Sparano Speaks

Tony Sparano's first season as Dolphins head coach has gone beyond anybody's wildest expectations, but don't think for a second he's satisfied yet. The Baltimore Ravens are coming to town this weekend for an AFC first-round playoff game, and Sparano is going to make sure his team is ready. He talked about the playoffs and the just-completed regular season when he met with the media on Monday.

Here's what Sparano had to say about a variety of topics:

On how much sleep he got last night: "It was awhile before I got settled in, but the alarm went off early this morning. That's all right, I'll take it."

On what the success of this season has meant to him with it being his first season as a head coach: "I just think anytime you come into a situation like this was, there's so many things that have to come together to even have a chance to do what we've done. It starts with hiring good coaches and getting those people together and on the same page. Then it goes to making some of the right decisions I think from a free agent standpoint and the draft and getting all of these players to play together. A lot of things had to happen that way so when you see it come full-circle, and you see the way these guys have competed over the last several weeks, you got to remember, I got to be careful here because we're playing another ballgame here real soon so I don't want to give out too many pats on the back here, but these guys have won four out of five on the road here, at the end of this whole thing. That's hard to do. That being said, when you see that happen, it's something you can really feel good about."

On what saw on film versus what he saw on the field from the players when he was hired: "What you see on film is one thing of course. The one thing I knew when I watched this team on film from a year ago is that we played them early in the season. I knew that they were competing hard and at the end of the season, I thought still competing pretty hard at the end of the season. Just too many different people is what I've seen. The cast of characters was never the same because of injuries and those type of things. That started the wheels going in my head a little bit just kind of where we needed to be. I think one of things we needed to make sure that we did is really challenge this group of people in the offseason and find out who's going to put their toe in the water and who's going to kind of jump right in. I think at the end of this whole thing, we found that out pretty clear. We made the offseason pretty difficult for this football team to have to get through and I think it's paid dividends here down the road. What I see right now is, I really see a bunch of guys that have gone through an awful lot together over the last several months and I see that coming together pretty good."

On why the offensive line has played so well: "They just play hard, they really do. It's not pretty all of the time and it wasn't pretty in this game. You watch it on film and give credit to the Jets, that (Kris) Jenkins is a pain in the neck and he's a big, strong guy and active in there and (Shaun) Ellis and those people. These guys played pretty hard. I thought that one of the things is we've had the ability to use some of these guys during the course of the season meaning, (Ikechuku Ndukwe) EK and Andy Alleman, get some of those guys work so when they did have to step in there, it wasn't the first time that they were doing this. That's helped us a little bit. They're pretty athletic in the middle so with some of the things that we're doing, athletically, they can handle some of those things pretty well. I think that they're a pretty tough and gritty bunch. I don't think that there's anything flashy about that group at all. They're just tough and gritty and smart, you can do a lot of things with them."

On when he was introduced as head coach, did he think he could make this kind of turnaround or was he just thinking about implementing his team: "Yeah, I really wasn't. I wasn't thinking about division championships at that time; there was too many other things that had to happen. I was just really thinking about one step at a time and I think that that's what this team has done a really good job of is really focusing on one step, one situation at a time, whatever that was. It might have been our first OTA, our first minicamp, just approaching it that way with this team and not looking too far down the road one way or the other, not taking our eyes off of what's in front of us and worry about things that are down the road here. I think that that was the big thing for us and then as we started to do some of these things, again, somewhere late, second half of the season is where you thought, maybe you might be able to do something."

On the confidence Chad Pennington brought to this team and what he's meant to the team: "He's vital to this team, he really is. With Chad coming in here and doing what he's done right now and bringing a bunch of people together, these young players, what he's brought to them from a leadership standpoint, just seeing Davone Bess and Teddy Ginn yesterday, Teddy Ginn made some great catches yesterday. Bess played pretty well for us. Seeing what those guys have done, again, this young offensive line and how he's got them going a little bit. His work ethic is pretty contagious and I think that when they see a guy been in the league eight, nine, 10 years, and this guy is doing what he's doing, I think that all of a sudden these guys figure out that this has got to be the right way. I think that that's happening right now so they're following his lead a little bit and that's a pretty good lead to follow."

On how much things pick up this week compared to the regular season: "It's turned up a great deal, but make no mistake, we're playing a football team right now in the Ravens that first of all played pretty fast anytime they were out there. Then you turn it up in the playoffs and you know exactly what you're going to get so we're going to have to match the speed there. It'll get turned up a bunch I'm sure. The bottom-line is before it was win or go home and it's still win or go home. That's where we are, it's just a new set of goals. Before we were looking saying, ‘Hey, you've got to win four, you've got to win three', well right now, you've got to win one. We got to worry about winning one, we can't sit here and say, ‘you've got to win three, you've got to win four', you've got to just win one. That's what we need to do."

On where he stands with the Wildcat: "It's part of what we do. We'll probably continue to do it and we'll see what happens. When we get into ballgames, it's more about what the other team does with the Wildcat than anything else. If they defend it and they do a nice job defending it then we move on to something else. Our game plan sheet is going to have 120 plays, 115 plays on it; it's not going to have five. If we're having success, and yesterday we did have some success with it. There was some space in there yesterday with the Wildcat. I thought Ronnie (Brown) did some really good things with his vision there, kind of letting the line work a little bit and then getting into the line of scrimmage and when he did, he got his shoulders square and got downhill pretty fast. That was just a good situation yesterday; it created a little bit of space."

On if this will be a normal week of preparation: "Yeah, it will be a normal week for us. Again, we're stuck in the holidays a little bit, but there's honestly very little time for that right now. We've got work to do and we've got to get to it. No better way to spend New Year's than out on the practice field."

On what it meant to get a big play from Phillip Merling yesterday: "That was great to see a big guy running with the ball like that. He changed hands, he did it all. I told him after we got off the plane, I said, ‘You've got a future there, man. We did the wrong thing'. That big back that Baltimore has (LeRon McClain), we might need to put Merling back there. He did a nice job; it was really a heck of a play. It's one of those feel things that you're not sure a young guy can make and all of a sudden he made it because he felt that tackle starting to get soft on the pass rush, he put his feet in the ground and the next thing you know he had to get a little bit of width and the ball was in the air and he catches and he finishes. It was a heck of a play. He played really well during the course of this game, Phil did. He was active inside; he made some tackles in there. I thought he held the point pretty good so I was pleased with what he did. There was a lot of guys that played pretty well up front yesterday, defensively. I thought Vonnie Holliday played outstanding yesterday."

On if he has any leverage with Bill Parcells as far as keeping him around: "I have nothing to say there."

On if he wants his players to continue to use the ‘underdog' label as motivation in the playoffs: "I think we're over it right now. Underdog, not, one way or the other, we kind of feel like we know where we stand. What I mean by that is I think the more we keep doing what we're doing, the more credibility that we get with our opponents, but still I think people look at you and they're still not sure one way or the other, but we have every right to be where we are right now in this ballgame. Our players played their way into this thing. That's the nice thing about this tournament; there's no hiding, you play your way into it. It's unfortunate; there are some good teams that aren't in it right now and we're in it. We played our way into this opportunity and we'll just try to make the best of it."

On how different and better a player is Ted Ginn from the guy he saw on the field in May: "He's a lot better right now and I think a lot of that has to do with Chad (Pennington). Certainly a lot of it has to do with Ted and his work ethic, but Chad helping these young guys out and Ted being willing to be helped out in that kind of situation. Ted's in Chad's ear all of the time, but you can see the two of them working together pretty well. That deep ball yesterday, the flea-flicker, Ted comes back for it, it's a heck of a play and a big play during the course of the game. Then the touchdown catch is a heck of a play as well. That's one where Ted converted the route; that wasn't supposed to happen that way, and the coverage dictated it. Way back when, I'm not sure that that gets done. Right now, those things are getting done pretty regularly with Ted and with Chad. You can see growth there. The other thing with Ted is I see a confidence right now; he wants the ball in some of those situations. There's a little bit more of a swagger about him out there then there was earlier in the year."

On if the play of his secondary and the play of his coverage teams in the return game are measurable in terms of the improvement since the last time they played Baltimore: "Yeah, I'd say so. I think that, first of all our secondary as a whole I thought last night played really well. It gave us a chance to do some things that we needed to be able to do. There was some man-to-man opportunities. We got picked one time, they hit us and I think Laveranues (Coles) made a big play in the middle of the field off of a little bit of a pick, but other than that, I thought played pretty soundly during the course of this ballgame from a man-to-man standpoint which was good for us because if you can do that, you can force them to hold the ball a little bit and maybe create a little bit of pressure. Even though we weren't hitting Brett (Favre), we were around him a bunch and I think he felt that. That growth over the period of time right now, from let's say the middle of the season even, to where are right now I think has been tremendous. A lot of it has to do with the way we practice and the way these guys compete during the course of practice, but more importantly, I think our defensive backfield being willing to get up there and take some challenges. Some guys get gun-shy in that situation. Right now, (André Goodman) Goodie, Will (Allen), I think even Nate Jones, the corners are doing are a nice job and then our safeties are covering pretty well, too. Our special teams unit right now is getting better and better. You talk about a little bit of a swagger there, that helps us a lot. Yesterday in the ballgame, we really didn't have to pooch kick it. Other than the first kick of the game, which really was a miss-kick, we didn't intend to do that on the first kick of the game, it was just a miss-kick that ended up getting down the field that way. Other than that, we kicked the ball down the field, we tried to cover, we didn't want to give them the ball by short-kicking it on the 40-yard line in this game and the first guy down the field made the play. There was only one opportunity during the course of the game where Jason Allen I think maybe missed one, but he was down there early enough that there was no yards gained after the miss; Charlie Anderson ended up making the play. I know (Erik) Walden had a heck of a hit on one of them and there was a couple of other guys."

On the difference in the secondary's confidence now compared to where they came from: "I just think that right now, one of the things I think is that we spent an awful lot of time with this group about coaching fundamentals. That sounds corny, but at the end of this, at their position right now, fundamentals are key. Early in the season, we weren't finishing plays. I think even in last season, when I watched that group, they weren't finishing plays. We were watching guys like Will Allen and Goodie and this group of people and you'd see them get their hands on balls, but you wouldn't see them finish all of the time where right now we're getting to a point where these guys are finishing some plays off. They're getting their hands on the football and at the end of the day, that's what gives you plus-17 turnover ratio. I think that's the biggest difference right now is that fundamentally they've gotten an awful lot better. There is a confidence back there. The other thing is, we're lucky about this, but they've been healthy and they've been playing together now for however many weeks. Since we put Renaldo (Hill) in there, we really haven't lost one those guys. It's been Goodie, It's been Will, it's been Yeremiah (Bell), it's been Renaldo. Yeremiah a year ago, plays however many games, a couple games. Renaldo, in-and-out, hurt his knee. There's some of those type of things."

On the status of David Martin: "He's got a headache right now so he's just day-to-day. We'll see where he is at the end of this."

On how he has improved as a coach and what he knows now that he didn't know before: "I think it's situational football during the course of games. I try to stay one step ahead all of the time of the situations. You know the number of timeouts, where we are, what we need, how we might use those things as the game gets on, what I need to have in my pocket maybe late in the game, early in the first half, how we want to attack some of these teams offensively and defensively. I'll try to set the course offensively. One of the things with the Jets, and I talked to both staffs about this, I've been down this road before. I think you don't want to have regrets as play callers at the end of these games where you feel like you didn't do everything in your power to put them in the best situations. We went into this game thinking we had to be aggressive and our game plan was one where we thought we had to be a little bit aggressive as we approached them as well. I think that those are the things that I've really learned. Also, I learned a lot about my team and trying to get a beat on your football team. When it's fourth-and-one and you're on your whatever it is, you've got to make a call in some of those situations, you've got to believe in some of the people that are out there. That's probably the biggest thing that I've learned. I learned an awful lot about my football team and I believe in them in those situations. It makes it a little bit easier for me to do some of those things."

On the enthusiasm for the holdovers from last season: "Yeah, I hope so. I think that for some of them, I'm sure that that's the case. Like I said, you hear guys like Vonnie Holliday say, and Vonnie has said this more than once so I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he said, ‘it was hard to go out', or whatever it was, hard to come out of the house. It's nice for those guys right now to be able to feel good about themselves. Now that being said, they just won 11 football games during the season and we did win a division championship, but at the end of this hole thing, now we're 0-0. I think these guys, I'm hopeful that they're going to continue to be hungry right now, which I think that they will be when they walk through the door here on Wednesday."

On if it was tough to build a team-first mentality: "Yeah, a little bit tough because we had people coming in from all over the place. We brought so many new people in that that made it a little bit tough. Sometimes these guys are sitting in the locker room and the guy sitting next to them wasn't there two days ago. I think that slowly, but surely, these guys have become a team. The nice thing about it are the people that were here last year have welcomed the new people, and they more importantly, have adapted to our philosophy. They know that when we're bring players in and out of here right now, it's for the better of the team. I think that instead of them questioning it and wondering why they're doing what they're doing, they understand clearly why we're doing what we're doing right now. I think that that makes it a little bit easier. It's a little bit easier for them to welcome people in and that's a credit to the players in that locker room."

On if he is going to lean on the veterans leading up to the playoff game of if he thinks the younger players have a grasp to know what's at stake: "Yeah, I think you do. I think you try to get Ferguson and Chad and Vonnie and Joey and that group of people and you try to lean on them a little bit. They understand, but I have to be honest, I know Sunday is the showcase, but it's been a showcase now for a lot of weeks. At the end of this, there's a lot of teams that couldn't do what these guys just did. In other words, there's some teams that were out there this weekend that controlled their own destiny and for whatever the reason didn't do it. These guys did. Every week it's been that way. I understand that this week is bigger than last week right now, but we've been in these situations and our veteran players have had to provide that kind of leadership and that kind of direction to the younger players. They've been pretty consistent doing that and I have no reason to believe that that would change right now, knowing where we are."

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