MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — For a guy who finished with three straight losing seasons, Tony Sparano sure was liked by his players.
In fact, nine months after Miami fired Sparano as head coach, some Dolphins players still believe they could have done more to have kept Sparano around. Instead, Sparano, now offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, will be in Miami on Sunday standing on the opposite sideline.
“It was one of those things where you kind of felt responsible as a player,” Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith said about the ousting of Sparano. “He can do so much on the sideline. It’s up to us to go out there and execute. . . . Things (weren’t) going the way we all hoped, and he’s gone. It’s tough.”
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Sparano’s tenure started out well. He took over a 1-15 squad and led the Dolphins to an 11-5 mark and the AFC East title in 2008. But Sparano went 18-27 the rest of the way and was dismissed after a 4-9 start last season.
“Coach got fired,” guard Richie Incognito said of Sparano being replaced on an interim basis for the final three games last season by Todd Bowles before Joe Philbin came in this season. “You take the blame as a player. We didn’t play well enough, and that’s it.”
Incognito said he’s kept in contact with Sparano since he was let go and that Miami players are “looking forward” to competing against him Sunday. Few are more excited to see Sparano than Smith.
Smith, who joined the Dolphins as a second-round pick in 2009, doesn’t believe he’d still be in the NFL had it not been for Sparano. Smith said was he immature when he came into the league and that Sparano showed patience.
“I can’t wait to see Coach, man,” said Smith, whose Dolphins are 1-1 after Sunday’s 35-13 win over Oakland in their home opener. “Coach is a great dude. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. I give him all the praise. He gave me an opportunity to live my dream.
“There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that Coach definitely looked out for me. With maturity. I was a young and there were a lot of things that I did that anybody else would have probably looked down upon. But I think he was very fair with me. He was stern and strict, but at the same time definitely allowed me to be a kid as well.”
Smith wouldn’t get into specifics about incidents and what his ex-coach did. But you better believe Smith will be giving Sparano, who is scheduled to talk to the media Thursday about his return to Miami, a warm greeting before Sunday’s key game.
All four AFC teams are 1-1, so the winner will be assured at least a share of the lead. Sparano’s Jets looked good on offense in their opener, rolling up 384 yards in a 48-28 win over Buffalo. But it didn’t go nearly as well Sunday as the Jets were held to 219 yards in a 27-10 loss at Pittsburgh.
So who has the advantage Sunday? Dolphins defenders because they know what Sparano likes to do on offense? Or Sparano because he knows Miami’s personnel?
“I think, if anything, they have the advantage with him (having been Miami’s) coach,” Smith said. “He knows everybody in here. He’s watched us practice. He pretty much knows our strengths and weaknesses.”
Smith is one of 36 Miami players remaining from last season. Eight — wide receiver Davone Bess, kicker Dan Carpenter, long snapper John Denney, tight end Anthony Fasano, punter Brandon Fields, tackle Jake Long and defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks — were with Sparano for all four of his Dolphins seasons.
“He’s on the other side now,” Fasano said. “So I don’t have to play against their offense. It’s a divisional game and important for us.”
But don’t think Fasano doesn’t have a lot of respect for Sparano.
“I’ve always had nothing but good things to say about Tony,” Fasano said.