Tony Sparano Delivered The Most Magical Season in Dolphins History

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins during the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium on November 24, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins during the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium on November 24, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Miami Dolphins haven’t had a lot of good moments since the dawn of the new millennium. Tony Sparano was one of the few who changed that.

Back in the mid-2000s, it wasn’t much fun being a Dolphins fan. Between 2002 and 2007, the team failed to make the playoffs and bottomed out during the final year with a disastrous 1-15 record. It was clear the organization was floundering and lost. Three different quarterbacks combined for barely over 3,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Ricky Williams had failed yet another drug test. The defense was old, slow and couldn’t stop anybody. It wasn’t just the losing that was the hard part. It was the general lack of belief that they could win. The hopelessness. This was something Dolphins fans hadn’t had a taste of in decades, spoiled as they were by the long reign of Don Shula and then a productive run from Jimmy Johnson.

The last time they’d had a year that bad was 1966, which also happened to be their first as an expansion team when they finished 3-11. This was a level of bad they’d never touched before, and some feared there was no way to climb out of the mud.

Parcells made an unconventional pick of Sparano to spark Dolphins

In early 2008, Dolphins management knew a firmer hand was needed to clean up the mess. Coaching legend Bill Parcells was hired to run the team’s operations as their VP. His first decision proved to be the most crucial. He brought his former understudy Tony Sparano to town to take over as head coach. Sparano had served as Parcells’ offensive line coach and assistant head coach with the Dallas Cowboys. He was a relative unknown at the time, making the choice somewhat controversial.

It didn’t help when the Dolphins got off to a poor start that season, losing their first two games to the Jets and Cardinals. With the New England Patriots up next, it felt like Sparano would be dealt a killing blow before he even had a chance to get situated. He had to do something to rescue things or his team faced a 0-3 start and likely another losing season.

That’s when it happened.

Unveiling a wacky new offense featuring two running backs in the backfield instead of the quarterback with lots of misdirection and gadget plays, Miami pounced on the totally unprepared Patriots for a rousing 38-13 victory. Ronnie Brown and a resurgent Williams helped combine for 216 rushing yards. Brown even threw a touchdown pass. It was exciting. It was different.

According to Sparano, it was simply the “Wildcat.”

That game proved to be the springboard of something special. Riding their new offense and momentum, the Dolphins finished the season out with an 11-3 run, claiming their first division title in eight years and knocking the Patriots out of the playoffs for the only time in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. Granted, Brady was out due to a torn ACL but that shouldn’t diminish what Sparano accomplished.

Now here it is. A decade has passed. Sparano, fresh off helping the Minnesota Vikings to an NFC championship game in 2017 as their offensive line coach, passed away suddenly on July 22nd, 2018. He was 56-years old. Way too young to go. It’s a heartbreaking development for a man that clearly loved the game of football, and was clearly loved by the players he coached.

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People will have many different memories of Sparano. Was he the greatest head coach in the world? No. However, for one special season, he was in the right place at the right time to give the Miami Dolphins exactly what they needed:  a reason to believe again. Many men wish they could have such a legacy.