NFL: Lions fishing for advice? Follow in Dolphins' path
By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Detroit Free Press
By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
DETROIT — Just one year ago, the Miami Dolphins were on the Road to XVI.
They didn't make it to 0-15, as the Lions have, let alone 0-16. But it was close — awfully, awfully close.
They finished 1-15, and their lone victory came in their 14th game — in overtime, after Baltimore kicker Matt Stover missed a 44-yard field goal and Miami wide receiver Greg Camarillo turned a short completion into a 64-yard touchdown.
Now the Dolphins are 10-5. If they beat the Jets on Sunday, they will finish 11-5 and win the AFC East.
"We know that we were 1-15 a year ago," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said this week in a national conference call. "It's something that obviously I think a little bit about, just because of the way this thing's been turned around."
It's something that obviously the Lions should think a lot about. In the NFL, you can turn things around quickly.
Well, you're supposed to be able to, anyway.
Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga didn't wait around as things went bad last year. He hired Bill Parcells as executive vice president of football operations — in December.
After the season ended, Parcells hired Jeff Ireland as general manager and Sparano as coach. Parcells' last job was coaching the Cowboys. Ireland had been the Cowboys' vice president of college and pro scouting. Sparano had been their assistant head coach and offensive line coach.
The brass sat down and thoroughly evaluated the Dolphins' talent.
"It took a lot of hours, an awful lot of hours," Sparano said. "We watched every play that every player played during the course of the season. If they weren't on our team when the season started, we went and watched them on the other teams they were on."
They obviously parted with a lot of players. But they kept more than you might think. About 25 players who were on that 1-15 team are on this 10-5 team.
"I think that might have been the natural thing, as you're looking at a 1-15 team when we came here, to think, 'Why save anybody?' " Sparano said. "But that wasn't the case. There were some really good football players on this team and really good people on this team. We needed to make sure we kept those people around."
Parcells gave the Dolphins a strong organizational philosophy — build from the inside out. They signed free-agent linemen. Five of their first four draft picks were linemen, starting with the No. 1 pick overall, Michigan left tackle Jake Long.
"I learned from Bill that way that this is a big man's league, and we knew that at the time that was an area that needed to be changed on this football team," Sparano said. "So that's what we did."
Finally, just before the season, the Dolphins got what Sparano called "the piece that might have been missing." When the Jets acquired Brett Favre, they ditched Chad Pennington. The Dolphins snapped him up.
Pennington is the NFL's second-highest-rated passer (96.4) and the glue in the locker room — a calming, veteran influence. And now he has a chance to beat his old team to go to the playoffs.
"When Chad became available, it just worked out for us," Sparano said. "We got lucky."
No question. But as football coaches like to say, sometimes you make your own luck.
The Dolphins hired good people. They had a philosophy and a plan. They evaluated talent. They made solid decisions. They got some breaks — like landing Pennington and staying healthy — and turned themselves around dramatically in one year.
It can be done.
Lions owner William Clay Ford could do everything possible to land Parcells' son-in-law, New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who has won three Super Bowls with coach Bill Belichick. Pioli reportedly would be interested.
But Ford has said he will bring back general manager Martin Mayhew and chief operating officer Tom Lewand. They will help him hire another executive, and their front-office roles will be defined later. Doesn't sound like he's bringing in somebody like Pioli.
Look, the Dolphins didn't seem like geniuses at first. People confused Tony Sparano for Tony Soprano. And there are lots of different ways to do it.
But there are ways, and there is no excuse for this to continue.