After becoming Miami's head coach last winter, Tony Sparano spent long days in the film room evaluating every single play by every Dolphins player in every game from a 1-15 season.
Talk about excruciating work.
Sparano reached the same conclusion as that of the man who hired him, Miami's new executive vice-president, Bill Parcells.
Pro football is a big man's game. And the Dolphins did not measure up figuratively or literally to what it takes to win in the NFL.
So for anyone looking for the magic potion in Miami's reversal from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008 — tying the 1999 Colts for greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history — it boiled down to this.
The Dolphins had to get bigger to get better.
"The way I learned in this business, it's a big man's league," said Sparano, whose Dolphins will play host to Baltimore in an AFC wild-card game today. "We felt in order to give ourselves a chance with what we were going to do, we had to start from the inside."
Parcells' teams run the ball, are conservative in the passing game and play tenacious defense. Once Sparano's staff made its evaluations, he said, "We parted ways with some people and brought in our own people."
Meaning big people. Need evidence? Look at the Dolphins' draft.
They used the first overall pick in the draft for offensive tackle Jake Long of Michigan, who has started all 16 games at the crucial left tackle spot.
They selected defensive end Phillip Merling in the second round, and he's been a situational pass rusher. They took defensive end Kendall Langford from Hampton University in the
third round, and he's started 12 games.
Bulking up the lines didn't end with the draft. Starting center Andy Allerman was picked up on waivers from New Orleans. Left guard Justin Smiley, an unrestricted free agent from San Francisco, started the first 12 games for Miami before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
By the time Parcells, new general manager Jeff Ireland and Sparano finished retooling the roster, just 24 players who were either on the active roster, a reserve list or practice squad remained from last year's train wreck of a season.
They say it's easier to change coaches than an entire team, but the Dolphins nearly did that, with 29 new players on their current active roster.
"As you're looking at a 1-15 team, you think, why save anybody?" Sparano said. "But that wasn't the case. There were some good football players on this team, and we had to make sure we kept those people around."
One of those players, defensive end and captain Vonnie Holliday, said Sparano did more than change the roster.
"He changed the culture," Holliday said. "His message when he first came in was, 'Look, we're not rebuilding. We're not here to lose, we're here to win.' Guys bought in and guys believed it. There's no doubt that the guy is coach of the year. His ability to gauge his team and keep us prepared and motivated, it's unbelievable. He knows what's going on. This guy has it as a head coach."
That's why Holliday is not surprised by the Dolphins' turnaround.
"We felt like, as players, that we had some talent in here, but we needed some more pieces to the puzzle," Holliday said. "Certainly, in comes Parcells and starts at the top, and assembles an unbelievable coaching staff.
"In comes Chad Pennington, and what a huge piece of the puzzle that was. He comes in as an experienced, poised quarterback ... I can't say enough about Chad Pennington."
Indeed, the Dolphins signed Pennington, two days after he was cast off by the New York Jets to make room for Brett Favre. Miami had released Trent Green, leaving the team with a quarterback stable of journeyman Josh McCown; second-year man John Beck and rookie Chad Henne, a second-round draft pick.
Pennington took a little time getting accustomed to the Dolphins' system; they lost their first two games and were 2-4 at one point.
But Miami won the competitive AFC East and roared into the playoffs by winning nine of 10, including its last five. Pennington not only completed a club-record 67.4 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, but he's been a calming influence amid all the changes.
"We had so many players in from different places," Sparano said. "Right now, our number as far as people moving in and moving out might be up in the 50s somewhere. Chad has been through this. It's not the first time he's seen people come and go in locker rooms ... he is very good of spreading the message that the head coach sends and the organization wants to send.
"When Chad became available, it worked out for us. We got lucky."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun