Analysis

Struggling teams would do well to remember the Wildcat

On a dark, quiet plane seven years ago, then-Dolphins coach Tony Sparano requested that his quarterbacks coach, David Lee, take the seat next to him on the long flight from Arizona to Miami. Something needed to change, and this was the time to do it.

The Dolphins had just been thumped by the Cardinals, 31-10, sinking to 0-2 after a Week 1 loss to the Jets to start the 2008 season. The offense stunk, but the defense was even worse. Arizona receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald had combined for 12 catches, 293 yards and three touchdowns.

So Sparano was willing to do whatever it took to shift the momentum. The following week, in one of the more memorable early season games of the last decade, he deployed a crazy strategy: Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams introduced the NFL to the Wildcat offense.

Miami beat the Patriots, 38-13, on the way to capturing an AFC East title and completing what was then the best turnaround in NFL history, finishing 11-5 one year after a 1-15 disaster.

The moral of this story has nothing to do with the current state of the AFC East. After all, the Bills are way better this year, and the Patriots were without Tom Brady for almost all of the 2008 season because of a torn ACL. Plus, the Jets are off to a hot 2-0 start.

The moral of the story, rather, applies to every team in the NFL -- including today's Dolphins -- suddenly wondering how and why its 2015 prospects look so dire so soon. And that moral is this: It's not too late to change.

There's a thin line between conviction and stubbornness, and the latter has ended the careers of many smart head coaches. So while teams like the 1-1 Dolphins, 0-2 Colts and 0-2 Eagles -- teams that have disappointed fan bases expecting so much more -- don't necessarily need to try something like the Wildcat, they shouldn't be afraid of making some major tweaks before passing the point of no return.

So how exactly does that happen?

It happens through communication. Sparano, for instance, went to Lee, who had run a version of the Wildcat offense as a coach in Arkansas. He went to Brown to see if he felt comfortable with the system. He confided in those he hired.

Coaches like Miami's Joe Philbin should certainly do the same -- and they shouldn't stop with their staffs.

A report from the Miami Herald that suggested Ndamukong Suh went into freelance mode in Sunday's loss to the Jaguars (the report prompted a strong denial from Philbin) raised an important question about how much power one player can hold. The Dolphins signed Suh to a $114 million contract because he has proven to be a force capable of playing against any offensive scheme. While that doesn't mean Suh should be calling the shots on defense, it most certainly means the Dolphins' coaches should be digging deep into his experienced mind about how they can get the most from him.

As much credit as the Dolphins get for being creative with the Wildcat in 2008, it's important to note they also did something else that season: They put Joey Porter in a position to dominate on defense. In the first two weeks that season, Porter had just one sack and eight tackles. By the season's end? He put together his best season as a pro, notching 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

That season would mark both the beginning of Sparano's career with the Dolphins -- and the pinnacle. And Sparano accomplished what he did because he was willing to go against the original script, even if it meant abandoning some of his original thoughts.

That's not the same as abandoning core beliefs. It isn't the same as flip-flopping. Nor is it the same as throwing something against the wall to see if it sticks. Instead, it is opening up to new possibilities to avoid old results.

In many instances, it would seem ridiculous that Philbin could take a lesson from the coach he replaced in South Florida. But this might be the one occasion when it makes great sense.

It isn't time to bench players or fire coaches.

Rather, it's time to do the opposite: It is time to embolden them instead.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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