Clear regression in Miami has led to Dolphins dissension

The flight was dark and quiet, much like the mood of the passengers on their way back to South Florida after a 31-10 thumping from the Arizona Cardinals. Tony Sparano, fresh off his second loss as Miami's coach in 2008, already sensed a need for change.

So he summoned then-quarterbacks coach David Lee up to the front of the Dolphins' team plane, where Sparano told him he wanted to thoroughly discuss the college offense used in Arkansas a year earlier under Lee's direction.

"It's called the Wildcat," Sparano revealed one week later, after this mystery offense had just unraveled the Patriots' defense -- and Bill Belichick's mind -- in a 38-13 win.

It was the single greatest coaching performance of Sparano's career, the game that defined his tenure in Miami until Dolphins owner Stephen Ross boarded another plane last January to inquire with Jim Harbaugh about replacing him.

After a 0-3 start to this season, the mood in South Florida has turned dark and quiet once again. Although multiple team sources said Wednesday that Sparano's job is not in imminent jeopardy, it might now be time for the coach to dig deep to keep it that way.

Ross has privately delivered a continued vote of confidence in general manager Jeff Ireland, who has become one of Ross' closest confidants over the past year. By extension of Ireland's support, Ross is also remaining patient with Sparano after the rough start.

This is not to suggest Ireland holds any level of authority over Sparano, but it has been made clear by several sources -- both on the football operations side and the business side of the organization -- that Ireland's endorsement and plea for patience as it pertains to Sparano has resonated with Ross as recently as Sunday's loss to Cleveland.

As a result of the current power structure, which has clearly changed since Bill Parcells brought Sparano and Ireland into the organization seemingly as equals in 2008, several factors could become important to watch as the Dolphins' season unfolds.

The potential for dissension between Sparano and players might actually be less temperamental at this point than the potential for dissension between the coaching staff and the personnel department.

The team's slow start has weighed heavy on Sparano, who has most certainly taken an us-against-the-world mentality in recent days. It is less clear, however, whether Sparano considers Ross (and Ireland, for that matter) as "us" or "the world."

Ireland's endorsement of Sparano has been called "sincere" by multiple sources. To outsiders, it might also be viewed as strange -- since there's currently a general sense from a fan base that Ireland is as much to blame for the team's regression as Sparano.

Arguments have been made by sources on both sides within the organization: Coaches privately question whether they've been given the proper pieces to succeed, while members of the personnel staff privately question whether the coaches are properly utilizing those players.

Wherever the blame, there's one much more objective fact that falls on everybody: Since Ross took over as principle owner in Jan. 2009, the team has won 14 of 35 games for a winning percentage of .400.

If you split those games in half, the Dolphins won nine of the first 18 games under Ross (.500) and five of the last 17 (.294) for a clear regression. Throw in 11 losses at home in the past 12 games, and it makes for a concerned owner.

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So how does everyone get back to being happy, to the emotions once felt in 2008 after the Wildcat helped spark an 11-5 season and an AFC East title? And how do they do it without any resonating resentment from Sparano after a year of feeling like the loneliest man in South Florida?

The simple solution: Win. Turn it around. Start Sunday against the Chargers. The bigger solution might be slightly more complex, although summoning the same result.

Again, the coaches feel shorted by a lack of talent. The personnel department feels frustrated by the way players are being utilized. So if Sparano takes the personnel he's been handed, if he makes the most of it through the creative and bold thinking that once inspired the Wildcat, it might just be the most salvageable remedy to ridding South Florida of the dark and quiet feeling currently hovering in the sky.

There is a resounding feeling that change is on the horizon. It's up to Sparano to prove the change starts with winning -- and not the coach.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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