But Smiley's loss may be tougher to overcome. Sparano moved over first-year starter Ike Ndukwe from right guard to the left side, while inserting inexperienced Andy Alleman in Ndukwe's spot. Earlier last week, the Dolphins signed veteran offensive lineman Al Johnson to provide depth because of the ankle injury sustained by rookie left tackle Jake Long. Although Long played Sunday, he clearly was hampered by the ankle and wasn't able to produce much push. He almost got Chad Pennington beheaded when his buddy, Rams defensive end Chris Long, flew by him for a scary hit that forced an incompletion.
"I thought that was a good battle the entire day. I think both players are really good players. I think that was a good heavyweight fight. They both went at each other pretty good," Sparano said of the top two draft picks going at it Sunday.
Sparano wanted another backup center because Alleman had been playing guard. Now, Johnson may join the mix at guard with Alleman. If Ndukwe falters, tackle Brandon Frye may take over. Sparano knows the 6-5, 305-pound Johnson from their days together in Dallas where he started 31 games before signing with Arizona in 2007. He started 14 games for the Cardinals before undergoing two knee operations this offseason.
"(Johnson was) really brought here to be a little bit more if a center than anything else but that can free up some flexibility in there," Sparano said. "(He's) one of the smartest players I've coached and he already knows my system, so it's not going to take Al very long to understand any of the things that we do, so that's helpful when you're going into a work week and you're trying to hit the ground running and you're going to be using some new people."
Smiley has played a big role in the development of Long and has taken some of the pressure off the overall top draft pick.
"Justin, because he's seen things so many times, is able to communicate a little bit clearer," Sparano said. "Where is Jake right now? I think Jake's a lot better off probably because of Justin right now that they've had this 15, 16 weeks, whatever it's been, together out there. That was one of the key ingredients, initially Justin was playing on the right side and we moved Justin over to the left side when Jake came in."
Although quarterback Chad Pennington wasn't sacked Sunday, he was getting pressured without Smiley protecting his blind flank. Pennington has only been sacked 22 times, compared to Rams quarterbacks going down 37 times. That protection also contributes to the Dolphins' league-low 10 turnovers.
So despite being in the thick of the playoff race after their AFC East rivals all lost Sunday, Sparano wasn't in the mood to smile.