Is Tony Sparano's seat getting warm?

MINNEAPOLIS - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins watches from the sidelines during the game against the Minnesota Vikings on September 19 2010 at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis Minnesota. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

When news broke that Bill Parcells was stepping aside and turning the keys over to general manager Jeff Ireland, everyone acted like this change was a big deal. Other than the odd timing of the announcement - just days before the start of the regular season - I didn't see what all the fuss was about. After all, this was always the plan.

In my opinion, the most important story to come out of this change at the top is that Jeff Ireland now answers to nobody other than owner Stephen Ross. According to the Miami Herald, Ireland had his contract amended around the time of Parcells' departure. Ireland previously answered to Parcells, who was the VP of Football Operations. Obviously that isn't the case. But Ireland also no longer answers to Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, either.

Even more interesting, Armando Salguero adds that a stipulation was also put into his contract that prevents Ross from hiring another "football czar" and placing him above Ireland in the team's football hierarchy. That means all of those Carl Peterson rumors that have always been lingering on the back burner because of Peterson's relationship with Ross can be put to bed - at least as long as Ireland is under contract.

And that brings me to the point of this discussion. Both Jeff Ireland and head coach Tony Sparano signed four year deals back in 2008. Each will see their deals expire following the 2011 season. What that means for both of these guys is that this upcoming offseason is going to be very interesting - possible lockout notwithstanding.

While Ireland is every bit as important to this team's success as anyone, I think Sparano's future is the more interesting story line right now.

After helping lead the greatest single season turnaround in NFL history in his first year as head coach, Sparano's team has been mediocre at best. That's the only way you can describe a 9-11 record over the past season and a quarter since going 11-5 in 2008. And now Sparano will face the prospect of entering the 2011 season as a potential lame-duck head coach if he doesn't receive a contract extension.

Generally speaking, it's rare for head coaches to actually enter the final year of their contract. Usually, they either receive that extension - even if it's just a one year extension - or are relieved of their duties. Recently, though, we're seeing more lame-duck coaches than I can recall.

This year, for example, there are two high profile lame-ducks. John Fox is in the final year of his deal in Carolina and likely won't be back. In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis remains without a new deal.

But these cases are more the exception rather than the rule. You can't help but wonder, though, if Tony Sparano is going to go through a similar situation in 2011.

Note that I am not saying the Dolphins could or would fire Ireland and Sparano following this season. What I'm wondering is what has to happen in 2010 for these two to receive extensions and avoid the awkward situation that would follow in 2011 if they do enter the season in the final year of their contracts.

For that matter, are these two even tied together? Is Sparano's future in Miami connected to Jeff Ireland's fate?

I personally like Sparano. I think the players like him, too. But these are some key questions that no one other than Stephen Ross has the answers to. And as I sit here in mid October, I can't help but wonder what the future holds for both Sparano and Ireland.

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