Tony Sparano's Failed Vision

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing…” Those are the words of Vince Lombardi, the iconic coach of the Green Bay Packers, whose name is immortalized on the Super Bowl Trophy. A coach is not on the field with his players and though a member of the staff may be calling the plays, they are not on the field executing them. The coaching of the team is done during the week preceding the game, on the practice field, in the film and meeting rooms, but how does a team practice winning?

Coaches can install the multitude of plays, formations, check-downs and pre-snap reads, they expect to run or defend against, but it is impossible to simulate a game situation. Supposedly, Matt Moore is not a practice player, but that alludes to practices being inconsistent with what is expected in a game. Tony Sparano was plagued by slow starts his entire tenure as the Miami Dolphins head coach, obviously his team was not prepared to play at game speed early in the season.

Ricky Williams was shown the door after he said Sparano was a “Micromanager.” What he said afterward is more telling, “Usually after a rough season there’s a sense of relief when it’s over with, but I didn’t feel like that,” he said. “It’s the contrast with what they have going on in New England and what we have going on here, and it’s a very stark contrast.” Ricky has a way of being completely honest, while at the same time cryptic in his actual meaning.

He was talking about winning, the mindset of winning… The mindset in NE is completely different from the mindset Tony Sparano cultivated in Miami. The Patriots expect to win, they practice to win, and they practice with the intent to dominate. Miami, under Sparano hoped to win; they practiced to counter the other team’s attack, not with the intent to attack the other team. “And it’s a very stark contrast.”

The Patriots do not practice ball control; they practice how to score touchdowns in the redzone. They do not go through blocking schemes on dive plays ad infinitum, they know game situations cannot be simulated in practice so therefore they can’t be perfected. They practice as many ways to attack an opponent as possible so they can react to changes during the game.

The Dolphins were limited at altering a game plan when the opponent did the unexpected, because they had micromanaged their own game plan to the point where they were stuck with it, through thick or thin. After seven weeks of different game plans they finally had enough material to do what the Patriots could do from week one. The Dolphins practiced each play until it was perfected with players who have been playing football practically their entire lives and squandered the time they could have been using to learn how to win.

The difference between a position coach and a head coach is in the details. A head coach looks at the bigger picture, he looks at what it will take to win and dominate a game. The position coach works at practice and looks for the little things that can improve a specific position. The position coach is the micromanager, while the head coach has the vision to see how the smaller pieces make up the whole.

Ricky Williams knew and tried to tell everyone in his own subtle way, Tony Sparano had not made the transition from a position coach to head coach and therefore the team was not prepared to win games. Tony is gone because he did not understand the difference or could not change his mindset. This is a critical lesson for Stephen Ross and Jeff Ireland. Ireland obviously doesn’t understand the concept of a visionary or was fooled into thinking Sparano was capable of making the transition.

The head coaching candidates who have been there before and won, have the insight to see things from a higher level, but when the words, “young and hungry” come into play, the caution flag must go up. The focus when considering a young coordinator or position coach is not how well he can call a game (Cam Cameron) but whether he has the vision to see the game from an overall perspective. A coach that expects to win does not wish to, “fail forward fast.” A coach who expects to win, practices to win…

He does not get caught up in details, he finds weaknesses in his opponent and attacks those weaknesses relentlessly. The NFL is a long way from the YMCA and not everyone gets a trophy in the big boy league. The difference in New England that Ricky spoke of, is a mentality coached into the players from day one. They expect to beat their opponent into submission and continue beating them until the game clock reads 00:00.

If Stephen Ross wants a young Don Shula or Vince Lombardi, he must look for a man with the vision to understand, winning is an overall mentality. The details are vital, but are left to position coaches and those coaches must be enabled to do their jobs. A head coach directs his position coaches based on the larger vision of understanding his opponent as well as understanding his own tendencies.

When a head coach is consumed by the details, he does not trust his own position coaches and they are no longer enabled. When he is caught up in a player’s mistakes, he does not allow that player exemplify the positive, but worry about the negative. Winning takes all the positives and uses those advantages, while losing dwells on the negative and the results reflect the mentality. New England may have the worst defense in the NFL and yet have the number one seed in the playoffs.

Tony Sparano never graduated from assistant to visionary. He did not leave the devilish details to his assistants long enough to look at his team from the higher ground. Shula found the positive in each player and put them in a position where that positive resulted in winning. Sparano practiced to remove the negative and resulted in losing. Winning exemplifies the positive and losing exemplifies the negative.

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing… The reason that statement lives on is because, winning or losing is a mentality. Micromanaging looks at the details, vision looks at the results… “And it’s a very stark contrast.”