MIAMI -- The postgame vibe in the visitors locker room was less despondent than resolute. The visiting Miami Dolphins had just given the Buffalo Bills more of a challenge than expected from a 14-point underdog, especially one without its starting quarterback.
The 34-31 wild-card loss ended Mike McDaniel's first season as a head coach and was a microcosm of the roller-coaster season. There was the gratifying success of making it to the playoffs and the disappointment of not having Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback because he was in concussion protocol. There was surprisingly sharp execution by the defense and a brutal delay-of-game penalty on a fourth-and-1 that McDaniel blamed on miscommunication. There was the exhilaration of a possible upset and the realization the season that once fostered Super Bowl hopes was over.
"There's always good and there's always bad," McDaniel said after the game.
McDaniel arrived in Miami with the reputation of a creative, offensive-minded coach after five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, including as offensive coordinator in 2021. He was tasked with unlocking the potential of Tagovailoa, the No. 5 overall draft pick in 2020 who had struggled his first two seasons.
For three games, the results couldn't have gone better. The Dolphins started 3-0 for the first time in four years and Tagovailoa had fans chanting "M-V-P" with huge performances. But an apparent head injury Tagovailoa suffered in a Week 3 victory over the Bills triggered a chain of events that would change the narrative.
Praise about the way McDaniel guided one of the league's top offenses through the first couple of weeks yielded to pointed questions about Tagovailoa's being allowed to play four days after the Bills game. Those questions then turned to intense criticism when Tagovailoa was carted off the Cincinnati Bengals' field on Sept. 29 with a concussion.
McDaniel experienced a range of emotions throughout his debut season. He laughed on stage during Tagovailoa's preseason charity luau and fought back tears after Tagovailoa was briefly hospitalized in Cincinnati. There was a five-game winning streak, a five-game losing streak, multiple NFL investigations -- including one that resulted in a change to the concussion policy -- and there was a playoff berth, Miami's first in six years. It was a season of triumph and controversy, and it was one that ended as it began -- with questions about the team's quarterback situation.
"Without question, I know I did the very best that I could for all the people involved, which is extremely important to me," McDaniel said after the finale. "So I'm proud of that, and I know there will be plenty of things I'll get better at, which is the way I look at the expectation for myself and my job. That will never change.
"My primary concern is I do everything possible to try to put people in position for success, because that's what this role can offer, and I'm happy with that, but not happy with the result. I don't think I'll ever be until it's the final game of the season and you're the champion."
McDaniel is terrible at Zoom calls. His words.
But that's how his first interview for his first head-coaching job was conducted. Despite his self-deprecation, the roughly 50-minute Zoom call last January went well enough for Miami general manager Chris Grier to schedule a second interview.
When McDaniel flew to Miami for his Feb. 5 interview at the team facility, he said he did everything possible not to get on his flight back to California. After seven hours in Miami Gardens he didn't just want a head-coaching job, he wanted this job.
"I was really, really, really hoping I'd get the job, not because of the obvious reasons," he said at the time. "But specifically because I did see such a vision of like, 'Man, this is a perfect fit.' And I really wanted it, but I was at peace with the process because all of us involved, I feel like we were very transparent and authentic.
"It was very comfortable. It seemed natural, but you just never know."
McDaniel remembers the exact time he got the call offering him the job -- 2:46 p.m. PT on Feb. 7.
"A game-changer," he said after getting the job.
Once his hiring was announced, one of the first conversations McDaniel had -- during his flight to South Florida -- was a FaceTime call with Tagovailoa, telling the QB he wanted to bring out his greatness. McDaniel knew about the criticism of Tagovailoa, and he was being proactive by reaching out with positive reinforcement.
It was a good start to their relationship, but still just words.
The reserved Tagovailoa was swayed two months later, when McDaniel arrived at his charity luau in Hollywood, Florida, eventually bounding onto the main stage for a drum lesson.
"[The luau was] the first occasion that I can remember him showing interest, and that's where I would say our relationship has grown and built from there," Tagovailoa said before the season. "And then a lot of conversations with him in his office. And not just him calling me up there, but me going up there by myself just to talk to him."
Tagovailoa said McDaniel would feel bad during those conversations if he found out players were planning to hang out outside the facility without inviting him. A reporter reminded the quarterback that you can't invite the head coach to hang out.
"You can," Tagovailoa replied. "This one, you can."
McDaniel's relationship with his starting quarterback was put under a national spotlight in Week 3.
Fresh off a 21-point comeback against the Baltimore Ravens in which Tagovailoa threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns, the 2-0 Dolphins entered a Week 3 matchup with the Bills that would impact not only the Dolphins, but the entire league.
Tagovailoa was pushed down after throwing a pass, fell and hit the back of his head on the turf. He stumbled while attempting to return to the huddle and was taken to the locker room shortly before halftime. Although the initial announcement said he had sustained a head injury, an unaffiliated neurological consultant -- along with the Dolphins' medical staff -- ultimately attributed his stumble to previously reported back and ankle injuries, and he was allowed to return to the game to start the second half.
Four days later, in the face of widespread criticism, Tagovailoa was cleared to play against the Bengals.
"If Tua takes the field tonight, it's a massive step back for #concussion care in the NFL," tweeted Chris Nowinski, who co-founded Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. "If he has a 2nd concussion that destroys his season or career, everyone involved will be sued & should lose their jobs, coaches included. We all saw it, even they must know this isn't right."
Tagovailoa doesn't remember being sacked and whipped to the ground near the end of the second quarter against the Bengals, banging the back of his head on the turf. The collision knocked him unconscious. McDaniel stayed by Tagovailoa's side as he remained on the ground for roughly 12 minutes. They spoke, but McDaniel said there was a grogginess to Tagovailoa's voice that made him almost unrecognizable.
The league changed its concussion policy as a result of Tagovailoa's situation. If a player exhibits the type of symptoms Tagovailoa did in the Bills game, he won't be allowed to return.
"If there had been anything lingering with his head, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I put someone out there and put them in harm's way," an emotional McDaniel said after the Bengals game. "This is the relationship I have with this human being.
"I take that seriously. ... I will never be comfortable with a player getting carted off the field. Ever."
Tagovailoa missed the Dolphins' next two games, both of which they lost, but cleared concussion protocol prior to the Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings. McDaniel chose not to play him, considering the lack of practice time he'd gotten since entering protocol. The loss to the Vikings was Miami's third straight.
The Dolphins embarked on a five-game win streak once Tagovailoa returned in Week 7, at one point climbing to No. 1 in ESPN's weekly Power Rankings.
McDaniel said upon reviewing game film, during which Tagovailoa threw three fourth-quarter interceptions, he saw "inconsistencies" that caused him to prod. After questioning his quarterback, he sent Tagovailoa to the team physician, who diagnosed him with another concussion and placed him into protocol.
Medical experts advised McDaniel it was "critical" for the quarterback to focus solely on each present day; with that advice in mind, McDaniel did not establish a timeline for Tagovailoa's return and wouldn't even talk football with him.
"I feel compelled every conversation to reiterate that 'Remember, there's no such thing as a timeline. This is about today,'" he said late in the season. "So I do feel compelled to do that early in the conversation, which if he's thinking about going there, I kind of snuff that out before the process.
"It's important that he has that concrete reminder, because that's a tough thing to do when you're so forward-thinking like a professional athlete is, is to just say, 'I'm just going to do this today and not think about tomorrow until tomorrow.'"
Several days after being eliminated, the Dolphins made their first offseason move by firing defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, safeties coach Steve Gregory, outside linebackers coach Ty McKenzie and assistant linebackers coach Steve Ferentz.
While their defensive staff will look different, their quarterback is expected to remain the same. Tagovailoa is expected to return as Miami's starting quarterback next season, according to Grier and McDaniel.
Miami has until May 1 to pick up Tagovailoa's fifth-year option; the Dolphins can extend him or wait and see how he performs next season.
"Everything is on the table for us," Grier said recently.
McDaniel's main concern is Tagovailoa's health, and once that is in a safe place, the coach can't help but think about what lies ahead.
"He's a great player with only improvement in front of him," McDaniel said after the finale. "We're talking about a 24-year-old quarterback that I think when I signed up for this job I spent six months trying to convince people that he's good."
Many of the same questions McDaniel faced during his first season will be waiting for him this fall. Should the Dolphins sign Tagovailoa to a long-term extension? What can the team do to reduce the risk of more concussions? Can McDaniel get this team to the next level?
As far as leading the team, especially through rough times, McDaniel already has proved himself to some.
"It says a lot, and it's easy to follow a guy who leads the way he does, in the manner that he does," defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said recently. "He never flinches. He never blinks.
"He embraces adversity, so you as a man and you as a follower of a leader like that, it's definitely something I take from him. Just embracing adversity and just looking at it all as an opportunity."