Sparano, Henne try to lead Dolphins turnaround

When a thunderstorm forced the Miami Dolphins to move coach Tony

Sparano’s post-practice media session inside, he took his place in

front of a black curtain, then assessed the uncustomary

surroundings.

”My back’s against the wall, I guess,” he mumbled. ”Just

where I want to be.”

Apparently no hot seat was available. Whatever the cliche,

Sparano realizes he’s on borrowed time in Miami.

In his first season as an NFL head coach, Sparano led the

Dolphins to a surprising 11-5 record, the AFC East title and their

only playoff game since 2001. But Miami slipped to a disappointing

7-9 each of the past two years, and in January owner Stephen Ross

embarked on an awkward, very public courtship with Stanford coach

Jim Harbaugh.

When negotiations broke off, Harbaugh joined the San Francisco

49ers and Ross gave Sparano a contract extension through 2013. But

Ross has since done little to allay suspicions he’ll go

coach-shopping again unless Sparano’s team shows substantial

improvement.

”He knows there’s a lot of pressure on him this year,” Ross

said. ”When you’re a football coach, there’s always pressure.

We’ve had two losing seasons, and I think Tony can feel it by

everybody. Hopefully he does well.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. And to compound the tension

at team headquarters, quarterback Chad Henne has his back against

the wall, too.

Last season, Henne threw 19 interceptions and was benched

briefly, and in July the Dolphins tried to swing a deal for Denver

quarterback Kyle Orton. It fell through, and when Henne struggled

in a training camp scrimmage, fans chanted ”We want Orton!”

With a few misfires in the season opener, the jeers would likely

start again. Talk about putting pressure on the quarterback.

”There’s always pressure out there,” Henne said with a shrug.

”I put more pressure on myself than anything.”

Also under scrutiny is two-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon

Marshall, who caught only three touchdown passes last year, his

first with Miami. He was stabbed in the abdomen during a domestic

dispute in April, and more recently revealed he was diagnosed with

borderline personality disorder, which can stem from fear of

failure.

Aside from Marshall’s tribulations, the NFL lockout and the

fruitless negotiations with Harbaugh and Orton that diminished the

status of the incumbent coach and QB, the Dolphins have had a

decent 2011. They added a much-needed breakaway threat in fragile

but speedy Reggie Bush, upgraded at inside linebacker by acquiring

Kevin Burnett, and landed a promising rookie crop, including

running back Daniel Thomas and center Mike Pouncey. They also

signed veteran running back Larry Johnson, hoping the 31-year-old

can provide some much-needed depth.

Even in Miami, where it has been 11 years since a playoff

victory and 27 years since a Super Bowl berth, the additions were

enough to inspire standard training-camp bravado.

”I think we’re going to have an opportunity to contend for the

whole thing, the Super Bowl,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said. ”And

that’s what you play for.”

The Dolphins will likely go as far as a potentially stout

defense takes them. Aside from Channing Crowder, jettisoned in

favor of Burnett, the unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in yards

allowed per play last year returns intact.

Miami is especially strong up front. Outside linebacker Cameron

Wake had a breakout season with 14 sacks and a Pro Bowl invitation,

and nose tackle Paul Soliai showed signs of blossoming into a star.

Depth is bolstered by the return of end Jared Odrick and linebacker

A.J. Edds, who had their rookie seasons curtailed by injury, and

young veterans Vontae Davis and Sean Smith could form one of the

league’s best cornerback tandems.

But the Dolphins need to score more than last year, when they

ranked third-worst in the NFL.

Because of a sputtering offense, the Dolphins lost three games

by a field goal or less. Two of those defeats hastened a

late-season collapse that left Sparano’s status so tenuous.

”If you win some of the close games, we’re not having this

conversation,” receiver Brian Hartline said. ”But we didn’t.

There are things we need to fix. We’re fixing them. And we’re going

to be a better team.”

Sparano welcomes such positive sentiments. Walking off the field

following a recent practice, he spotted cornerback Davis talking to

the media and said, ”Vontae, tell them how much you like your

coach.”

Nice try, but Sparano knows his popularity will be determined

beginning Sept. 12, when the Dolphins open the season against New

England.