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.