DAVIE, Fla. - When the Miami Dolphins lost their first six games, coach Tony Sparano decided to change his ways.
He eased up in his players' routine and solicited their feedback on how to improve the gloomy mood. He made practices later, shorter and less rigorous. He even altered the way the team stretched.
"It's a deviation really from much that I know," Sparano said.
They lost their next game to go to 0-7. But then, a dramatic turnaround came. Since then, the Dolphins have outscored opponents by 85 points while winning four of their past five games. The latest blowout came 2 days ago, when Miami beat AFC West leader Oakland, 34-14.
Next up is the Eagles on Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium.
The Dolphins remain last in the AFC East at 4-8, and speculation persists that Sparano will be fired after the season. But the recent rebound will make owner Stephen Ross' decisions about offseason moves more difficult.
Players remain firmly behind Sparano, as they were even during the losing streak.
"He needs to stay, man," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "I'm going to push for him. We just started slow. We have a great coach. He knows what it takes now to put us in a position to win ballgames. It just takes time, man. Rome wasn't built in 1 day. Can't turn your back on him right now. Can't do it. Got to let him stay."
Critics cite Sparano as the coach of a team that underachieved early in the season while blowing fourth-quarter leads in four defeats. Supporters counter that he deserves credit for averting a free fall.
Either way, the Dolphins may now be the merriest last-place team in sports. They've been out of the playoff picture for weeks, but their locker room tends to be filled with laughter and playful teasing.
"We're having fun," linebacker Kevin Burnett said. "I can't explain how much that takes away the pain and the feeling of being on the losing end of the spectrum."
The pain was especially pronounced when the Dolphins blew a 15-point lead in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter against Denver to fall to 0-6. By then, even Miami fans were rooting against their team, hoping to secure Andrew Luck with the No. 1 draft pick in 2012.
That's when Sparano eased up on the regimen. The Dolphins haven't practiced in pads since - revolutionary for a team coached by a protege of Bill Parcells. Sparano also moved back the starting time of practice to let players get extra sleep.
Sparano believes less arduous practices also made his team fresher and healthier. The injury report has been short in recent weeks, and more than one opposing player praised the Dolphins' physical play.
The scores reflect as much. Miami outscored the past five opponents 139-54, with the lone loss a one-point defeat at Dallas on Thanksgiving.
"The Dolphins are hot," Raiders running back Michael Bush said. "Everyone in the league can see that."
One thing the Dolphins still haven't done is show they can win a close game. They're 0-4 when the margin is a field goal or less, and they've been outscored 85-38 in the fourth quarter.