When the new head coach met with the old hand early in 2008, it took little time to find common ground.
They found it in the ground game.
NFL coach Dan Reeves attests: "Nobody knows the run game better than Dan Henning. If you go back, there's not a single place he's ever been that they didn't run the football."
At first, as Henning recently recalled, "I don't think we were that good at it." Even while finishing 11th in rushing in 2008, they didn't always appear committed to the style, a trend that continued into the pass-happy 2009 opener.
They've since silenced such doubts. They rank second in the NFL in yards per game and fifth in yards per carry, and Henning's experienced eyes see a team that is "getting tougher and tougher. I think we we're starting to get what [Sparano] wants to be and I don't think we're going to stop until he gets to where he wants to be, and I don't know where that is really."
That leads to a larger philosophical question:
Wherever that is, where will it get them?
Yes, the Dolphins' philosophy is time-tested, but perhaps that time has passed. Many teams -- good teams -- are relying much more on throwing these days.
There's no intent here to diminish what the Dolphins players have done, nor to diminish the coaches' roles in getting them to do it. The Dolphins are wisely playing to their current personnel: a large and solid line, two quality backs and a passing game not ready to stand on its own. Sparano is also right to set his toughness standards "in the stratosphere," as Henning puts it. Better to be strong than soft.
Still, even if players somehow, someday reach that stratosphere, that hardly guarantees they'll reach Super Bowl heights in the modern NFL. So this is more of a examination of the big picture, and whether the execution of the Dolphins' blueprint will ultimately lead to the building of something better suited for 2011 or 1986. Simply, do the Dolphins have the proper personnel priorities to excel in an evolving league? The game has changed since Bill Parcells won his first Super Bowl title 23 years ago. Finesse, at least when measured by pass-run ratio, now flourishes. Rules reward throwing, favoring receivers and quarterbacks, and allowing offenses to play pitch-and-catch down after down.
The shift is apparent in this season's statistical data: if you pass often and well, you win. It was always taken for granted that the teams with the top records would also have the gaudiest rushing totals. It was a case of the chicken and the egg. Those teams won because they ran well, and ran more because they were already winning.
In that context, the 2009 numbers are startling.
The top 17 teams, in terms of passing yards per game, all have .500 or better records.
That doesn't convince you? Look at passing attempts per game instead, because throwing a lot didn't customarily correlate with a team's record. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests an inverse relation: bad teams are forced to throw more to try to overcome deficits, while good teams run out the clock.
So explain this:
The 10 teams with the most passes per game? 35-27.
The 10 teams with the fewest, including the Dolphins? 22-45.
Contenders like the Patriots, Cardinals, Eagles and even the Steelers now use the running game as a change-up rather than a staple, getting the ball to their backs on screens and the occasional draw. They're throwing to get ahead, then throwing some more.
The Dolphins have innovated with the Wildcat. But their basic philosophy is actually a road that many teams have traditionally tried to travel, until many started taking alternate routes.
"He wants to be the most powerful, physical team on the planet," Henning said of Sparano. "He's got that mentality to try and get there and he's pushing us to get there. We're making progress in that direction."
They are. But they're doing it in an era when many other residents of NFL Planet are going the other way.
Ethan J. Skolnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.