Sparano on hot seat with 1 game left

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DAVIE, FLA. (AP) - Working against Tony Sparano’s job security are a turnover-prone quarterback and plodding offense, disgruntled fans, Bill Cowher and even LeBron James.

Sparano has a few things in his favor, too. But the Miami Dolphins‘ latest loss makes it increasingly likely they’ll soon fire the only coach to lead them to the playoffs since 2001.

The decision will be made by owner Stephen Ross, who inherited Sparano when he completed his purchase of the franchise two years ago. Sparano said Monday he has talked by phone with Ross about the disappointing 2010 season, and looks forward to further discussions regarding his future and the direction of the team.

“I’m pretty confident that I can get it turned around,” Sparano said. “I feel like I know these pieces pretty well.”

There’s no doubt some pieces need to be replaced. The Dolphins blew a late 10-point lead Sunday in a loss to last-place Detroit that left them 1-7 at home, matching the worst home record in franchise history.

Miami (7-8) was eliminated from the playoff race more than a week ago and will sit out the postseason for the eighth time in nine years. Sparano led the Dolphins to that lone playoff berth in 2008, his first season as an NFL head coach, but he’s 14-17 since then.

Sparano said he was in his office at 2:30 Monday morning to begin preparations for the meaningless season finale Sunday at New England. But he concedes any turnaround must wait until 2011.

“Obviously we’re out of at-bats right now,” Sparano said.

Ross could cite plenty of reasons for changing coaches. Many fans find Sparano’s team not only mediocre but dull, with a conservative offense that tends to settle for field goals because the play-calling is designed to limit mistakes by erratic QB Chad Henne. The Dolphins are last in the AFC in scoring and especially inept at home, which helps explain the numerous empty seats at recent games. While the Dolphins have long been South Florida’s flagship franchise, they’ve been overshadowed this season by James and the Miami Heat.

Sparano lost a layer of job security when Bill Parcells gave up control of football operations in September. Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland were Parcells proteges, and he hired them after taking over the Dolphins three years ago. The potential availability of such attractive coaching candidates as Cowher and Jon Gruden also works against Sparano, whose contract runs through the 2011 season.

On the other hand, this is the same coach who took over after the Dolphins went 1-15 in 2007 and led them to the AFC East title the following season. This year Miami is 6-1 on the road, a level of success that puts coaches in the Hall of Fame rather than on the hot seat. And while the play-calling has drawn flak, Sparano deserves credit for this year’s improvement by the defense under new coordinator Mike Nolan.

Players remain firmly in Sparano’s corner, and there’s no evidence of the locker room disunity that plagued his predecessor, Cam Cameron.

“We’re a tight-knit team. Nothing can tear us apart,” linebacker Channing Crowder said. “I talked to Tony on Sunday night on the phone, just shot the bull with him, saying, `We’re right here with you, babe. I’m going to go out there for the next 10 years, however long you’re here, playing hard for you.’”

Beyond the locker room, Sparano supporters are harder to find. There were boos for the play-calling Sunday, and a mock cheer when Sparano went for a first down on fourth and 1 in the first quarter, departing from his usual conservative approach. There were more cheers when the play gained 2 yards.

As the game slipped away in the fourth quarter, a vulgar chant deriding Henne broke out. The fate of a coach and his quarterback are often intertwined, and as the Dolphins stagger to the season’s end, Sparano and Henne have become the fans’ favorite scapegoats.

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