Change in routine preceded Dolphins' turnaround

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DAVIE, Fla. (AP)

When the Miami Dolphins lost their first six games, coach Tony Sparano decided to change his ways.

He eased up in his players' routine and solicited their feedback on how to improve the gloomy mood. He made practices later, shorter and less rigorous. He even altered the way the team stretched.

''It's a deviation really from much that I know,'' Sparano said.

A dramatic turnaround came one week later. After starting 0-7, the Dolphins have outscored opponents by 85 points while winning four of their past five games. The latest blowout came Sunday, when Miami beat AFC West leader Oakland 34-14.

The Dolphins remain last in the AFC East at 4-8, and speculation persists that Sparano will be fired after the season. But the recent rebound will make owner Stephen Ross' decisions about offseason moves more difficult.

Players remain firmly behind Sparano, as they were even during the losing streak.

''He needs to stay, man,'' linebacker Karlos Dansby said. ''I'm going to push for him. We just started slow. We have a great coach. He knows what it takes now to put us in a position to win ballgames. It just takes time, man. Rome wasn't built in one day. Can't turn your back on him right now. Can't do it. Got to let him stay.''

Critics cite Sparano as the coach of a team that underachieved early in the season while blowing fourth-quarter leads in four defeats. Supporters counter that he deserves credit for averting a free fall.

Either way, the Dolphins may now be the merriest last-place team in sports. They've been out of the playoff picture for weeks, but their locker room tends to be filled with laughter and playful teasing.

''We're having fun,'' linebacker Kevin Burnett said. ''I can't explain how much that takes away the pain and the feeling of being on the losing end of the spectrum.''

The pain was especially pronounced when the Dolphins blew a 15-point lead in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter against Denver to fall to 0-6. By then, even Miami fans were rooting against their team, hoping to secure Andrew Luck with the No. 1 draft pick in 2012.

That's when Sparano eased up on the regimen. The Dolphins haven't practiced in pads since - revolutionary for a team coached by a protege of Bill Parcells. Sparano also moved back the starting time of practice to let players get extra sleep.

''We've relaxed a lot of things,'' linebacker Jason Taylor said. ''Tony has made a lot of changes, and I think from Wednesday through Sunday, our whole attitude has changed. Our whole demeanor is changed. Our swagger has changed. This team is a lot looser now and not playing uptight, not preparing uptight, not acting uptight. And that shows on Sunday.''

Sparano believes less arduous practices also made his team fresher and healthier. The injury report has been short in recent weeks, and more than one opposing player praised the Dolphins' physical play.

The scores reflect as much. Miami outscored the past five opponents 139-54, with the lone loss a one-point defeat at Dallas on Thanksgiving.

''The Dolphins are hot,'' Raiders running back Michael Bush said. ''Everyone in the league can see that.''

One thing the Dolphins still haven't done is show they can win a close game. They're 0-4 when the margin is a field goal or less, and they've been outscored 85-38 in the fourth quarter.

But they've proved they can win at home. After losing 12 of 13 in Miami, they've swept the past three home games by a combined score of 89-31.

Matt Moore has demonstrated he can win as an NFL quarterback. In the past five games he has eight touchdown passes and one interception.

And perhaps Sparano has showed he deserves to keep his job, and that an offseason housecleaning is unnecessary.

''I know there's a lot of speculation,'' Taylor said. ''It means nothing to us. I don't think you can find a guy in the locker room that's really worried about it, including Tony.

''I haven't met a tougher guy than Tony. He's like Teflon Don right now. Everything just falls off his back, and he keeps going about his business and could care less what people say. I think the team has taken on that attitude, too. We're just going about our business. You may not like us, you may be upset that we're winning, but we really don't give a damn.''

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