Hartitz: RIP Tony Sparano, Architect of One of the NFL’s Most Brilliant Upsets Ever

Hartitz: RIP Tony Sparano, Architect of One of the NFL’s Most Brilliant Upsets Ever article feature image

Luc Leclerc – USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Tony Sparano

  • Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano died unexpectedly Sunday.
  • Sparano had a long NFL coaching career, but he's perhaps best-known for engineering a huge upset of the Patriots in 2008 using the wildcat offense.
  • Sparano and the Dolphins, 12.5-point underdogs in New England that day, won 38-13. They're the only double-digit dog to cover the spread by at least 35 points since 2003.

Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano passed away Sunday at age 56. Sparano’s coaching career spanned 34 years at the collegiate and professional levels. In addition to the Vikings, he spent time with the Browns, Redskins, Jaguars, Cowboys, Dolphins, Jets, Raiders and 49ers.

Sparano won’t go down as the best coach of all time; he compiled a 32-41 record as a head coach and never won a playoff game. Still, on one Sunday afternoon in 2008, Sparano’s coaching excellence helped engineer one of the biggest upsets in recent memory.

Let’s take a look at Sparano’s genius wildcat game plan on that day as a means of honoring a man gone far too soon.

2008 Week 3: Dolphins at Patriots

  • The spread: Patriots -12.5
  • The date: Sept. 21, 2008

The Dolphins were coming off a 1-15 disaster in 2007 and started off the year with consecutive losses to the Jets and Cardinals by an average of 13.5 points. Meanwhile, the Patriots, coming off their 18-1 season, began another quest toward immortality with wins over the Chiefs and Jets.

>> Sign up for The Action Network’s daily newsletter to get the smartest NFL conversation delivered into your inbox each morning.

It’s safe to say neither the public nor Vegas expected Sparano to invigorate a significant turnaround in his first year as a head coach. The Dolphins’ preseason win total was 5.5, tied for the second-lowest in the league, and they were 8-1 underdogs to capture the AFC East crown.

The largest storyline entering this Week 3 game involved the Patriots’ 21-game regular-season win streak. Tom Brady’s season had already ended just 11 pass attempts into Week 1, but the Patriots were still equipped with a devastating defense to go with a prime Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

The last time the Patriots had lost in Foxborough? Nov. 12, 2006.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown playing wildcat QB.

Sparano Got Fancy

The Dolphins were led by noodle-armed quarterback Chad Pennington and boasted the league’s 31st-ranked defense in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in 2007.

In short, they had no business competing with the Patriots, even with Matt Cassel replacing the GOAT under center.

Instead of Sparano simply trying to will his team to victory over a more talented opponent, he took a page from Mark Twain. As Twain stated in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889) …

The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to.

Sparano wasn’t an ignorant antagonist, but he was willing to play unconventional football against the perennial gatekeeper of the AFC East.

The Wildcat

Pennington was a threatless presence in the run game due to his athletic limitations, and he was probably the worst possible match under center for No. 1 receiver/field-stretcher Ted Ginn Jr.


Accordingly, the offense scored just 24 combined points in the Dolphins’ first two games, and neither of the offense’s best playmakers, running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, managed to record even 15 touches in either game.

At the time, a direct snap to a skill-position player wasn’t a completely foreign concept in the NFL; the single wing was heavily utilized back in the old days, when coaches viewed passing as an unneeded luxury.

Still, Sparano, along with offensive coordinator Dan Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee, emerged as the leading pioneers of the modern wildcat offense — and it all started on that fateful day against the Pats.

The wildcat helped spearhead four touchdowns on the day. Brown finished with five total scores, and Williams accounted for 119 total yards. The Patriots never had an answer, as the Dolphins’ 21-6 halftime lead eventually blossomed to a resounding 38-13 victory as +500 moneyline underdogs.

Ultimately, the Dolphins finished 11-5 and became the only team to steal an AFC East crown from the Patriots since 2003.


The Patriots haven’t suffered a more lopsided home defeat since Sparano & Co. took them to the shed back in 2008.  And per our tools at BetLabs, the Dolphins are the only double-digit underdog since 2003 to cover the spread by at least 35 points (covering the 12.5 by 37.5).

This game also marks one of only three times the Patriots lost straight-up in 42 tries as double-digit home favorites from 2004-2017.

Sparano coached football from the age of 23 until his death. We’ve grown used to the idea of old-school coaches scoffing at incorporating analytics or new offensive principles, but Sprarano proved to be a coach willing to do whatever it took to give his team the best chance to win.

For at least one afternoon, Sparano was the master, Bill Belichick was the student.