By Michael E. Miller
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In the locker room at halftime, Sparano had a simple message about finishing the job. It's a common theme. "He always says for us to play as if we're 17 again," says rookie cornerback Sean Smith. "Just go out like you did when you were a kid and have fun."
At the beginning of the second half, the Dolphins were six yards from the end zone when quarterback Chad Henne called a time-out. Sparano charged onto the field. He slapped his playlist and yelled at Henne: "What the fuck are you doing?"
On the next play, the Dolphins looked ready to run the ball. But Henne dropped back, and receiver Greg Camarillo sneaked across the field into the corner of the end zone with nobody around. Unfortunately the pass fell short.
Sparano put his hands on his hips and turned away, a look of disgust covering his face. He ordered a field goal; still, the Dolphins remained down, 21-13.
The Dolphins had a chance to close in with about three minutes left in the third quarter. Again, there was no risk-taking. Henne dropped back, unloaded, and hit receiver Brian Hartline. The Dolphins scored: 21-19.
Sparano then took one of those crazy risks. He sent the offense back out to go for two. The coach had figured something out: The Patriots had been leaving the left side of the end zone open. So he sent tight end Anthony Fasano there again. Henne aimed for him, but linemen got a hand on the ball, which bounced near no one.
Tom Brady was about to get the ball back with plenty of time left to effectively end the Dolphins' season and destroy Sparano's second year.
But neither team scored for much of the fourth quarter. With about three minutes left in the game, the Dolphins got a chance. Henne connected on a trio of long passes, and the Dolphins found themselves on the Patriots' 28-yard line — nearly close enough for a field goal that would have put them up by a point.
During a time-out, Sparano went over to talk to Henne. Take no chances was the message. Three running plays followed, and then kicker Dan Carpenter nailed a 41-yard field goal that gave the team a 22-21 lead.
With about a minute left and no time-outs, Brady threw the first ball to his running back waiting near the sideline for 11 yards. On the next play, Brady dropped back again. The Dolphins blitzed, and defensive end Jason Taylor snuck up behind Brady. He grabbed the quarterback by the ankles. Brady made one last desperate throw — his season too might be on the line. The pass floated. The Dolphins' Channing Crowder easily grabbed it.
Conservative Sparano had won. His decisions to avoid the wildcat offense and run down the clock near the end of the game suddenly looked brilliant.
At his postgame news conference, Sparano walked up to the podium wearing sunglasses and the white windbreaker. He looked just as disgruntled as ever and said simply: "Whaddaya got?"
In the back of the room, Jeanette stood next to her daughter Ryan and son Tony. Jeanette looked giddy, smiling widely and clenching her hands in front of her face.
The media pool of about 40, characteristically afraid of Sparano, mostly asked him about the game.
"I think the big push this week was just the amount of passion it takes," he responded. "We knew we were in the hump. We had to come out here, and we had to win a big ball game, and we did. We'll see where this thing goes."
Sparano also talked about salvaging a season. "We know that you are only as good as your last at bat," he said. "We just got a good one."
He then turned to leave, and his sunglasses slid down his nose. He used his thumb and forefinger to push them back up.
A week later, the Dolphins pulled out another close win, over Jacksonville. Sparano's team largely skipped risky plays, and the wildcat offense was never employed in the 14-10 victory.
The following morning, this past Monday, Sparano met the press looking a bit haggard. Without his regular baseball hat, it was clear his hair had thinned considerably in his second year as coach. But the Dolphins are 7-6 now, with a decent shot at the playoffs.
Sparano answered questions somewhat more pleasantly than usual. Asked about the playoffs, he answered quickly. "There's too much football left for a lot of teams. There's still three games left for everybody," he said. "You really are in this little bunker right now. That's kind of where you need to be. You need to live here right now."
Afterward, Sparano headed back upstairs, likely to study the tapes in his dark office, where he'll spend most of his time for the next few weeks.