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Saturday, October 18, 2008
Unlike Cameron, Sparano won't beat around bush


Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DAVIE, Fla. -- You're about to read Exhibit H why Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano is a better communicator than his predecessor, Cam Cameron.

 
  Vladimir Cherry/US Presswire
 Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano doesn't fail to communicate.

Cameron was fired after a 1-15 season, his first year as an NFL head coach. Now the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Cameron will make his first return to Dolphin Stadium on Sunday.

On Friday, I was able to ask Sparano how he and his staff call their plays during a game. The questions came toward the end of his daily news conference, just something to discuss in an attempt to learn how he, offensive coordinator Dan Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee interact.

I asked Sparano two questions, and he gave two insightful answers. They were two of the longer responses I've heard from him on any subject. I got the impression he would have chatted longer if he had the time.

Partway through Sparano's second response, I had a flashback.

One of the storylines during Cameron's tenure developed in early December. Cameron also handled offensive coordinator's role, but I found out he'd handed over the play-calling duties to tight ends coach Mike Mularkey.

Quarterback Cleo Lemon confirmed the tip to my Palm Beach Post colleague, Edgar Thompson, and revealed the process. Mularkey usually called the play from the press box. Cameron had veto power. The call was radioed to injured quarterback Trent Green on the sideline. Green sent the call into the huddle to rookie John Beck.

Cameron was asked about it. And asked about it. And asked about it.

Here is how Miami Herald reporter Jeff Darlington described the news conference:

[Cameron's] explanations during a 13-minute news conference about the process -- including how plays are called and who calls them -- were often vague and generalized as he answered 17 questions about a procedure that typically requires little justification or clarification.

"It's a collective effort," Cameron said when initially asked about Mularkey's new responsibilities. "I can't, at any time in my coaching career, remember where I called every play."

But three minutes later, during another response on the topic, Cameron said, "There is not a magic play-caller here other than me. I'm the guy that calls the plays and is accountable to the plays that are called."

I keep all of the team's transcripts on file. So I pulled this Cameron quote from the same news conference. He was asked how a play call originates:

"It varies. It's not done the same way every time. Like I said, it could come from [offensive line coach] Hudson Houck. It could come from [running backs coach] Bobby Jackson. It could come from a variety of people."

Cameron was maddening to deal with on several subjects. For instance, tired of hearing him avoid questions about Bill Parcells being hired late last season as executive vice president of football operations, refusing to even utter Parcells' name, I couldn't help but ask Cameron if he was in denial about what was coming.

With that in mind, here are two questions and two educational answers from the straight-talking Sparano:

How does the play calling work on a play-to-play basis and who is involved?

Sparano: Dan Henning decides it. Bottom line is there's no pecking order. What happens is, Dan's in control of the game plan upstairs. Only two people communicate really during the course of a play. That's Dan and myself. Other than that, it's pretty quiet on the headsets. Too much conversation can lead to penalties, can lead to delays.

There's a lot of things that have to happen there during the course of the play call. When the play leaves Dan, it goes to David Lee, who then gives it to the quarterback. We ask those guys to really turn the microphones off at the point. [Offensive line coach] Mike Maser hears the play, but he's not talking during the play. There are several guys that have headsets on. [Receivers coach] Karl Dorrell has a headset on up there. He's not communicating during the play. At the end of the play, certainly, we'll hear down and distance from one coach who's in charge of down and distance. We'll hear coverage. We'll hear those kinds of things. But Dan's strictly play entry.

The only two people that talk about plays during a drive would be Dan and myself. If I have something specific that I need to get to Dan, I get it to Dan and we go from there. If not, I'll leave Dan alone. I've been in that situation before, where the head coach can be a little bit of a thorn in the side of the play-caller, and I don't think you really want to get into that a whole lot. When you're hearing a lot of things in one ear and you're thinking about something else, you start to maybe second-guess yourself, and that's not a good thing. I try to stay out of Dan's hair that way. At the end of the series, a lot of communication takes place and we go right to the players and we square up, kind of what we've talked about."

Since you are the head coach and this is your team, is it tough to not interject?

Sparano: Yeah, at times. And don't get me wrong. These guys know and they will be the first to tell you that if I have something to say, I'm going to say it and I do. During the course of an offensive game, I'm involved that way, very involved that way.

The play and the selection of the play is Dan's. I'm not going to get involved in that whole thing. I hired Dan Henning with all of his experience to be able to call the game, so that I can be involved in every other phase of the game.

It's not different than when I'm on the headset with [defensive coordinator] Paul Pasqualoni over there. Paul and I will communicate during the course of some of these things. [Special teams coordinator John Bonamego] and myself will communicate during the course of this thing.

I'm trying to make sure that I'm involved in each one of the phases on game day, a lot of hats to wear that way and manage the game, mostly on the offensive side of the ball, obviously. That's kind of where I feel like I can help Dan a little bit that way from protection, pass-run standpoint. That's really what we've done.