If the head coach for the Miami Dolphins, Tony Sparano, is starting to change the minds of fans and media, you can bet that he is implanting the same thoughts on owner Stephen Ross. Four weeks from now, Ross will have to make a decision. Fire his head coach who as little as a month ago was a candidate for the first NFL firing of the season, to now being a coach who may have saved his own coaching life. Can Sparano return in 2012?
This is no longer about wins and losses. This is about how the team plays and how they appear to be prepared. The Miami Dolphins are a different team than they were during that 0-7 opening stretch. Somehow, some way, this team found out to win football games. There are some fans and some in the media who will point to the talent, the guys on the field who make the plays, but any finger pointed at them, should also be pointed at the man running the show. Tony Sparano, like his team, is a completely different coach.
Sparano began changing up his practice routines following the loss to Denver and it almost paid off against the Giants. He changed the full contact practices to non-full contact giving up 5 of his 14 allowed contact practices. He moved Saturday practices to 10 am instead of 8 am allowing his players to sleep in longer. They finally are not breaking down through the course of a game. The question now is has he done enough to save his job after the season is over?
Aside from the Green Bay Packers, no other team is as hot as the Miami Dolphins are right now and had it not been for a last second field goal on Thanksgiving, the team would have a realistic shot at 9-7. They are playing that good. On the hip of that play is a coach who not only acknowledged by a side slap comment that he may not be here next year, two weeks ago, the downtrodden man who stood at a mic every week is finally not being asked if his job is safe this week or next.
Tony Sparano still has four games to impress Stephen Ross but already his team is rallying behind him. They sense the change as much as it is seen. They feel like they can win and now understand they can win. Offensively, the team isn’t playing to not lose. Evidenced by a third and long situation on their own side of the 20 with time ticking down, Sparano’s team actually threw the ball for a first down. Sparano and his trick plays! I mean, who would have seen that coming?
Then of course there is Matt Moore who every game appears to take little strides in the “right” direction. Statistically his game on Sunday was average but the way he led the team and communicated with them has also been a part of a turnaround. Brian Daboll‘s offense is crisp and precise and the team is executing. Even the right side of the line has played better. There are still holes, a decision needs to be made regarding the QB for next season and beyond, the line needs to get fixed, but nothing is as important now or at the end of the season than the future of the teams head coach.
The biggest decision Ross has to make is this. If he keeps Sparano and he is wrong, the team could very well open up to more losses next season and put the team behind the eight ball out of the gate once again. Fans won’t come to the stadium, the team won’t win, and to start the 2013 season, the Dolphins will have to start over. Something that could have been done a full year before.
On the other hand is the word “continuity” and if this team is playing better directly because of Tony Sparano, then an entire off-season will only help them get better. Let’s remember, a lot of new faces came to Miami this off-season who are part of the teams makeover. Mike Pouncey, Daniel Thomas, Charles Clay, Reggie Bush, and Matt Moore are the bread and butter of Miami’s offense at the moment. Not one of them walked into the training facility until August at the start of training camp. Bush and Moore weren’t allowed in until a week after it started. With the poor execution early in the season, who knows if we would be better or worse if say Chad Henne who served as the coach this past off-season would have stayed healthy.
The point is this, no longer is Tony Sparano a sure to be fired head coach. The remaining weeks will paint that picture but Sparano is gaining the right accolades from the media, even national media, fans, and his peers. He has weathered the horrific storm of this past season that likely added a few extra years on his age. Yet he never once tossed a player under the bus, never once wavered on his team, and never lost a locker room that was poised for collapse. And at the center of all that is still a four game win season with four to go.
It’s hard to predict what Ross will do. Coaching changes bring about philosophy changes, attitude changes, and team mechanics. From simple 3-4 to 4-3 defense changes to more in depth scouting routines, and none of that guarantees early success or success at all. Bill Parcells was supposed to be the man who would bring Miami back to prominence. That never materialized. To some fans, the name Sparano is tied to Parcells and they feel a clean sweep of everything “Parcellian” should go. On the other hand, this is no longer a Parcells blueprint. This is no longer a Parcells style team. This is far more exciting.
Two months ago I would have had no problem advising Ross what to do with his team and his head coach, today, I’m not so sure that keeping Sparano isn’t a wise move. At the core of the issue is one thing. Winning. Winning will put fans back in the stadium, back into the playoffs, and back to their historical roots of being relevant. Someone has to drive that bus. Do you stick with the model you have for another few hundred miles or do you buy a new vehicle that you need to take a little slower out of the gate?
The Dolphins are 4-1 in their last five games. Lost late to the NY Giants and Denver Broncos. The coach has been thrown over the fire and the team has been laughed at. Yet they still go out and play like they have a chance to make the post-season.
Sparano is making that decision for Ross a hard one.