Posted: 1:16 pm Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
By Post Staff
Last week in New Orleans, the South Florida media met with owner Stephen Ross and head coach Tony Sparano for the first time since their post-Jim Harbaugh press conference in early January.
Many, many topics were discussed in the two lengthy interview sessions. For Ross, it was our first chance to talk about his expectations for his football team in 2011. For Sparano, it was the first time we got to speak to the coach about actual football since the season ended on Jan. 2.
Here are 27 other smaller items we learned about the football team after talking with the two:
1. Ross is learning. A year ago, Ross told a crowd of fans and reporters that he expected his team to play in the Super Bowl. This time, when asked about his expectations for 2011, he said, “to be better than last year.” He said the Jim Harbaugh situation, where he tried to quietly interview the coach in California but instead his every move was tracked by local and national reporters, taught him “how public it is” to be the owner. “I felt like Santa Claus, being tracked,” he said.
2. One of Sparano’s biggest goals for 2011 is to find stability on the offensive line. He replaced all three interior line positions in 2010, has had a different center in each of his three seasons, and juggled his lineup constantly with injuries to John Jerry, Joe Berger and Nate Garner last year. “I want to avoid if I can, at all costs, the three or four guys rotating around for OTAs and training camp,” Sparano said. “Guys have to settle in and not have to answer the questions of, “Coach, who’s the left guard? Who’s the right guard?’ That really hasn’t been the way I know it. It’s not what I want to do.”
3. But right now, only one position on the offensive line is truly settled: Jake Long at left tackle. Sparano said Vernon Carey is “probably not” going to move from right tackle to guard, but wouldn’t commit definitively. Getting Richie Incognito back – he signed a three-year contract right before the lockout was imposed – is a big luxury, Sparano said. Incognito started 15 games at guard last year and one at center, and could play either position depending on how the Dolphins solve their line issues. “Where I see him fitting in will depend on the rest of the pieces,” Sparano said. Berger will be in the mix at center and guard. Jerry and Garner will compete for starting guard jobs, but don’t be surprised to see the Dolphins draft one or two interior linemen.
4. Sparano said Long (shoulder surgery) and Carey (knee) wouldn’t have participated much in the offseason program had it gone on as normal this spring, but expects them to be ready for the regular season, whenever that is.
5. Sparano said he will continue to use multiple running backs in the new offense, but “would probably like those guys to maybe complement each other a little differently,” he said. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are similar running backs – more power than speed – and the Dolphins averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last year. “There could be a big, downhill runner, could be a speed runner,” Sparano said. “In a perfect world, that’s what you’re seeing.”
6. Ross, on his confidence in there being a 16-game season in 2011: “I sure hope so. There is a lot of time for that to happen. The fans and everyone want to see it as soon as possible.”
7. Sparano said the running game, ranked 21st in yards, 29th in touchdowns and 30th in yards per attempts, was beset by: 1) Second-level blocking “at all positions, including the wide receivers;” 2) The running backs’ inability to “make that defender miss” in the second level; and 3) The constant shuffling on the offensive line. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo “did a tremendous job with that group, with the amount of combinations we had to use.”
8. As for Ricky and Ronnie, Sparano said, “I said it during the season, I didn’t have a problem with how either guy played.” But Sparano would not elaborate further on the two players (both free agents), and the Dolphins will likely bring in two, if not three, running backs next season.
9. Sparano said he isn’t worried about Cam Wake, who had 14 sacks and earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first season as a starter, getting complacent. “Knowing Cam, that isn’t going to be the case,” he said. “He and I have conversations about that, not forgetting what it took to get there, because it’s made him right now a good player, and I think this guy has better than ‘good’ in him. There’s obviously things that Cam can improve on. Cam would be the first person to tell you that.”
10. Ross said he has also learned in his two seasons at owner how much work goes into building a football team, and praised the hard work of Sparano, Jeff Ireland and the rest of the staff. “The process of building a team is much more sophisticated, and there’s so much more that goes into it than you’d expect,” he said. “The work these guys do during the season and the offseason – its incredible. They really sacrifice an awful lot to try to deliver winners.”
11. The need for speed at receiver very well could come from within. “Brian (Hartline) can run,” Sparano said. “I don’t know that people would classify Brian as a speed guy, but I do. I think the guy’s been behind people a bunch of times, and we just haven’t made the play.” Sparano said Marlon Moore, entering his second season, “might be the fastest guy that we have.” And Sparano noted that “we have some practice squad guys that are all in different shapes and sizes,” including Julius Pruitt, who was signed to the 53-man roster at the end of the season and has elite speed.
12. The Dolphins had just four pass plays over 40 yards last year, and Sparano said Chad Henne, the receivers, the offensive line and the coaching staff all share in the blame. “And that isn’t a cop-out answer,” he said. “You can’t point the finger at one person. You can’t say it’s Chad’s fault, it wasn’t Dan Henning’s fault.” But he did say the offensive staff needs to utilize more creativity and speed next year.
13. The Dolphins were 30th in points scored last year (17.3 per game), and Sparano admitted that “sometimes I felt like playing offense last year maybe once or twice was a little bit more of a job than it was fun. And I want it to be fun.” It was no coincidence that many of the new offensive coaches (Brian Daboll, Ike Hilliard, Dan Campbell) are much younger than the coaches that departed (Dan Henning, David Lee, George DeLeone).
14. Sparano expects a much different dynamic with Daboll, formerly a receivers and quarterbacks coach with the Patriots and Jets, calling the offense. “Where Dan (Henning) was more of a walk-around kind of guy (in practice), you will not see that with Brian Daboll,” Sparano said. “You will see Brian Daboll very much involved.”
15. Sparano said he was pleased with the way cornerback Sean Smith bounced back from his early season demotion. Smith lost his starting job to Jason Allen at the end of training camp, was the only position player not to play in the season opener at Buffalo, and didn’t regain his job until the Halloween game at Cincinnati. “For a young player, that would’ve been easy to put his head down and sulk, and for the most part he didn’t do that,” Sparano said. But the coaching staff won’t hand Smith a starting job next year, either. “You have to continue to challenge him,” Sparano said. Sparano also said that if Smith could hold onto the football last year, “the guy’s probably going to be in the Pro Bowl.”
16. Sparano said he only fined Vernon Carey one time for his weight last year, but that he’s concerned about Carey keeping his weight down as he rehabs from his surgery.
17. Integrating Daboll’s new offense after the lockout ends will be a challenge, Sparano admitted, but “we’ve tried to keep as much terminology as consistent as we possibly can right now, so that when we do get the players, that part of it is seemless.” Sparano said that Daboll has been the one learning the team’s offensive line calls, instead of making the offensive linemen learn Daboll’s calls. “We kept everything from the offensive line standpoint exactly the same, from a verbiage standpoint,” he said.
18. One problem with the lockout, Sparano said, is it gives the coaching staff waaaay too much time to think about correcting problems. “When you have two weeks to play a game, you can get to a point where you think you’re doing too much,” he said.
19. Sparano said it is important not to get complacent about the defense, which finished 6th in yards allowed and 14th in points. “I might be guilty of that from an offensive standpoint last year,” Sparano said. The Dolphins spent all but one draft pick last year on defensive players, and the offense grew stale.
20. Sparano said free safety will be a competition between incumbent starter Chris Clemons and two second-year players, Reshad Jones and Jon Amaya. He said Amaya “might have been our best special teams player, with Reshad Jones, 1-2 or 2-1.”
21. Sparano said it was “important, obviously” to bring back nose tackle Paul Soliai for next year, even if it meant giving him the franchise tag and $12.476 million in salary. “First, the guy played good. Secondly, they’re hard to find,” Sparano said of nose tackles. Sparano noted that he never had an issue with Soliai’s weight – he was fined constantly in his first two years under Sparano – and that he’s hoping Soliai has finally matured as a person and player. “Paul has come a long way,” Sparano said. “Sometimes the light goes on for some of these guys. I hope it’s all the way on. I hope he reads that.”
22. The team has mentioned possibly bringing back Chad Pennington again to serve as its veteran quarterback, and Sparano said they have monitored his rehab from a fourth shoulder surgery “as close as you can. … From afar, you get an idea.”
23. Sparano said the relationship between he, Ireland and Ross is “back to normal” following the Harbaugh incident in January. “One thing that the three of us are completely committed to right now is to make this football team the best that we can make the Miami Dolphin football team,” he said.
24. Sparano said one positive from the 2010 season was the ability to develop young players. “We had 33 players that are three years or less play almost 13,000 snaps,” he said. Among those getting good experience were the two young receivers (Moore and Roberto Wallace), guard John Jerry and the three rookie tight ends (Jeron Mastrud, Mickey Shuler and Dedrick Epps).
25. The coaching needs to see Jerry, last year’s third-round pick, “get better from a mental standpoint,” Sparano said. And “core strength is going to be important. John can play ‘bent’ a lo tof times, and he’s a pretty long guy, but when you play bent, your length is eliminated. He needs to play a little more erect and stronger, and that comes with core strength.”
26. Sparano would like to see A.J. Edds push Channing Crowder for a starting inside linebacker job, but isn’t sure what kind of player Edds is because he missed all of his rookie season with a torn ACL. “If A.J. is what we drafted, then there’s a role for A.J. out there on our team,” Sparano said.
27. Sparano said he hired his son, Tony Sparano Jr., to be the team’s offensive quality control coach because “there are some people in this room (other teams) that wanted to hire him,” Sparano said. “One thing I am not is stupid. … Why should I let them hire him when I can?” The offensive quality control coach is in charge of breaking down the defenses of future opponents 3-5 weeks in advance. “He’s been doing it since he was 12 years old,” Sparano said. “It’s a good way to come into this business. It’s how I learned it. It’s how Daboll learned it. It’s how Dan Henning learned it.”