The Dolphins’ Blame Game: Tony Sparano


The Miami Dolphins, specifically owner Stephen Ross, will be faced with a decision (note I did not say a tough decision) when the season ends.  Barring a miracle turnaround by the 0-4 Phins, Tony Sparano is serving his last few months as an NFL head coach in Miami.  The team is in shambles, no one is stepping up, and there is enough blame to go around from top to bottom.

Over the past two days I have examined the blame that is placed on the shoulders of Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland.  Today we look at the blame that belongs to the head coach, Tony Sparano.  Sparano entered the season as a lame duck coach and he will leave the season as not the worst coach in Dolphins history but far from the best or even close to the top of the past HC’s.  But where does the line cross from being someone else’s responsibility to Sparano’s?

Is it his fault for the players on the field or is that blame belonging to the GM?  Let’s take a look at where Sparano deserves the blame.

Sparano was criticized in year one after an 0-3 start before taking the team to an 11-5 finish and a playoff birth.  Most of the complaints centered on untimely time outs, bad decision making, and adjustments.  Basically typical mistakes that first time coaches often make.  In year two those mistakes continued.  Here we are four years into his tenure and still there are questions regarding his decision making.

To put this plainly, Tony Sparano is a great guy and a great position coach but he is not a good head football coach.

The argument could and should begin with the players that have been given to him.  Over the first two seasons, Sparano had little or no choice in the players that came onto the field.  Nor did he have any control over his own coaching staff.  Dan Henning was not Sparano’s choice for an OC but Bill Parcells made those decisions making Sparano nothing more than a pawn to Parcells.

With Dan Henning gone, the offense looks much better than it has in the last three years (wild cat formation excluded).  Sparano’s however has not been able to maximize the talent he has been given.  His background, the offensive line, has been an Achilles heal for the Dolphins since his arrival.  His own tinkering with the players on the line have created indecision and confusion at times and has left fans and media wondering what is going on.  Where is the “genius” that was heralded up on his arrival?

What this comes down to for Sparano is the one area that he does have control over.  Preparation.  It’s is Sparano’s job to get these players into shape and ready to play ball, thus far the team has broken down late in game because their conditioning is poor.  They can’t tackle because they are not coached to that type of physical level.

Sparano has also displayed an inability to make half-time adjustments.  He has failed to utilize his skill players effectively, like Reggie Bush, instead using those players to their traditional weaknesses as opposed to their strengths.  While players may support the coach, it’s evident that the more the team loses the less supporters he will carry.  When he loses the locker room for good, then Ross will do the same with Sparano.

But where is the responsibility for Sparano?  Where is the blame?  Aside from the lack of coaching up a group of players with no defined leaders Sparano can’t get his players to exceed even an average level of play on the field.  He still makes questionable game decisions and his management of the clock is absurdly visible in the teams lack of effort in two minute drills.  In simpler terms, the team lacks energy, something that is evident by their coaches mannerisms on the field as well.

Sparano was also to be a disciplinarian but has failed at that as well by not making the players more accountable for the actions on the field.  His inability to see weakness on his own team has allowed him to make decisions that question his knowledge in the public eye.  For example, the release of AJ Edds in favor of Austin Spitler or his release of Benny Sapp when Nolan Carroll clearly has struggled throughout the season and training camp.  His decisions with players is evidenced by the addition of Marc Columbo at RT, something that he pressed Jeff Ireland on and still defends today.

While the talent around him may not be great it does have potential and unfortunately Sparano is not capable of mining that potential into a viable resource like other HC’s in the league.  Truth be told, there is no reason that Sparano should be the coach of the Dolphins this year, had Ross handled the situation last off-season differently, Sparano likely would not be around.

It should be noted in his defense that he did not buy the grocery’s to use a Parcellism and he was never really given a chance to succeed with Dan Henning.  He could still become a very good NFL head coach but in Miami he was tasked with a major rebuild which has been almost impossible.  From bad draft picks, Pat White and Pat Turner come to mind, to bad free agent moves like Gibril Wilson, Sparano has been in an uphill battle since the day he arrived in south Florida.  Despite the expectations and failures that have come along with them, he has managed to handle himself well and with dignity.

That grocery list also applies to the coaches that he is surrounded by.  Parcells hired both Mike Nolan and Dan Henning and the latter was rumored to have agreed with Parcells prior to the official announcement of Sparano’s hiring.  Todd Bowles and Karl Dorrell were also hires by Parcells and Ireland.  Traditionally, new HC’s bring in their own coaching staff or at the very least retain the prior coaches staff in key positions.  So not only did Sparano not choose his roster, he didn’t choose the coaches who would teach them.  It should be noted that Sparano did bring Brian Daboll into the organization and while that is hardly a fruitful venture at this point, the offense has not been nearly as ineffective as last season under Henning.

Sparano may have developed into a better coach had he not been saddled with the Dan Henning system or the Bill Parcells’ personnel mistakes, but good coaches find a way to win with what they have, they find a way to compete at a high level or at least play consistently, the Dolphins are one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL and that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the teams head coach.

The reason Sparano takes blame in this mess is due to one simple fact.  The team has failed to improve from year to year under his coaching.  Yes the offense has improved but they still struggle to score in the redzone.  Instead the team has regressed.  The talent on the team, on paper, is much better than it was three years ago yet this team plays like it doesn’t know how to win.  And that is the blame that is shouldered on Sparano.