What a difference a coaching staff makes.
You'll remember that last year, right from the time Nick Saban lied and left, Cam Cameron was the guy I wanted to become head coach. I got my wish - and we all saw how that played out. But I guess because of how I publicly stated that Cam was the coach I was hoping for, I defended him much more than I probably should have when things started going downhill last season (and many of you will attest to that).
It became very clear in a hurry that Cam is not cut out for being a head coach in this league. But I don't say this because of the team's record last season. Nor do I say it because of any statistical measure.
The most important thing a head coach can do is rally his troops. He has to bring a mentality to a team - a winning mentality. His staff must create a winning culture. He needs to be able to draw that fine line between being the players' friend and being that tough son-of-a-bitch who will let you know when you did something wrong. And most of all, he has to be respected - no matter what.
Cam Cam clearly lacked in this area.
Tony Sparano does not.
Instead, Sparano excels in these areas. He knows how to motivate. He knows how to create the kind of atmosphere and environment that winning football teams should be in every day. And he knows how to motivate.
One way to judge a coaching staff is how they deal with adversity. Losing 31-10 in Arizona and then having to travel up to New England the following week to face a team that hasn't lost a regular season game in 21 games is pretty close to the definition of adversity.
But then, at the "day-after" press conference, we learned that Sparano hadn't even gone home once his flight got in from Arizona. Instead, he came right back to the office and began to go to work - without any sleep. And I still remember one of the statements that Sparano made clear at the press conference. In a convincing tone, he said:
"We're going to go harder, I'm going to go harder and I told the team last night, and I'll say it again, 'It ain't going to be this way forever.' We're going to make it right."
And that's what Sparano and his staff set out to do last week: make it right. Step 1, which began on the flight home from Arizona, was to begin to think "outside the box" and get creative in their gameplan for the Patriots. The result, of course, was the famous "Wildcat" formation.
Step 2 was the week of practices. Sparano said they were going to go harder, and they did just that. Chad Pennington and Ricky Williams both said that Wednesday's practice, especially, was a hot, grueling practice. Ricky even called Sparano's practices last week the most intense week of practices that he ever had to endure in his career. That's how you send a message.
The final step, of course, is the big motivational speech. On Saturday night, Sparano called a meeting at the team hotel where he, among other things, told the team that he still believed in them. Said Akin Ayodele of the speech:
"The gist of it was, 'OK, you got knocked down, but what are you going to do about it? Are you going to lay down or are you going to get up and punch back?' It really was a great speech."
It's funny how adversity can either rip a team apart or bring a team together. Last season, under Cam Cameron, adversity did nothing but rip apart the team. But this season, things are different. Sparano, his staff, and his team, at just 0-2, were facing some serious adversity. But the response was different.
Without a doubt, the team has grown closer. You could see that on the field in how they played up in Foxborough. You could see it on the sidelines, especially when Jason Ferguson and Joey Porter gave Sparano the "Gatorade bucket bath." You could even see it in Tony's face and hear it in his words immediately following the victory, when this tough, no-nonsense coach was clearly emotional. Among other things, Sparano said:
"I understand what these guys have went through. You know, all these questions that I get asked a million times about whether those 25 guys that were here last year are my guys; they're my guys. And I feel for them, I really do. So I'm happy for these guys. I'm happy to see what they just got out there."
"What I envision is seeing the players in that locker room smile. That's really what I wanted, from the day I walked in this place. I wanted to see the players smile like that."
Often times, good football teams are a reflection of the head coach. Right now, it seems like that's where this thing might be headed. Tony Sparano has gotten his players to believe in him, believe in what the coaches are preaching, and to believe in themselves.
Chad Pennington, following the win, said, "He gave us great confidence in ourselves because he believed in us."
Jason Ferguson added, "We believed him, we bought into it, and it happened."
This is how championship teams are born. Sure, it's just the early stages of this birth - this transition into a winning football team. But the early signs are there. Hope has been restored.
We have really no idea where this thing is headed. Could this be the start of something special? Possibly.
But what we know for sure is that the Miami Dolphins, for the first time in what seems like forever, have actually succeeded in the face of adversity - and with that, have grown even closer.
And we have Tony Sparano and his coaching staff to thank.