If you are like me, you have spent the first couple of seasons trying to figure out what Tony Sparano means when he talks about a player in a press conference, and uses phrases like "He’s improving, he really is." After all, no head coach actually says what they mean, right?
Over the past decade, we have had: J.J., the master of spin and hairspray; Wannstedt, the guy with a limited imagination and vocabulary ("Fiedler" and "punt" being his favorite words); Saban, who never let the truth get in the way of a good story; and Cameron, who - let’s face it – said so many goofy things that nobody ever really knew what he was talking about.
So when Tony Sparano came to the Dolphins a little over two years ago, I listened to his press conferences with a somewhat skeptical ear, and started looking for clues as to what he really thought about players and the team. I began watching his movements; does he look down when he answers a particular question; is he gripping the podium tighter; or is he secretly trying to signal Harvey Greene to wrap things up.
Come on! Don’t tell me you all weren’t skeptical as well!
Well, here is what I have been able to determine from watching Tony Sparano address difficult player questions with the new media over the past two seasons:
First off, he’s a straight shooter, who will stand in there and answer questions to the best of his ability. If a subject is off limits, like personal discussions between himself and his players, he says so. And he tries to protect his players in public, but not at the expense of the truth. I have seen a few people question his truthfulness in a couple of situations in which he has made a generally positive statement about a player, only to have us find out a couple of days later that the player is being released or traded. But I would maintain that even in these instances, Sparano was not being deceitful or misleading. Sparano is going to represent his players in a positive light to the world, and deal with any personal or performance issues privately. And for that, I respect him.
But that doesn’t mean that you take everything ol’ Tony says at face value….., no sir! Sparano DOES have certain "tells" when he is talking about players. Just like poker players watch their opponents for clues as to whether or not they are bluffing, I believe we can gain some insight into what is going on with the players "behind the public front" by listening to the specific way Sparano talks about them.
So Rule #1: When Tony says a guy is good, he’s good. End of story.
For example, when Tony Sparano really likes a player’s performance, he will bring it up in spite of himself:
"I personally don't like to single out any of these guys, but I've been really impressed with what's happening with Dansby right now,"
He then goes on to talk about the specifics that Karlos Dansby brings to the team that he really likes. Along the same lines, Tony will bring up players on his own that he thinks are doing well, or have done something noteworthy in camp.
Rule #2: "Needs to work hard, needs to improve, needs to be more consistent, needs to be on the field" translates to "Player is on the outside looking in."
The other thing I have noticed about Sparano is that during a press conference, when a player is brought up that is not particularly impressing him, he wants to minimize the discussion, but he doesn’t avoid it. He will say things like "[The player] knows what he needs to do to improve", or if a player is missing time due to an injury, "We can’t evaluate him if he isn’t out here, so he needs to be out here and I know he knows that".
In training camp, when Tony talks about what "the player" knows that he needs to do to improve, this generally means that if camp ended today, he would not earn a starting position, and possibly would not be on the final 53 man roster. And you can bet that he has already had a much "sterner" conversation with "the player" in private.
Richie Incognito comes to mind, currently competing for a starting role. Patrick Turner was here for a while, but may have turned the corner with his recent performances in camp.
Rule #3: "Is working hard, is improving" translates to "Player is doing his best, but it isn’t good enough to make the roster"
This may be the kiss of death for a Sparano player, when Tony starts to sound like he is making excuses for a player, like the "working hard; improving" comments. These comments are often followed by an attempt to sound sincere, when Tony probably is feeling that he is skirting the boundaries between being positive and actually blowing smoke. How many times did we hear about Ernest Wilford, "He is working hard, he really is!", and "He is doing everything we ask of him, he really is, and hopefully he will be able to get on the field soon." Or even Gibril Wilson. I remember Sparano once saying (I think it was after the New Orleans game, where Wilson’s poor performance really stood out) something along the lines of that it wasn’t all Gibril’s fault; that if other guys out there had made plays, Wilson would not have been in the position he was in to miss a tackle. Now he never said Wilson played well, or that he DIDN’T make critical mistakes – he just said that it wasn’t ALL his fault. But I bet that isn’t what he said to Wilson.
When Tony talks about a player "working hard", or generally "improving", without being able to point to specific positive plays that "the player" has made, or a specific positive impact that he has on the team, it is probably a smoke screen and "the player" is not going to be on the team in the near future.
In this respect, Pat White is the guy I would probably think of first.
I have come to respect the man more than any coach we have had since Shula, but I also realize that -while I trust that he is telling the truth - he isn’t necessarily telling you everything he thinks.
He's bound to have other catch phrases that he uses in certain situations, so if you have one you have picked up on, I'd love to hear what it is.
Listening to Sparano-speak so far this training camp, what noteworthy players do you think are in danger of not making it to the final 53?