Dolphins want fast start for a change

The Miami Dolphins know exactly how long they have until the
opening game, thanks to coach Tony Sparano’s new countdown clock
hanging in the locker room.

This year, when the season starts, Sparano wants his team ready
for a change.

”It has been a point of emphasis,” safety Yeremiah Bell said.
”It’s in the locker room for everybody to see.”

The Dolphins started 0-3 last year and 0-2 in 2008. Otherwise,
their record the past two seasons is 18-11.

Miami has lost four openers in a row and will try to end that
streak Sept. 12 at Buffalo.

”You can’t just stand in front of the players and say, ‘Look,
we’re going to have a fast start against the Buffalo Bills,”’
Sparano said. ”There’s more to it than that. It’s about how we
practice, it’s about being prepared and feeling like your team is
fresh enough and efficient enough as you approach that first
game.”

After last season, Sparano looked at every aspect of the
offseason and training camp routine, and the third-year coach made
changes he thought would improve the chances of playing well early.
Among the issues deliberated: how much time to give players off
during the winter, how often to wear pads in training camp, when to
hold practice inside or out, and how to divvy up snaps.

With the regimen tweaked, Sparano believes his team is fresher
as the season approaches, yet also in better condition.

”My first year here we could barely get through some of these
practices,” Sparano said. ”They’re starting to finish them at a
much better pace.”

One challenge during two-a-days was to strike a balance between
practicing in sweltering summer sunshine or in the team’s
air-conditioned indoor bubble, where the artificial surface can
take a toll.

”When I take the players inside, they don’t really love being
inside all the time because of that surface on their body,”
Sparano said. ”But when you take them outside, they don’t really
love being outside because of heat.”

For years, South Florida’s steamy weather gave the Dolphins a
substantial early-season home-field advantage, but that hasn’t been
the case in recent years. Since 2006 they’re 2-10 in September.

Being acclimated to the subtropical heat won’t be a big factor
this year, because the Dolphins’ first two home games are at night.
Their first daytime game at home isn’t until Oct. 24.

So to start fast, the Dolphins must focus on simply playing
well. One goal will be limiting typical early-season mistakes.

”When you have lax communications and mental errors early in
the season, it causes a lot of problems,” Bell said. ”You put in
a knucklehead play here and there, and it sets you back.”

The Dolphins know that from recent experience. They dug a hole
last year by losing their first three games and never recovered,
finishing 7-9.

Quarterback Chad Pennington started those first three games
before a shoulder injury ended his season. He remembers the mood
around the team then and said winning early is much better.

”It builds confidence, a little bit of synergy and a sense of
accomplishment to where you can go forward and not live in a world
of negativity,” Pennington said.

Hence, the clock. Sparano came up with the idea last spring to
create a sense of urgency.

”It kind of reminds me of college,” said quarterback Chad
Henne, a former Michigan star. ”I know Ohio State has a clock
counting down to Michigan every year.

”It’s great. It just reminds us that it’s not getting further
away, it’s getting closer.”