Recent Success Begs Question: Can Jeff Ireland And Tony Sparano Save Their Jobs?

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 06: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins yells from the sidelines during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 6, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Their firings seemed like a done deal a few weeks ago, but Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano may be successfully fighting for their jobs.

In case you haven't heard, the Miami Dolphins have won four of their past five games. They didn't just win their games by a slim margin, either. They have outscored their opponents by 86 points in their four wins and have outscored their opponents by 26 points on the season. Considering they have lost twice as many games as they have won, that is a pretty impressive number. It indicates they are generally close in their losses while dominating the game in their wins.

So why is it that this team is 4-8? Was it a lack of execution by the players, a lack of preparation by the coaches, or a mix of both? The media and fans lined up to assign the blame for the team's underachievement to Tony Sparano. Given the team's talent level, it was a fair blame. But Sparano was just the public figure in the mess; GM Jeff Ireland figured to be in trouble as well. All he did was sign and trade for those underachieving players.

But now that the offense is moving the ball and the defense is not only preventing the other team from scoring, but is producing turnovers and sacks, it is only fair to reevaluate whether the Ireland-Sparano combination deserves to stick around. In the NFL, if the general manager gets fired, the head coach is usually close behind. New front office heads like to have their own guys, and the head coach from the old regime is usually on a short leash, if they're even given a chance. Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels learned this phenomenon last offseason. Given that, let's look at whether Ireland has done enough to save his job, and by extension, Sparano's.

Ireland's Moves

Ireland took over football operations for the Dolphins when Bill Parcells stepped down prior to the start of the 2010 season. That means he has only had one offseason where he was in charge. This may seem like too short of a time to be on the hot seat, but he has been general manager for four years now and at least figured into the decision-making prior to Parcells' departure. Furthermore, Ireland had the same team-building strategy as Parcells. He has adapted, but has it been enough?

Ireland, like everyone else who watched this team last year, realized the Dolphins needed speed out of the backfield. So what did he do? He went out and got one of the most explosive players when in space, RB Reggie Bush. Adding Bush has proven to be a savvy move, especially after he seemingly fizzled with the New Orleans Saints. Bush has been a dynamic player for the Dolphins, catching passes and making defenders miss in the open field. He is not a complete back, but he isn't meant to be, either. Bush has filled his role well.

Ireland saw how former LB Channing Crowder was unable to cover receivers and got trampled by runners at some points. Crowder was the emotional leader of the defense and the playcaller, but he lacked the talent to be a starter on this team. So, Ireland went out and got LB Kevin Burnett to replace Crowder. Burnett immediately showed his pass-defense skills and has really come around lately. He is third on the team with 72 tackles, has three sacks, three passes defended, and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in Week 13.

Ireland has made some good moves, but he has made mistakes (draft interview faux pas aside). One of the notable mistakes has been RT Marc Colombo. Colombo is a great run blocker, but has been abused at times in pass protection this year. The right side of the line in general has been a source of frustration this year and is a weak point on the team. Relying on Colombo because of his familiarity from their Dallas Cowboys days was certainly a mistake.

You might notice I left out QB Matt Moore in my analysis. Ireland is responsible for adding him, but he was meant to be QB Chad Henne's backup and never was a serious threat to the starting job before Henne went down against the San Diego Chargers. It would be hard to convince me that Ireland foresaw Moore's performance.

It looks like Ireland may have done enough recently to warrant keeping his job, but even if Ireland is fired, does that automatically spell the end for Sparano?

Sparano's Locker Room Influence

Sparano has the support of veterans in the locker room and when questioned about whether the Dolphins have quit on the head coach, players resoundingly refute those allegations and throw their support behind the embattled head coach (via Palm Beach Post). If the players support Sparano this much and the players are truly playing hard for him, then it may make sense for the new general manager, should there be one, to retain Sparano. So in the end, if Ireland cannot save his job, Sparano may still be able to due to his popularity with the players.

Victims or Beneficiaries of Circumstance

Ireland and Sparano's fates may hinder on the whims of collegiate quarterbacks Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, and Robert Griffin III and whether they declare for the NFL draft and where the Dolphins pick in the draft. If owner Stephen Ross doesn't think the Dolphins are in a position to draft a franchise quarterback in the first round of the draft, he may give Ireland and Sparano (and Moore) one more year to prove themselves. And if the Dolphins aren't in a position to draft one of the highly-touted quarterbacks, it means Moore probably played the team out of position to draft one.

The future is still uncertain for the Dolphins general manager and head coach. But the uncertainty that exists now is preferable to the two of them than the certain outcome that existed after the team's 0-7 start. It is still too early to tell, but we may not have seen the last of these two come January.

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