Monday December 12th, 2011

Tony Sparano

Tony Sparano was fired by the Dolphins after a career 29-32 record as the team's head coach. (Amy Sancetta/AP)

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what might have saved Tony Sparano's job this season. An over .500 finish? A wild-card spot? An AFC East title?

What we do know is this: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tried his darndest to convince Jim Harbaugh to come to Miami -- a pursuit that looks more understandable now that the league has seen what Harbaugh can do. But in the process of wooing the future 49ers coach, Ross put Sparano in a nearly impossible situation.

The two-year contract extension Ross handed Sparano in January, after the Harbaugh chase failed, was akin to plugging a leaky dam with chewing gum. The damage was done.

An 0-7 start to this season more or less sealed Sparano's fate, even as the Dolphins rallied back to win four of their last six games.

"The current situation was not fair to both Tony and the team -- it was a distraction to everyone and put them all in a very difficult situation," Ross said Monday in announcing Sparano's firing. "We need to start the process right now to begin the steps needed to return the Dolphins back to one of the elite teams in the NFL."

You could argue that Ross himself created most of that, uh, "current situation," but even without his offseason shenanigans, Sparano would have entered 2011 with his back against the wall. The Dolphins pulled off a surprising division title in 2008, Sparano's first season at the helm, but could not repeat the success.

They finished 7-9 in 2009, then again in 2010, losing their final three games of each season.

The wheels really started to come off early in the 2009 season, though, when quarterback Chad Pennington was just lost three games in to a shoulder injury. Pennington had arguably his finest NFL season in 2008, as he led Miami to an 11-5 record and a surprising AFC East title.

Sparano never again settled his QB situation after Pennington's unfortunate injury, turning to the oft-criticized Chad Henne for the remainder of '09, all of 2010 and the start of '11. Only with Henne out of the lineup with his own injury did the Dolphins show any signs of life this season; under Matt Moore, Miami has posted a 4-6 mark.

Despite the turnaround, though, it felt like only a matter of time until Miami made this move. The timetable may have been moved up as a result of a report Sunday that Sparano would be out by year's end, while GM Jeff Ireland would get another shot in 2012, but the coach's fate appeared written in stone regardless.

There will be plenty of people in Miami questioning Ross' decision to retain Ireland -- the Dolphins' owner said Monday that "Jeff Ireland and I will use all the resources of the organization to help identify and research viable candidates to select the best possible individual as the next head coach of the Miami Dolphins."

Some of the blame for Sparano's demise should definitely fall on Ireland's shoulders. After all, Ireland is as much responsible for the lingering holes at QB and elsewhere as anyone.

But, apparently, he'll get a chance to help usher in this new era of Dolphins football.

And the next thing Ross must figure out is what he wants that era to look like.

Sparano and Ireland's tenures, almost from the start, were a little messier because of the presence of Bill Parcells, whom Ross brought on in 2008 as a team consultant -- a move that led to questions about who exactly was calling the shots.

Parcells departed early last season, but he left behind a team in shambles. Ross' attempt to land Harbaugh simply added to the jumbled picture heading into 2011. So, it's hard to blame anyone in the Dolphins organization for feeling like it's time for a fresh start. Sparano was the obvious fall guy to set that change in motion. Monday's firing was an inevitable end to a frustrating chapter in Miami's franchise history. Ross has his hands full trying to fix the mess he helped create.

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