Sparano forced to drop conservative playbook

Yahoo Sports

DAVIE, Fla. – Miami coach Tony Sparano is a long shot to survive this season. But give the coach, who the Dolphins wanted to replace, credit for understanding one thing: If he's going to make it with the quarterback the team also wanted to replace, he's going to have to let it all ride.

That's the decision Sparano came up with this offseason when he looked back at how he and quarterback Chad Henne(notes) have gotten to this point.

"It's hard because I've been brought up in this business, you don't beat yourself," said Sparano, who watched helplessly in January as owner Stephen Ross flew across the country in an aborted attempt to lure Jim Harbaugh to South Florida. When Harbaugh picked San Francisco instead, Sparano survived and even got a two-year contract extension.

Among people close to Sparano, few think the contract is more than a golden parachute if the Dolphins don't improve drastically. Sparano is at or near the top of any list of coaches on the hot seat, along with Jack Del Rio of Jacksonville, Gary Kubiak of Houston and Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati. Sparano knows as much, which is probably why he spent the offseason making significant changes, starting with himself.

Last season, the Dolphins had six offensive plays of 40 yards or longer. Only Arizona, St. Louis and Minnesota had fewer. Moreover, the Dolphins are viewed as a team unwilling to take the offensive risks necessary for those plays, and Sparano knows it.

"The people that I worked for before, [low-risk play-calling is] how they approached it," said Sparano, who was brought to Miami by former team executive Bill Parcells after Sparano worked for Parcells in Dallas. "Nevertheless, this game has really changed and it has really changed in our division. If you don't score points in our division, you're going to have a hard time winning football games. So we have to do a better job of generating big plays, generating more scores and even though we feel like we have one of the best defenses in the league, we'd like them to play a little less.

"I spent a lot of time looking at myself in the mirror, knowing that I need to make the change. Obviously, three-quarters of my staff on offense is new [headed by new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll]. That's something that I felt we had to do. I feel like Brian's style is more aggressive … [But] it started with me with big plays and how hard we had to work to advance the ball down field in the past. That's where I had to look at myself and say, 'I'm the CEO of the football part of it. If I see it broke, I have to fix it and it has to start with me.' We couldn't crawl down the field anymore."

For a former offensive line coach who believes in the grind-it-out approach, deciding to go for it is hard. Moreover, Sparano's initial success with the Dolphins (the team went 11-5 in his first season in 2008 after going 1-15 the previous season under Cam Cameron) was fueled by ultra-conservative play-calling helped by committing the fewest turnovers ever in an NFL season. Three years later, Sparano has to ditch that approach. And doing it with Henne seems like trying to double-down in blackjack when you're holding an ace and a five.

While Sparano watched the main threat to his job come from the West, Henne has had it come from every direction, and repeatedly. The Dolphins have been linked with just about every available quarterback from Carson Palmer(notes) to Donovan McNabb(notes) to Kyle Orton(notes) to even Brett Favre(notes). Before the draft, the Dolphins spent significant time going over prospects, including Ryan Mallett(notes). Even former teammate Channing Crowder(notes) questioned Henne's heart in a recent radio interview.

Yet they have come back to Henne, a guy with all the physical tools, some healthy composure and a propensity to make the wrong throw at the wrong time.

Like Sparano, however, much has changed this season for Henne. Former starter Chad Pennington(notes) is gone. While Pennington tried to be a great teacher for Henne, his outgoing personality inhibited Henne's development. The quiet-by-nature Henne was never able to take full control of the team. As Sparano put it, Henne had a lot to "dig through" this offseason to assume a leadership role.

"I learned a lot from [Pennington] and his leadership skills, but it was hard for me to step out on my own," said Henne, who also had problems last season dealing with wide receiver Brandon Marshall's(notes) eccentricities. Marshall is working on his issues, seeking help this offseason for what he described as a "personality disorder."

"It takes a strong man to open up about that stuff," Henne said of Marshall. "I give him a lot of credit and we're working to make sure things are much smoother."

For Henne and Marshall, this offseason was as much about head games as the real game. Henne was essentially in charge of installing Daboll's new offense, organizing and scheduling practices at nearby Nova High School (the school's practice field is almost visible from the roof of the Dolphins' training facility).

Being in charge was a breakthrough for Henne.

"[Henne] did all the work to make that happen, texting guys and running the practices," wide receiver Davone Bess(notes) said. "He's the guy and we all know it."

Well, sort of. The Dolphins undermined some of that by talking to Denver about Orton at the start of training camp. Then there was Sparano's offhanded remark about Favre that created a firestorm (the team did think about Favre, but the interest wasn't mutual and the Dolphins quickly found out that Favre isn't in playing shape).

Worse, Henne opened the preseason with two interceptions against Atlanta. Against Carolina last Friday, Henne played mistake-free and was part of seven pass plays of 15 yards or longer, including a 38-yard toss to tight end Anthony Fasano(notes).

That bit of success has Henne talking with some swagger.

"Now, it's my time. I don't have anybody else around to look at. I'm in full control," he said.

OK, but getting the players on board with a higher-risk attack is not the issue. Will Sparano continue to call risky plays when the pressure is on? Just the mention of big plays draws a weary smile from Sparano's face.

"I know what has to be done around here and we're going to do it," he said.

Or some other coach will be in charge.

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