Down by three points and facing a fourth-and-1 near midfield, the Dolphins were flagged for delay of game with just over two minutes to play. Thompson's incomplete pass on the next play ultimately sealed Miami's fate, but the chance at a shorter conversion was a key what-if scenario to discuss.
McDaniel pointed to Miami's poor communication on the sideline as a reason for the late blunder, saying the Dolphins thought they had a first down on Salvon Ahmed's run for no gain on third-and-1.
"It shouldn't happen as much as it did," McDaniel said after the game of the pre-snap penalties. "And then the last one in particular had to do with, whether it was officials or coaching, there was some communication that we had gotten a first down. So, we were deploying a group of players for the first-and-10 call, then it was articulated that no, it's fourth down.
"So, that miscommunication, that's all the stuff that you do in this business, you never stop finding the things you can improve on. And it was a piece of the reason that we were unable to come out, but it definitely wasn't the only reason. A lot of people can find several things that they can do better, including myself, which we will do pressing forward."
McDaniel couldn't call timeout to avoid the flag because he had already used all three in the second half due to similar pre-snap scenarios with a ticking play clock. The Dolphins coach said the wrong information "was communicated to me through the upstairs."
"From the headset, I think," said McDaniel. "I was standing by an official. I had just gotten convicted information that it was a first down. So, I don't really know exactly who it was from. It was probably the first time all year that happened, so, you know, you try to do your best. As it was, I thought we had a fourth-and-6 opportunity that we were unable to come up with, as well. Fourth-and-1 most of the time is easier than fourth-and-6, but at the same time, you just have to adjust to whatever variables are put out there. And I think we had a chance at fourth-and-6, as well."
McDaniel admitted that "compounding variables" throughout the game led to consistent miscommunication, which sometimes caused the timing of his play-calling in certain moments to be later than he would normally prefer.
Of course, there were other moments Miami wished it could have back in the loss, including a crucial interception in the third quarter that gave Buffalo the ball at Miami's 33-yard line. The Bills proceeded to take the lead off that turnover and never looked back.
"Yeah, that last interception there on the third-and-19, it was a bad decision on my part," said Thompson, who went 18-of-45 passing for 220 yards with one TD and two INTs. "Just got to know the situation we're in there. I felt it go to Tampa 2, it was kind of 2-on-1 the safety. The corner did a good job of just following off. We did have a quick slant coming underneath it, you know, I had a checkdown, too, looking at the pictures after the play. I just got to understand the situation there and just take yards and play field position there and not force something. That one hurts. That one hurts. But just got to learn from it."
The Dolphins showed plenty of mettle despite the consistent mistakes, overcoming a 17-point deficit early in the first half to produce a nervy game in Buffalo. McDaniel, a rookie coach himself, got plenty of material to look back and learn from as he goes forward on what should be considered a successful start to his tenure.