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Why vanilla is an okay flavor; as long as you know sprinkles are coming. Taking a look at Tony Sparano.

So the past two weeks really haven't been fun for the Jets. I get that. I know Wayne Hunter is terrible, and Jets fans hate Tim Tebow but Tim Tebow fans don't really care about the Jets.

Instead of drumming up talk about the above every hour, maybe it's time to focus on a who is actually polarizing, and intriguing and complex, and that man is Anthony Sparano III

Now, allow me to preface. I like Tony Sparano. I like the way he preaches offense. I love his no-nonsense attitude, and I especially like the way he connects with his players as we saw in Miami. I liked him when he was the Cowboys offensive coordinator, and I liked him as the Miami head coach. So with that in mind, please allow me to take a minute to look at Mr. Sparano.

Tony Sparano's first two years as the head of an offense were spent in Dallas. His first year as OC was in 2006, and then in 2007 he handed the job over to Jason Garrett, while still maintaining offensive assistant head coaching duties.I'll be using some Football Outsider stats, to base things in terms of efficiency, so here is the legend for those unfamiliar with Football Outsiders.

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I won't bother with the explanations, if you're interested visit Football Outsiders and read their glossary, it's enlightening to say the least.

Cowboys 2006

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In 2006, the Cowboys were 6th in the league in offensive efficiency. As you can see they jumped from 13th to 6th the year Sparano took over. The year was an interesting one for the Boys, as they signed TO to help out Drew Bledsoe, however Bledsoe was replaced by a young man named Tony Romo in Week 6. The year was particularly notable, because the Cowboys only scored under 20 points in 4 games that year (all losses) en route to a 9-7 record and a wildcard berth.

As you can see, the Cowboys had a very good rushing year that year, during which Julius Jones broke the 1000 yard mark. Why is that important? No Cowboy, Jones included, had rushed for 1000 yards since 2001. Because of this, Sparano liked to use the play action to set up both his passing, and running game.

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So this is where Sparano reaps the benefits of a run first attack. Now for those of you poor souls who don't believe that efficiency statistics tell the story, and you need the eye test; the below frame will give you a great feel for what Sparano did in Dallas. He had a first year, unproven QB in Tony Romo and was asking him to make play action passes like this.

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Now, notice the score. It's late in the game, a good time to take chances, but realize what Sparano is asking Romo to do there. Throw a 40 yard pass, off of play action when you could instead be running the clock. Doesn't seem very vanilla to me. Earlier in the game, he even ran a similar play off a 3 step drop as seen here:

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It would seem that Sparano is actively challenging his Quarterback to make the necessary plays to win. If he's not afraid to do this with a first year player, why would he be afraid to do that with a guy, in Sanchez, who was considered a clutch playmaker in his first two seasons.

But what about the run? Sparano, in 2006 used a mixture of sets, but one was particularly intriguing to me.

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You can see here, the Cowboys set up in this almost veer like formation, and then Romo motions a man back as protection.

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Jones cuts back, and turns it into a 12 or so yard gain.

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If you notice something about this set, you'll also notice that fullback who was motioned is two the right as a personal protector, and both wide receivers were utilized to block. There was nearly no deception involved, simply find a man, push him out of the way, and reap the benefits.

Cowboys 2007

2007 was an excellent offensive year for the Cowboys. Their offense improved in nearly all categories, except the rush. However there is a problem that we have here. The Cowboys variance went up immensely. Variance is the statistic which gives us a look at how efficient an offense is from game to game. The Cowboys variance was 21.9%, an astronomically high number for a top tier team, especially seeing as it was 6.2% the previous year. We also see that the running game decreased. This is a very hard to define change, as the team went 13-3, and so score effect may have had a part in the amount of variance.

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In 2007, we see a lot of the same plays with Jason Garrett at the helm. Remember this setup? Man in motion, everyone blocks?

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In this case, it's Marion Barber running the ball, and instead of trying to go inside, he cuts it back out and into the endzone for a TD.

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We also see Romo go back to the same exact play action play from the previous year, to the same person, TO. This time though, TO scores a TD.

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If this is vanilla, it's the best darn vanilla I've ever had. Sparano is repetitive, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Why change your playcalling style just because it's characterized as being boring. If it works, it works.

Miami 2008-2011

We can consolidate Sparano's time in Miami because he was the HC, not a coordinator with the Fish.

2008:

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In 2008, the Phins had a notable offensive year. A young man named Chadwick Pennington made the Dolphins contenders after perhaps the worst year an AFC East team has ever had. The Dolphins that year also started using an offensive system where a running back would take direct snaps *gasp* because Sparano preferred having Rickie Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time. The result looked something like this.

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The result was a direct TD from a direct snap.

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Here we see something amazing, the Dophins run a two back play action, just like the Cowboys!

The result is a touchdown over the middle.

We do begin to see something with Sparano that we didn't much see during his tenure with the Cowboys, and that is asking Chad Pennington to throw from the shotgun.

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Here, Pennington goes to a 3 WR set, which he gets Davonne Bess in single coverage, and goes right over the top of the coverage for an easy TD.

Another notable caveat we saw in 2008 was the addition of an option play. We see here, Pennington takes a snap, drops back and Rickie Williams hands off to Davonne Bess, who was functioning as a RB. Bess finds a seam and takes the ball in for a TD easily.

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2009-2011

2009

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Much of Sparano's later tenure with Miami was marred with problems. He had practically lost the run game, however his pass offense remained fair enough to sustain drives. His offense however, became sluggish and incredibly inconsistent. Turnovers became the name of the game. After having only 18 in 2008, in 2009 the team turned the ball over 4 times in their first game. Shockingly the Dolphins still had a chance to make the playoffs over the Jets. They faltered in their last 3 games, and ended up missing out however.

2010

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2010 was much of the same for Sparano's offense. The run game was sour again, however the team had a mildly efficient passing year. The offense decrease in total efficiency, and in almost all major categories.

2011

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In 2011, things went from bad to worse for the Dolphins. A noted offensive team had bottomed out. As you can see, the Jets were a spot worse, however the Dolphins lack of defense made their offense very difficult to recover from. They were left with little but Brandon Marshall as offensive generators, and much of the year's troubles could be personnel generated.

So what have we learned, and what can we expect?

It's hard to analyze Tony Sparano's flaws from what we'velooked at because most of his teams are different. One thing was noticeable however, Sparano uses the same sets but adapts them to the team. He's noted for the Wildcat, but his use of the play action pass has been excellent. Expecting Sparano to put the best offensive players on the field at all times is a sure bet. Some of the things he does seem gimmicky, but as we saw he also invokes power football, and uses blocking as a way to generate offense.

The Jets and Sparano will likely be able to have success out of a two TE set. The blocking power, and receiving ability that Cumberland and Keller have is exactly what Sparano utilizes in his offense. We can also note that Sparano likes the challenge of attacking single coverage, whether it's in the slot, or on the outside. Players like Stephen Hill and Chaz Schillens give Sparano an outstanding opportunity because they're the type of players who are able to take on man coverage on their own, almost to the point where they could become favorite targets in the pass game over Mark Sanchez.

So here's what I say for now. Enjoy the vanilla, it's a nice flavor, but realize that banana splits take time to make, someone needs to cut the banana, scoop the ice cream and pour on the sprinkles and fudge. Tony Sparano isn't just a scooper, he's the guy who mixes it all together to make the best damn ice cream you've had since you were a kid.


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