When Tony Sparano was named the coach of the Dolphins last January, the hire generated all the buzz of the "Miami Vice" movie opening.
Most people in my business used the announcement as an opportunity to goof on the former Dallas offensive line coach's name, noting its similarity to that of an infamous fictional mobster. Never mind that if Tony Soprano were ever going to coach a team, it would obviously be the USC Trojans.
At best, Sparano was considered a benign pawn of newly hired executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells, who despite his lofty title would serve as the real coach of a hopeless team coming off a 1-15 season.
Less than a year later, we know the truth: Sparano is an animated, highly qualified coach of a stunning playoff contender, one which moved into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with a 16-3 thrashing of the Bills in Toronto on Sunday. While Parcells watched the game from 1,200 miles away – the Tuna doesn't accompany the team on road trips – Sparano bounced around the sidelines, stoking his players' competitive fire.
"Did you see him out there?" Miami quarterback Chad Pennington asked afterward. "The guy's passionate – he loves to come out here and watch his players play, and he throws himself completely into it. At the same time, he and all of our coaches have really made a point of giving us, as players, ownership in what we do. That's been a real positive, and it's helped us grow as a team."
In most seasons, Sparano – regardless of what happens in the Dolphins' final three games – would be a slam-dunk selection for NFL Coach of the Year. In 2008, scarily, he might not finish in the top three; that's how deep the list of legitimate contenders is as the stretch drive commences.
Depending on how the remainder of the regular season plays out, a case could be made for at least a quarter of the league's coaches as highly deserving of the honor. Here's my list, in order, of the top candidates to this point:
1. Jeff Fisher, Titans: Fisher almost always does a terrific job, even when his team finishes out of contention. This year, however, has been truly special: In the opening game, franchise quarterback Vince Young went down with an injury shortly after being booed by his home crowd for ineffectiveness. The next night, he was so despondent that the team called the police because it feared he was suicidal. Fisher never wavered, entrusting the offense to veteran backup Kerry Collins and avoiding ambiguity by declaring that Collins would remain the starter if he continued to win. He did, and now the 12-1 Titans have football's best record and are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
2. Sparano: This team was really, really, really, really bad last year under Cam Cameron. From Sparano's first game, Miami has been competitive. He has overseen strategic wrinkles that produced the Wildcat formation and unleashed linebacker Joey Porter, who leads the NFL with 16½ sacks. What's not to like?
3. Mike Smith, Falcons: Atlanta was nearly as big a train wreck as Miami in '07, with the Michael Vick fiasco shrouding the franchise in negativity. Enter Smith, a calm yet committed presence who connected with his players in a way that predecessor Bobby Petrino never could. Unlike Sparano, Smith hasn't had the benefit of an accomplished veteran quarterback to run the offense; instead, he's making it happen with a rookie, albeit an uncannily mature one in Matt Ryan. Even if the 8-5 Falcons don't reach the playoffs, Smith has been an A-plus hire.
4. John Harbaugh, Ravens: Baltimore, despite going 5-11 in '07, certainly had more talent than either the Dolphins or Falcons when Harbaugh arrived. But the team needed a serious culture change after Brian Billick lost the respect of the defensive veterans he tried so hard to appease, and Harbaugh – yet another first-time head-coaching hire – managed to instigate it with a no-nonsense, no-frills demeanor. Like Smith, he's doing it with a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco). Baltimore (9-4), which has a tough remaining schedule, could win the AFC North or finish out of the postseason entirely. No matter what happens, Harbaugh has done a great job of getting this franchise back on track.
5. John Fox, Panthers: Carolina was a mess after Jake Delhomme went down with a season-ending elbow injury in '07, but the gritty quarterback's return is hardly the sole reason for the Panthers' re-emergence in '08. A tough, inspirational leader who isn't overly concerned with public perception, Fox has a team molded to his personality. He was presumed to be coaching for his job this season – and, like Jon Gruden last year, completely stepped up to the challenge.
6. Bill Belichick, Patriots: All he did was survive the opening-game loss of the NFL's best player, Tom Brady, and keep his team in contention, all while nurturing a quarterback (Matt Cassel) who hadn't started since high school and progressively increasing his responsibilities as events warranted. Last Sunday's comeback victory over the Seahawks, which vaulted the Pats into a first-place tie, wouldn't have happened if this team weren't so focused, well-prepared and disciplined.
7. Tony Dungy, Colts: Indy completely lost its offensive rhythm when Peyton Manning missed training camp with a knee injury, and the Colts easily could've started 1-6 (instead of 3-4) were it not for the coolness under pressure and collective accountability that Dungy fosters. After surviving a potential crisis, Indy has won six consecutive games and has an excellent chance of making the playoffs as a wild card – one that no AFC team will want any part of come January.
8. Tom Coughlin, Giants: Yes, New York is the defending Super Bowl champion, so its 11-2 record shouldn't be viewed as a huge surprise. But Coughlin, after last year's breakthrough season, deftly avoided any semblance of locker-room complacency while surviving a slew of high-profile losses (Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Jeremy Shockey and now Plaxico Burress) that would've dragged down a lesser team.
HONORABLE MENTION: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals (made the bold move in August to start Kurt Warner over anointed franchise quarterback Matt Leinart, and the eventual MVP candidate spurred the Cards to their first division title in 33 years); Mike Tomlin (kept his team motivated and supremely prepared while navigating a brutally tough schedule); Mike Shanahan (rallied Denver from an apparent midseason fade while enduring injuries to star cornerback Champ Bailey and his top five running backs); and Eric Mangini (revamped his offense on the fly to accommodate Brett Favre and turned his defense, which faltered in '07, back into a physically potent force).
Anything else? Oh, right, it's question time, with a new No. 1 and an old standby at 32:
4. Carolina Panthers: If this team can run on the Giants in two weeks like it ran on the Bucs Monday night, could it steal the No. 1 playoff seed?
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Was that merely a bad night for Monte Kiffin's defense, or is this team wheezing to the finish line the way it did in '07?
7. Indianapolis Colts: Do they have a chance to be this year's version of the '07 Giants?
11. New England Patriots: When you are 18-1 following a defeat since the start of the '03 season, is it fair to say you are a well-coached team?
15. New York Jets: How much does this team detest the West Coast, and how bummed is Eric Mangini that a trip to Seattle looms?
18. Washington Redskins: Can we call them the Deadskins?
19. New Orleans Saints: Was that a breakthrough game on Sunday, what with the fourth-quarter comeback and all, or will the inconsistency persist?
20. Houston Texans: The better this talented team plays down the stretch, doesn't its miserable start seem more and more shameful?
22. Green Bay Packers: Will this year prove to have been an aberration – or will last year?
23. San Francisco 49ers: If you can fumble five times and still beat a first-place team from a competitive division, does that mean you're a lot better than we thought?
25. Jacksonville Jaguars: If this team keeps playing so listlessly, will head coach Jack Del Rio's job be in jeopardy?
30. Cincinnati Bengals: If this team had just gotten a few breaks, could it easily be 3-9-1?
31. St. Louis Rams: Yo, John Shaw and company – how are you folks feeling about that long-ago decision to get rid of Kurt Warner right about now?