The Associated Press

The Miami Dolphins know exactly how long they have until the opening game, thanks to coach Tony Sparano’s new countdown clock hanging in the locker room.

This year, when the season starts, Sparano wants his team ready for a change.

“It has been a point of emphasis,“ safety Yeremiah Bell said. “It’s in the locker room for everybody to see.”

The Dolphins started 0-3 last year and 0-2 in 2008. Otherwise, their record the past two seasons is 18-11.

Miami has lost four openers in a row and will try to end that streak Sept. 12 at Buffalo.

“You can’t just stand in front of the players and say, ‘Look, we’re going to have a fast start against the Buffalo Bills,’” Sparano said. “There’s more to it than that. It’s about how we practice, it’s about being prepared and feeling like your team is fresh enough and efficient enough as you approach that first game.”

After last season, Sparano looked at every aspect of the offseason and training camp routine, and the third-year coach made changes he thought would improve the chances of playing well early. Among the issues deliberated: how much time to give players off during the winter, how often to wear pads in training camp, when to hold practice inside or out, and how to divvy up snaps.

With the regimen tweaked, Sparano believes his team is fresher as the season approaches, yet also in better condition.

“My first year here we could barely get through some of these practices,” Sparano said. “They’re starting to finish them at a much better pace.”

One challenge during two-a-days was to strike a balance between practicing in sweltering summer sunshine or in the team’s air-conditioned indoor bubble, where the artificial surface can take a toll.

“When I take the players inside, they don’t really love being inside all the time because of that surface on their body,” Sparano said. “But when you take them outside, they don’t really love being outside because of heat.”

For years, South Florida’s steamy weather gave the Dolphins a substantial early-season home-field advantage, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. Since 2006 they’re 2-10 in September.

Being acclimated to the subtropical heat won’t be a big factor this year, because the Dolphins’ first two home games are at night. Their first daytime game at home isn’t until Oct. 24.

So to start fast, the Dolphins must focus on simply playing well. One goal will be limiting typical early-season mistakes.

“When you have lax communications and mental errors early in the season, it causes a lot of problems,“ Bell said. “You put in a knucklehead play here and there, and it sets you back.”

The Dolphins know that from recent experience. They dug a hole last year by losing their first three games and never recovered, finishing 7-9.
Quarterback Chad Pennington started those first three games before a shoulder injury ended his season. He remembers the mood around the team then and said winning early is much better.

“It builds confidence, a little bit of synergy and a sense of accomplishment to where you can go forward and not live in a world of negativity,” Pennington said.
Hence, the clock. Sparano came up with the idea last spring to create a sense of urgency.

“It kind of reminds me of college,” said quarterback Chad Henne, a former Michigan star. “I know Ohio State has a clock counting down to Michigan every year. It’s great. It just reminds us that it’s not getting further away, it’s getting closer.”