Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson shakes hands with Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano.
There is the popular saying "too little, too late." We already know the change in Miami's season, in which they've gone 4-1 in the past 5 games, has been too little, too late. Now the attention turns to the man responsible for the turnaround. Has the change in Miami's season been too little, too late to save Sparano's job? Even if Miami finishes 4-0 in the final month and finishes the year with an 8-1 record, it does nothing to diminish the fact the Dolphins will enter 2012 with three consecutive seasons finishing .500 or under. Still, an 8-1 finish would leave many excited for 2012 and will certainly divide the fans into two groups, those that think Sparano should return in 2012 and those that think it's too little, too late. Instead of getting into those views, which we'll have until at least January to debate, we'll look at exactly what Sparano has changed to create this debate in the first place.
It's obvious the Dolphin players still support Sparano. He's always had a good following of players that have backed him, but he's also had many players that didn't like him. Remember when Ricky Williams said Sparano had lost the locker room? It's likely he didn't lose the entire team, but there is little doubt he lost some of the players. It only takes a few players to no longer believe in their leader for the team to collapse. Chemistry is that fragile. Now, you can't find a single person in Miami's locker room that doesn't back Sparano.
Kory Sheets once said Sparano either whispers or yells, but there was no in between. A player from last year's team told the Miami Herald he would advise other players not to play for the Dolphin staff. That is pretty damning and is a strong indicator of a team and coaching staff in peril. But now we see a completely different attitude based on current comments by Dolphins.
"He needs to stay, man. I'm going to push for him. We just started slow. We have a great coach. He knows what it takes now to put us in a position to win ballgames. It just takes time, man. Rome wasn't built in one day. Can't turn your back on him right now. Can't do it. Got to let him stay," said Karlos Dansby
"We've relaxed a lot of things," linebacker Jason Taylor said. "Tony has made a lot of changes, and I think from Wednesday through Sunday, our whole attitude has changed. Our whole demeanor is changed. Our swagger has changed. This team is a lot looser now and not playing uptight, not preparing uptight, not acting uptight. And that shows on Sunday."
"I haven't met a tougher guy than Tony. He's like Teflon Don right now. Everything just falls off his back, and he keeps going about his business and could care less what people say. I think the team has taken on that attitude, too. We're just going about our business. You may not like us, you may be upset that we're winning, but we really don't give a damn," Taylor added.
Those are very strong comments for their coach. Dansby practically demanded for Sparano to stay and Taylor talks about how the team has taken on Sparano's image and have some swagger. A team that disapproves of their leader certainly wouldn't take on his persona. Those are strong indicators Sparano doesn't just have some players in his locker room supporting him, but that he has all of the players in the locker room behind him.
Among the changes Sparano has implemented has been his attitude and his approach to practice. He's admittedly stayed more positive throughout the week and hasn't been a tough-as-nails, yell until they get it type of Head Coach his mentor, Bill Parcells has been. Instead, Sparano has become more player friendly and has even bumped practices back. Instead of players generally reporting for practice at 7:30 or 8 in the morning during the week and on Saturdays for meetings, he has bumped the time back to 10. Practices are shorter and less rigorous as well. Sparano believes the changes allow the players more rest and may have contributed to improved health this year. The changes have seemed to work. "We're having fun," linebacker Kevin Burnett said. "I can't explain how much that takes away the pain and the feeling of being on the losing end of the spectrum."
Despite the NFL allowing up to 14 practices in pads during the regular season, Sparano believes his team has been in pads less than 5 times. Many could think this may lead to Miami playing soft, but one opposing player that recently faced Miami praised them for their physical play. It shows on the field too exactly how physical Miami, especially their defense, has been over the past two months. The last time Miami was in pads during the week was before Miami's game against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
"I knew something needed to change. Coming into work that day after the Denver game, that was a hard loss. We’ve changed everything: the way we lift, when we lift, how we stretch. Some of it is even input from them.
"We’ve been more efficient, quicker on and off. I’ve changed my approach with them sometimes. Not all businesslike. That’s created a good environment. They’re excited about coming in here. There really is a tremendous buzz in the building," Sparano said.
Whether you support Sparano or not, he deserves credit for realizing that he was part of the problem and the atmosphere needed to change. Beyond the way the team prepares during the week, Miami has become more aggressive on the field. They've opened up their offense a bit and have used more alignments. Jake Long has been lined out wide and Miami started to utilize Reggie Bush more often on end-arounds instead of trying to pound the defense to submission. Miami has moved to a more explosive offense instead of the three yards and a cloud of dust. As a result, Miami has been getting better on 3rd down conversions, red zone scoring, and have improved the amount of plays that have gone over 20 yards. The team isn't only more explosive, more physical, and having more fun on the field, but they're becoming more entertaining to watch. They're playing like one of the best teams in the AFC.
Sparano told his players a story after the loss to the New York Giants sunk Miami to 0-7. He was trying to convey to the players that they should not give up. They had to keep pushing along. That's a tough message to deliver to a locker room for an 0-7 team.
"A guy gets on his boat, decides he’s going to sail out to sea. He’s in the middle of a storm, the boat capsizes. Kind of like being 0-7. He ends up drifting ashore, deserted island, has to fend for himself. He builds shelter, finds food on his own, but nobody can find him. He’s been out there for months. Everybody thinks he’s done.
"One day, he sets out to take a little walk around this island. He comes back, the place is burning up, shelter’s on fire. Food is gone… He fights all night long to die the fire out. Dies the fires out, but he passes out after working all night. Wakes up, to somebody poking him on the shoulder. He said, ‘How’d you find me?’ Big boat sitting out there. Coast Guard came. He said, ‘We saw your smoke.’ Last couple weeks, there’s been a little bit of smoke."
The rest of the NFL has seen the smoke coming from Miami. They're a team nobody wants to face. Now the only question is whether Stephen Ross has seen the smoke. Will he come in and rescue Sparano? Maybe the changes Sparano has made will be enough to earn him another season. Maybe despite of everything he has done, it's been too little, too late.