Tony Sparano Should Keep His Job

Tony Sparano has certainly made what once seemed his inevitable firing a little easier to second guess. For the past 5 weeks, the Dolphins have been playing at a level not seen in these parts since the Wildcat made the Patriots wonder what hit them. Things are a little different this time; there is no gadget play to account for the turnaround, the team is using conventional plays and emotion to dominate opponents. It is important to understand what has changed in Dolphin land and in the case of Tony Sparano, can we expect it to continue.

Several factors have created a new identity for the Dolphins and we can begin on the defensive side of the ball. Earlier in the season, many called Kevin Burnett a complete bust, another miss in free agency for Jeff Ireland. Burnett looked lost on defense and as we often hear, he was thinking instead of reacting. The change for Burnett came when he was relieved of his job of calling the defense. Karlos Dansby whose experience in the defense made it easier for him to make the calls, took over the job.

Dansby had some issues of his own, coming into training camp a whooping 270 pounds he was moving more like a DT than a LB and was a complete liability in coverage. The big fat FA contract must have filled Dansby’s fridge with meals measured for Refrigerator Perry and undoubtedly, his teammates wondered whether he came to play this season. One thing learned from the “New NFL” after the lockout is waiting until training to start getting into shape can no longer work without two-a-day practices. It took Dansby much longer to shed the weight then he had anticipated and it clearly affected his play.

Vontae Davis showed up thinking all he had to do was walk on the field and things would come easy to him. A hamstring injury slowed him down and instead of taking the proper steps to rehab the injury; he used the down time to extend his nightlife into the wee hours. Coming to the facility late, hung-over and not ready to work, infuriated his fellow defenders. Tony Sparano, not known for being a disciplinarian, shocked Davis and the rest of the team by leaving him behind when they traveled to KC. That was the beginning of the change in the Dolphin season. Davis Finally woke up and intercepted his first pass of the season against the Redskins the following week.

Tony Sparano showed the defensive players none of them was untouchable, nor were any of them above the team, when one of them started acting that way, the bus left without him. It doesn’t seem like such a simple act of discipline could have the ripple effect it had on the Dolphin defense. A coach can easily lose a locker room when he treats players who are not performing differently because of their draft or salary status. By benching Davis, Sparano woke up players like Dansby, Burnett and Smith.

Once Dansby began the hit parade, Yereiamh Bell, Burnett, Davis and even Sean Smith started getting into the act. For the past month, opposing receivers are thinking twice about coming over the middle, QBs are holding the ball just a second longer and RBs are not hitting holes without expecting to meet some serious resistance. Passion, confidence and winning feed on themselves, when a coach shows he takes exception to a player he feels has given up, the rest of the team takes notice.

On the offense Matt Moore started rough, in his first 4 games he was completing less than 60% of his passes, he had thrown only 1 TD and 4 Ints and his QB rating was abysmal. But it was not only Moore who had the light go on before the KC game, it was Tony Sparano as well. Sparano made the critical decision to stop forcing the run on 1st down and throw the ball.

The offense was so predictable it was joke; no one could expect a QB to play well when the opposing defense knew invariably Miami would run the ball on 1st down. It comes from Sparano’s old school Parcellian training that it is essential to establish run before trying to throw. It’s a ridiculous notion, made worse by the amount of data available on play calling charts that show team tendencies. When 80% of a team’s 1st down calls are a running play, it becomes easy to defend them. Stuck in unfavorable down and distance on 2nd and 3rd down left the team again predictable and allowed pass rushers to come after the QB without worrying about running plays or gap integrity.

Whether it was Daboll or someone else in the organization that convinced Sparano to open things up on first down we will probably never know. A certain writer on this blog was constantly ranting about it. Regardless of why or who, by spreading Reggie Bush out into the formation and using more 3 receiver sets on 1st down, opposing defenses were forced to loosen up the front 7, pull a safety or LB out on Bush and bring in a 3rd corner.

They began by calling easy West Coast style passes for Moore on early downs. He responded by completing these throws, which helped his confidence and got the defense on its heels. Once the defense loosened up, lanes began to appear between the tackles and Bush was able to use his speed and quickness to make bursts into the 2nd level. Now defenses had some issues because if they shrunk in to defend the run, they would be vulnerable to the short passing game and if they remained spread, they were susceptible to the rushing attack. For the 1st time in a number of years, Miami was dictating the flow of the game on offense.

The major difference between Moore and Chad Henne has to do with touch. For a West Coast throw to be an easy throw, the delivery must hit the receiver in stride, leading him to the open space. From there the receiver has a step to make moves to elude tacklers and make positive yardage. Chad Henne is not capable of making these throws because he lacks the touch required throw short passes over linemen. A true West Coast offense is more like a rushing attack and designed to gain 5 yards, but when the receiver makes one defender miss, the gains can then become substantial. It is the beauty of the scheme, because it allows skilled players to maneuver in space. It’s the perfect attack for a scat player like Reggie Bush and a big WR like Brandon Marshall; it’s all about yards after catch.

Couple Dan Henning at OC with a stubborn run-first head coach and the Dolphin players probably felt they were in the football stone ages. It was a leap of faith for Sparano to release the reigns on Brian Daboll and a stroke of luck the West Coast style fit perfectly with Matt Moore. These two factors are what led to the change in the Miami offensive we now see on the field.

Talent at QB is obviously of great importance in this league but it is the talents around the QB that makes the engine run and contrary to reports, blogs and stories, Miami has an abundance of talent, which up until the last several games had been largely misused. The Miami Dolphins have hit upon a formula for success and should have a nice run the rest of the season, but will it be enough to give Tony Sparano a second chance at coaching the Dolphins?

The Dolphins must continue the late season surge to keep Tony Sparano in the picture, but if they do, keeping him may be the best option for the Dolphins. The team has found a formula for success and the proper utilization of the talent currently on the roster. Blowing up the coaching staff now will place Miami in the same position it was in at the beginning of this season, trying to find which pieces fit where in the puzzle. The continuity gained over the second half of the season will be lost and new systems will put the Dolphins back to square one. Sparano has kept this team together through an awful stretch that would have sent a lesser man packing.

Like any rookie, Sparano is learning on the fly. Having the arcane influence of Bill Parcells only made his job worse as he tried to bring his team into the modern era of football. Tony Sparano has shown the most vital ingredient great coaches possess, a willingness to change with the personnel he has and get the most out of his players. Most coaches fail because they fall into the trap of forcing rigid systems on mismatched personnel. Sparano has changed everything Parcells put in place; he fired both the offensive and defensive coordinators. He saw the folly of the Wildcat and he worked through the poor personnel decisions that folly precipitated. Only now is he playing with his team.

To reiterate, this team needs to finish strong or there will be no chance for Tony Sparano. If it does, making a change would be like pulling the plug after just filling the tub with hot water. A rookie QB is needed, but the best place for him will be carrying a clipboard and learning from Matt Moore. The firm grasp the staff now has on the personnel will allow them to draft complimentary players instead of trashing everything and starting over. Many coaches come from humble beginnings and only begin to flirt with greatness when the pieces fall into place. That is what is happening in Miami.

From this vantage point, a successful end to the season will earn Tony Sparano a chance to prove, he should continue to be the coach of the Miami Dolphins.