National Football League
Dolphins show they're still not ready for prime time in loss to Chiefs
National Football League

Dolphins show they're still not ready for prime time in loss to Chiefs

Published Jan. 14, 2024 1:52 p.m. ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Early in the fourth quarter of Miami's 26-7 loss in the AFC wild-card round Saturday night, Mike McDaniel took his stocking cap and threw it in disgust after a questionable roughing the passer call on defensive tackle Christian Wilkins against Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

McDaniel was justified in his anger toward referee Brad Rogers for making the call, but the direction of his ire may have been more appropriately placed toward his team for the uninspiring way it played, or at his feet for not preparing his players well enough. 

The Dolphins were the talk of the league all season because of the way McDaniel's explosive offense lit up the scoreboard, but once again Miami struggled to move the ball consistently against a good team. The Dolphins led the league in yards per game (401. 3) and finished second in points per game (29.2). But against teams that finished the season with a winning record, they averaged just 17 points per game.  

"We came here to win, and it didn't happen," McDaniel said after the game. "We fell short of our goals. We had very strong expectations for ourselves. One of the reasons a lot of people don't put themselves out there and hold those expectations is because when you fall short of them, it's emotional. It's gut-wrenching."  


On Saturday, the Dolphins were overmatched by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Miami finished an embarrassing 1-for-12 on third down, averaged just 4.5 yards per play and punted four times. The Dolphins didn't run any plays in the red zone.  

Star receiver Tyreek Hill didn't get his first touch until early in the second quarter. His second touch went for a 53-yard score on an underthrown ball by Tua Tagovailoa that he came back for. Kansas City cornerback Trent McDuffie was called for defensive pass interference on the play.  

But that was about it for Hill facing his former team. He finished with five catches for 62 yards on eight targets. 

Tagovailoa finished 20-of-39 for 199 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He grew up playing football in Hawaii, played his college ball in Alabama and now plays for the Dolphins in sun-drenched Florida. So he could be excused for not having his best performance in the freezing cold at Arrowhead Stadium.   

Tagovailoa struggled to deliver quick, accurate strikes in the wind and cold, with the ball floating or slipping out of his hand. He was harassed all night by Kansas City's defense, getting sacked twice and hit another five times. He threw a pick on his team's second possession on a promising drive, a ball over the middle intended for Jaylen Waddle, but it sailed high and into Kansas City safety Mike Edwards' hands.  

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs defense star in win over Dolphins

Certainly, the weather was a factor. The temperature at the opening kick was minus-4 degrees, the fourth-coldest game in NFL history. Miami has now lost its past 10 games when the weather is 40 degrees or below by an average margin of 17 points. 

Still, the game should have been more competitive. The Chiefs defense made sure it wasn't. Kansas City played coverage and disguised pre-snap, creating a cloudy, muddled picture for Tagovailoa in an uncomfortable environment. The Chiefs sent more than four rushers just 25% of the time. 

The staple for Miami this season has been pre-snap motion, misdirection and playing with pace in the passing game. But Tagovailoa finished 10-of-21 with just 66 passing yards on quick passes according to Next Gen Stats — just the fourth time this season he's been held under 100 passing yards when he releases the ball in under 2.5 seconds.  

McDaniel's complex offensive game plan is based on heady ballhandling, and precise timing didn't match the ice-cold elements that his team could not properly prepare for in Miami. McDaniel tried to lean on Pro Bowl running back Raheem Mostert and rookie Devon Achane by running the football, but the Chiefs held Miami's potent ground game to just 76 rushing yards. 

"I know there's some calls that I made that I liked, and there's definitely some I want to have back," McDaniel said. "And I think that goes across the board. There were a lot of really good things, and we've all learned to have high expectations for that unit. And seven points isn't good enough."  

Specifically, Tagovailoa pointed to miscommunications in running Miami's intricate offense as part of the reason for his team's struggles. 

"Am I hearing the right formation? OK, we're getting out, but I have two motions that I have to use and so there's maybe nine seconds on the clock," Tagovailoa said. "We're motioning, it's about five seconds and we don't have time to change, so now we've got a play and we've got to throw to where our [hot routes] would be, where they pressured. Spags [Spagnuolo] had a good plan." 

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The Dolphins also finished 3-of-6 on fourth down, but two of those came in the fourth quarter with Miami chasing points. While the Dolphins have had success in the regular season, they have yet to win a playoff game under McDaniel, both times playing on the road in cold environments.  

As the Dolphins turn their attention to the offseason, they need to figure out how to play better in the cold — and how to play better against the best teams. Otherwise, their regular-season offensive fireworks against subpar competition will be nothing more than eye candy for the postseason highlight reel. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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