The architect of the NFL’s hottest offense is one of the league’s most prominent and uniquely eccentric characters. Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel has embraced the Miami spotlight while captivating the whole league with his dry wit and quirky humor — like the way he’ll sprint into the halftime locker room after a TV interview like a carefree kid.
Between his personality and reputation as an X’s and O’s mastermind, McDaniel tends to receive most, if not all, of the credit for the Dolphins’ explosive and innovative offense.
But of course, like all great masterminds, he has plenty of help.
This is where Frank Smith, the Dolphins’ under-the-radar offensive coordinator/McDaniel’s chief sounding board and engineer, enters the equation. While Smith hasn’t yet become a household name, he has quietly worked his way into the conversation as a future head-coaching candidate.
“He’s an incredible resource,” McDaniel said of Smith. “He’s absolutely invaluable to me. … It is a really big deal how he sets the table for me, kind of will seed-plant stuff. … He kind of understands me in that way so he can plant seeds for kind of overarching themes within the game plan. ‘OK, we should be attacking this player, personnel, this area of the defense, this is where they’re vulnerable, this is where our matchup is good,’ which really gives me all the CliffsNotes to things that I can’t button down myself. … I’m very fortunate to have him.”
Like any hot-shot offensive-minded boss, McDaniel’s coaching tree will almost surely begin to grow if the Dolphins’ success continues, and Smith is expected to be on the short list of interview requests in the upcoming hiring cycle. Smith’s relative anonymity isn’t likely to last much longer.
Will Deion Sanders be a target in next NFL coach search? League execs say ‘definitely’
The 42-year-old native of Milwaukee has worked in the NFL since 2010 under some of the game’s brightest coaches, including Super Bowl winners Sean Payton, John Fox and Jon Gruden. Smith has become known in league circles for his incredible ability to relate to a wide array of people on a deep-rooted personal level, including helping tight end Darren Waller with his sobriety during their time together with the Raiders.
And Smith, his players say, has an air about him that encourages them to want to be at their very best simply to make him happy.
They refer to him as straightforward, a genuine teacher and a leader who has always prioritized the present over the future — all factors his bosses, colleagues and players have appreciated for more than a decade.
“Frank is my favorite coach I’ve ever had,” Waller said. “It was really just about helping people be better. I feel like that’s what would make a great (head) coach. If all you want is the platform, if all you want is the title, you’d be willing to sell somebody out or step on somebody to get there as opposed to elevating them and allowing that good karma to come back to you. I feel like this is an opportunity for him to have all the good karma and good energy to come back his way because all he’s ever done is give it out.”
‘You think I’d be any good at it?’
Smith got into coaching for one reason.
“To be the head coach of Miami of Ohio,” he said.
He wanted to give back to a university that had given him so much. Smith was a walk-on offensive lineman who overcame injuries to become a three-year starter and RedHawks team captain during the Ben Roethlisberger era in the early 2000s.
But coaching was never on the goal sheet for the finance major.
“I hated numbers, which is a bad recipe for being in business,” Smith said.
The late Terry Hoeppner, who was the RedHawks’ coach at the time, was a strong mentor whom Smith said had an unwavering spirit of positivity and optimism, and he recommended a coaching path to Smith.
“You think I’d be any good at it?” Smith asked.
“Absolutely,” Hoeppner told him.
Giants vs. 49ers odds, expert picks: San Francisco looks to stay undefeated with Brock Purdy
Smith worked as a graduate assistant for Hoeppner until moving on to Butler University in 2006 as an offensive line coach, then ultimately working his way up to offensive coordinator over the course of four seasons.
The learning came through losing. Smith joined a program that had gone 3-30 in its previous three seasons, and they slowly stemmed that tide. Smith, head coach Jeff Voris and the staff had to establish a new culture from virtually nothing. They had to figure out how a team could transform from accepting losing to completely rejecting the idea. The record improved each season until they went 11-1 and earned a playoff berth in 2009.
“I didn’t understand the mindset when you have failure and repeated failure why people (so) easily give up,” Smith said. “It’s easier for your ego. It’s easier for yourself to not invest all in when you’re not having success. So it’s really learning how to train the mindset that’s necessary to get that foundation, so you can push yourself, and believe in yourself and believe in your teammates. It started from the ground up. How do you start something? How do you teach something? So many things that naturally come to people who are successful because they never experienced certain failures, and we had to do it. We had to teach work ethic, belief, trust in yourself, trust in your teammates.”
In hindsight, Smith recognized that his core coaching principles were reinforced during his years at Miami and Butler. From there, his path went into hyperdrive.
With the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, just down the road from Butler, Smith met up one night with New Orleans Saints strength coach Dan Dalrymple, who previously worked at Miami. So, too, did Payton and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. They hit it off, and Payton hired Smith in 2010 as the Saints’ assistant O-line coach.
And through the massive jump in talent level, Smith learned another finance lesson. He went from making $39,000 at Butler to $30,000 with the Saints, who were coming off a Super Bowl victory.
“It’s the greatest thing that happened to me,” Smith said. “There’s an element of luck to wind up in a certain situation. But after that, it’s on you with what you do with it.”
Smith went from calling plays at Butler to managing binders and film breakdowns with the Saints. He was also legendary coaching consultant Howard Mudd’s airport chauffeur. And Smith didn’t appear to be joking when he talked about how Mudd even critiqued how closely he parked to the curb.
But Smith was a listener and a learner, and Mudd seemed to like him, so he continued to feed him information. If Smith didn’t retain certain lessons, Mudd got in his face and challenged him, reminding Smith that an entire team was counting on him to master his responsibilities.
Smith also observed the way Kromer patiently conveyed information to players and coaches. Dalrymple told Smith it was, in fact, OK to leave the facility at night to take a nap. Assistants Joe Lombardi and Pete Carmichael listened to — and answered, to Smith’s amazement — his millions of questions. And with Payton in the office next door, Smith could listen to breakdowns of roster construction or the intricacies of the West Coast offense.
“When you look back, I can’t even imagine how truly lucky I am,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a better place that you could go to start your career than the New Orleans Saints in 2010.”
The Chicago Bears hired Ryan Pace as their general manager in 2015, and the former Saints director of player personnel pushed hard to get Smith on Fox’s staff. Smith had no plans of leaving New Orleans, but Pace was persistent, and Fox presented an opportunity to lead the tight ends room.
Fox’s offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, ran an entirely different system that was the equivalent of learning a new language. It was hard, but it helped Smith diversify his philosophies.
The Bears cleaned house after the 2017 season, and Smith for the first time wondered if his coaching career was in the balance.
It changed, for sure, but not in the way he feared.
‘People shape your journey’
Gruden hired Smith as his tight ends coach in 2018, and Smith called it “absolute heaven” to learn about offensive schemes with the Raiders.
Midway through that season, the Raiders signed Waller off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad. Waller, who entered the NFL in 2015 as a sixth-round pick and a wide receiver, spent his rookie season on injured reserve and served a four-game suspension in 2016 and a season-long suspension in 2017 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. By the time Waller arrived in Oakland, he was recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and on the path to sobriety.
Smith, through past experiences with a couple of friends, understood the resources Waller would need to be a successful person — and from there, a better football player. As soon as Waller got to the Raiders, Smith got him set up with meetings and connected him with people in the community who could aid his recovery.
“He knows the type of structure and routine it takes to continue to live a normal life, because I can’t just show up and play football and expect my life to be OK,” Waller said. “It has to be structured from a spiritual standpoint first.
“I would talk to him about how I was feeling, if I was feeling a certain way, or if something in my life was impacting me in any way. There was no hesitancy as far as going to him.”
Smith was also impactful in Waller’s ongoing transition to tight end. Waller caught 12 passes in 18 career games with the Ravens, but Smith’s coaching style resonated differently, especially in the spring of 2019.
Smith thought back upon his tenure at Butler. But this time, rather than shaping and developing an offense, it became about shaping and developing one particular player.
Waller didn’t have much self-confidence on the field. When he made a mistake in practice, he became consumed by getting reamed out by the coaches rather than making the corrections for the next play. But Smith’s approach struck a different chord.
NFL starting QBs haven’t been this young in 60 years. Here’s what it could mean
“I remember one time in the spring, I would always look over like, did I do that right? Because I would always get yelled at before,” Waller said. “I came over to the sideline and was like, ‘Did I do that OK?’ (Smith) was like, ‘Whatever you just did, do that for the next decade, and we’ll be OK.’ I was like, wow. It made you feel confident. It made me feel like I was a force to be reckoned with on the field, not to blow my head up but to take every part of the process and know I’m making an impact with everything I do. He really helped me with my confidence.”
Waller produced the best two seasons of his career with Smith from 2019 to 2020, totaling 197 receptions for 2,341 yards, 12 touchdowns and his only Pro Bowl selection.
“People shape your journey,” Smith said. “We’re fortunate for some who are really helpful and beneficial, and you have that genuine connection that allows you to mutually grow.
“When you reflect back on how lucky you are to spend time with those people, Darren will always be a tough subject for me. Man, that story never goes away. How many guys go from that to superstar, you know?”
Smith had to pause to collect himself.
“It was such a cool journey,” he continued. “He’s like the first guy who is like a little brother to me. It was cool to watch him get married to Kelsey (Plum).”
Smith was a groomsman in Waller’s wedding last offseason. And when Waller has had a break in his schedule in the spring or summer, he’s traveled to Miami just to hang out with Smith for a couple of days.
“Things in your personal life can affect you in your approach on the field,” Waller said. “A lot of times, I felt like there was nobody who understood me on my journey who I dealt with in the football environment. To an extent, that’s still very true, because there aren’t too many guys who are walking the path that I’m walking. He’s somebody I could talk to or was open. He never pried too much but also really had an open door.”
‘Never a quiver of a second guess’
As soon as Brandon Staley was hired as the Los Angeles Chargers’ head coach in 2021, he made Smith a priority hire. The pair worked together for a season with the Bears and Smith’s subsequent work with Waller was gaining recognition in league circles, so Staley tabbed Smith as his run-game coordinator and line coach.
“It’s not just the coach, it’s also to be able to connect with the person and bring out the best in them,” Staley said. “Bringing that group together (in 2021) and having one of the top-five offenses in the league, he did a lot of really special work that year.”
The Chargers selected left tackle Rashawn Slater with the 13th pick in the 2021 draft, and Smith took him out to dinner as soon as the rookie got to Los Angeles. Slater doesn’t remember talking too much during that two-hour meal, but he was impressed by Smith’s plan.
There had been a pre-draft knock on Slater for potentially not having the requisite length to play tackle, but Smith didn’t care. He chose to focus on Slater’s strengths with his balance and footwork rather than guard against his shortcomings. So Smith instructed Slater to utilize a unique pass-blocking set and to focus more on angles than, say, a tackle with prototypical size.
The result? Slater was the first rookie left tackle to make the Pro Bowl in nine years.
“The willingness to give that much freedom and trust to a rookie always meant a lot to me,” Slater said. “If you have a trusting relationship between you and your coach, subconsciously that makes you want to fight even harder. As a rookie coming in, I was making all kinds of mistakes throughout camp. But he never for a second made me doubt whether I could do it. It was always, ‘Keep working on this.’ There was never a quiver of a second guess that I felt from him. That instilled a lot of confidence, and I always appreciated that from him.”
The Dolphins hired McDaniel as their head coach in 2022, and the offensive guru wanted a coordinator with like-minded run-focused principles but experience in different systems. Smith fit the profile and, thanks to their time together during a 2021 summer coaching summit, it helped Smith’s case that McDaniel had learned the two of them had a similar sense of humor.
They instantly hit it off last season, and their chemistry was integral to the Dolphins’ startling offensive explosion during a 3-0 start. It became a far greater challenge after quarterback Tua Tagovailoa battled through concussions that eventually ended his season, but the Dolphins still reached the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Heading into Week 3, the Dolphins are 2-0 after road wins against the Chargers and New England Patriots. Their 60 offensive points are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the NFL.
And if this pace continues, Smith will be on the head-coaching radar in short order.
‘And I believed in myself’
It’s all still surreal to Smith.
For so long, he never wanted to be anything more than the head coach at Miami of Ohio. Now, he’s on the cusp of a potential head job in the NFL.
Through it all, he compartmentalizes by focusing on his roots and not where the branches may sprout.
“I’m always humbled by all of this,” Smith said. “But at the same time, I always believed I was going to achieve this. So as you start with a goal to be the head coach of Miami of Ohio, to give back to those who gave to you, (and) now as your goal changes to wanting to ascend to the next level in this league, you never forget where you are.
“When I was leaving the Saints, Sean Payton asked me a question. I looked at him and said, ‘I’m a walk-on from Milwaukee, Wisc. I’ll never forget that a day in my life. It’s a constant daily challenge to prove to myself that I have what it takes to keep growing and improving. The day you forget where you came from and how hard it was to get here is the day you take for granted all of the people who helped you get there and invest in you.’”
Smith knows he’s evolved along the way. As a 20-something college coach, he was fiery, intense and thought he knew it all. His Saints tenure was a five-year education in life in the NFL, and he was on a constant journey for information with their experienced staff.
But Smith said the last five years, really since he joined the Raiders and each stop since, have been the best reflection of himself as a person and coach. The relationships he forged with Waller and Slater have come to define the type of person, the type of coach, he wants to be.
Vic’s Picks, Week 3: Tua Tagovailoa keeps playing like an MVP
Each player praised Smith for his leadership in meetings. If the head coach called out a player for messing up, Smith would stand up and say it was his fault for not teaching them better. He’s never sold out a single player in front of the team.
“He had a great ability to relate to you as a person and to individually work through stuff rather than trying to do a blanket solution to everything,” Slater said. “One of the biggest things you see that can make someone a great head coach is their people skills and the way they connect with people. He’s always been outstanding at forging those relationships. And he was very up front. When he talked to us, we knew he wanted to be an OC one day and he wanted to be a head coach one day. But he was so devoted to the present. He wasn’t afraid to talk about that stuff, though. Part of that is just his realness. He’s not a bulls—ter.”
If Smith gets a head-coaching opportunity, it won’t be because he’s “a McDaniel guy.” It’ll be because Smith has shown throughout his career a willingness to adapt offensive philosophies to fit the strengths of his players and put them in positions to succeed. And they’ve succeeded under Smith because of their genuine love for him as a person.
Coaching has become more of a relationship business. And real relationships are forged when the coach first trusts in himself — then it naturally spreads to those around them.
“There was a quote from Muhammad Ali (I leaned on) when I was in high school,” Smith said. “I was trying to find my way into college. ‘It’s a lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.’
“That’s the one thing as you coach and you teach and try to reach people, you’ve got to believe in yourself. There are going to be good days and bad days. You have to have an unwavering conviction in what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. In the good times and bad times, I’ve always had that.”
(Photo illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic)
(Photos: Harry How / Getty Images; Michael Laughlin / South Florida Sun Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)