The 2007 Patriots went 16-0. The 2007 Dolphins went 1-15. The 2008 Dolphins, led by first-year head coach Tony Sparano, seemed to be destined to finish far closer to 1-15 than 16-0, even after quarterback Chad Pennington landed in their laps after Brett Favre forced a trade out of Green Bay, he became persuaded to accept a deal with the Jets, and the Jets unceremoniously dumped Pennington.
Of course, that’s not how it played out. The Dolphins finished 11-5, winning the AFC East. Since 2003, it’s the only time the Patriots haven’t won the division.
Yes, the Patriots lost quarterback Tom Brady in Week One to a torn ACL But the Patriots were still 11-5. And they could have been 12-4, but for a fateful early-season Sunday in Foxboro. That’s the day Sparano, in a fit of desperation, unleashed the Wildcat on Bill Belichick and company.
“That was such a great example of what a human game football is,” Pennington told Peter King of NBC’s Football Morning in America. “You had a bunch of guys on that team everyone gave up on, feeling rejected. Maybe the head coach had a litte of that in him too. Then we went out and played, and it was a perfect storm of synergy, imagination and work ethic.”
The Dolphins had started 0-2, and they were staring Loss No. 3 in the face, with a trip to New England on the docket.
“We couldn’t make six inches in the running game,” Pennington told King. “Tony got up in front of the staff and said, ‘Hey, bring me your ideas — whatever you got.'”
Quarterbacks coach David Lee suggested the Wildcat, a not-new football wrinkle that he’d used at Arkansas. Sparano liked it, running back Ronnie Brown (pictured) volunteered to run it, and four rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown later, the Dolphins won, 38-13.
“I played football for a while and that’s the first and only time I saw a New England Patriots team have no answers on defense,” Pennington told King.
For Sparano’s impressive work that year, he didn’t win the coach of the year award. First-year Falcons coach Mike Smith, who led the team from the dregs of the Mike Vick dogfighting scandal and the Bobby Petrino abrupt in-season exit the year before, secured the award for securing a wild-card berth with the same 11-5 record. But maybe in hindsight it should have been Sparano, given that he’s the only coach in the last 15 years to disrupt Bill Belichick’s dominance of the AFC East.