The circus-like coaching search ended where it started -- with current coach Tony Sparano remaining in his position after owner Stephen Ross chased Jim Harbaugh across the country, hoping to get him to take Sparano's job. After letting Sparano twist for nearly a week, the Dolphins signed him to a two-year extension in hopes of patching up the relationship following one of the more awkward coaching searches in recent memory.
With no change at the top, things have to change elsewhere for Sparano to regain credibility following consecutive 7-9 seasons and an inexcusable 1-7 home record in 2010. Let's look at some issues that need to be addressed this offseason if the Dolphins plan to compete with the Patriots, Jets -- ok, and the Bills -- in the AFC East in 2011.
1. What impact will keeping Sparano have?
Sparano is a tough coach who is big on accountability and selflessness. His approach seemed to work for most players, but the results -- especially the end-of-the-season failures the past two years along with this season's awful home record -- haven't helped him.
There needs to be changes in personnel and on the coaching staff, but the biggest issue could be how Sparano works with general manager Jeff Ireland. Ireland aligned himself with Ross to try and find someone to replace Sparano. They have an offseason to bridge any ill feelings, but this could be a problematic dynamic. It would seem that Sparano has gained more leverage in choosing the players he wants but the players he seeks -- unselfish, team-first guys -- are the same types Ireland prefers.
Where things could get interesting is how players react to Sparano. He is very respected by his players, but if things start out poorly next season, they could perceive him as being weakened by this search process and treat him as "the guy ownership settled on." Even though it's unlikely, it's definitely possible. Conversely, Sparano currently is viewed as a sympathetic figure, and players could rally around him and the grace in which he handled himself while ownership tried to find somebody better.
2. Who replaces Henning?
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning is no longer with the team, so what lies ahead for the offense? This is a huge hire since it could dictate offensive personnel. With Sparano's offensive background, expect him to have a bigger role on that side of the ball. Though there has been speculation about former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels being a possibility, Miami would be inviting nuclear war trying to re-unite him with wide receiver Brandon Marshall. It could happen but that might be a reach. Someone more understated, like Denver's Mike McCoy, San Francisco's Mike Johnson or Minnesota's Darrell Bevell would seem more the type. Someone to keep an eye on is former Browns coach Chris Palmer, who remains in good standing after coaching in the UFL this season.
3. Who plays running back?
It won't be Ricky Williams, who, at 33, torched his way out of town with a postseason radio rant early this week. He's also a free agent. The question is whether Ronnie Brown, another free agent, returns. He's a good player when healthy, and he's young. He seemingly can adapt to a variety of schemes as well. There could be some good free agents available -- such as Carolina's DeAngelo Williams -- but we've seen that teams might get more value drafting scheme-fit runners in the middle rounds.
4. Any questions about defense?
Arguably, the best thing about Sparano's retention is that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be back -- unless he gets an offer to be a head coach. Nolan helped the Dolphins rate in the top 10 in some key defensive categories and he unleashed outside linebacker Cameron Wake on the NFL. Getting DE Jared Odrick back from a season-ending foot injury should really help things up front. There is a need for some personnel upgrades, especially on the back end, but things could be better in Year 2 of Nolan's system.
5. What to do in the draft?
The Dolphins have the 15th overall pick, which is kind of purgatory for a team that needs help at quarterback, running back and some spots on the second and third levels on defense. We understand the value of a quarterback, and if a player such as Missouri's Blaine Gabbert or Auburn's Cam Newton (both of whom are underclassmen and would have to declare their intentions to enter the NFL Draft) fits the mold, it could be hard to pass. Selecting a running back that high seems iffy, since so many success stories are found in the middle to later rounds. It would be no shock -- and possibly could be prudent -- for Miami to try and trade back to acquire more picks.