Bob Sparks - 7/63 - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at

Steelers send Dolphins home for the winter

The Miami Dolphins’ stay in the NFL playoffs was brief, but at least they got there. On Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers had their way with Miami in a 30-12 rout at Heinz Field.

Despite the score and the fact Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell set a franchise playoff rushing record with 167 yards, Miami had their chances. Three costly turnovers and a devastating penalty proved fatal, however.

Early on, the Dolphins looked like they did not belong. If Bell wasn’t running crazy, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing pitch and catch with Antonio Brown for long (60 and 52 yards) touchdown passes.

It was 20-6 and looking to be a lot more. While Bell was piling up the yards, Dolphin running back Jay Ajayi was getting piled on. After running through the Steelers for more than 200 yards during a 30-15 Dolphin win in October, Ajayi managed on 33 yards on 16 carries on Sunday.

“Last time, we felt we didn’t play well,” Bell said. “Those guys got after us, they jumped on us early.”

Not on Sunday. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to put Miami on their heels.

“The defense played great today, stopping their run game, making it tough on (Ajayi) their side; he’s a great runner,” Bell said. “On the other side, we wanted to control the ball, score some touchdowns and we did our job today.”

They certainly did, but the door did open for Miami just a bit.

The Dolphins’ big chance came near the end of the first half and the start of the second. With Matt Moore hooking up with receivers Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker, the Dolphins reached the Steelers eight-yard-line in the final 30 seconds of the half.

With the Dolphins set to receive the second half kickoff, Coach Adam Gase believed his team could tie the game early in the third quarter. That plan was blown up by linebacker James Harrison.

As Moore dropped back in the final 30 seconds, Harrison, who was unblocked, got a clean shot at Moore, who fumbled and the Steelers recovered. On the first series of the second half, Moore was again sacked in Pittsburgh territory, he again fumbled, and the Steelers again recovered.

After a Steeler field goal, Moore was picked off on the first play of the next series. Miami held Pittsburgh to a field goal attempt, but Tony Lippett jumped offside, giving the Steelers a first down. Three plays later, Bell was in the end zone, making it 30-6.

These kinds of things can’t happen during the playoffs. You can get away with stuff like that against Cleveland or the 49ers.

Game over.

It’s not time for excuses, but it is fair to point out this is the Dolphins’ first playoff game since 2008. There is every reason to believe there will be more and they can become playoff veterans like so many of the Steelers are.

The trick is to get a playoff game at home. That will mean beating the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.

Tom Brady won’t be there forever. Even if he is around another two or three seasons, Gase is building a solid foundation in south Florida.

Former Lightning Coach John Tortorella poised to make history

Tampa Bay Lightning fans will remember John Tortorella. In 2004, he coached the Lightning to their one and only Stanley Cup, defeating the Calgary Flames, four games to three.

Trailing three games to two, Tampa Bay won Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at what was then the St. Pete Times Forum. Calling the games for ABC was Sarasota resident Gary Thorne, Bill Clement and John Davidson.

Davidson and Tortorella would join forces in Columbus, Ohio a decade later to form a partnership that would change both of their lives. On Thursday night, Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to do something only one other team in history has accomplished: 17 straight wins.

A lot has happened to Tortorella between the historic night of June 7, 2004 when the Stanley Cup was hoisted over the head of the coach and his jubilant players, and today. He won the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League Coach of the Year in 2004 and is favored to win it this year, but it has been a long road for him.

His tenure in Tampa Bay was winding down when he told a New York Post reporter to “get the **** out of here” in 2007. One year later he was fired and moved on to the New York Rangers.

During his five years in Gotham, the Rangers were respectable, but made it to the conference finals only one time. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for an incident in Washington where he tossed a water bottle and brandished a hockey stick to a taunting Capitals’ fan.

After he was fired in New York, Tortorella spent one disastrous season in Vancouver, where the Canucks missed the playoffs in 2014, their first absence in seven seasons.  Tortorella again made the wrong kind of news when he tried to get into the Calgary Flames’ locker room between periods of a game. The brawl that ensued led to a 15-day suspension.

By 2012, John Davidson was President of Hockey Operations for the Blue Jackets. After firing Todd Richards just seven games (all losses) into the 2015-16 season, Davidson hired Tortorella. The Jackets showed some promise, but did not make the playoffs.

Tortorella was tapped to coach Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey event last fall. True to his nature, he made news, but what he did earned the support of many Americans who were aware of it.

He said if any of his players sat during the national anthem, they would be “benched.” That turned out to be the least of his worries as Team USA failed to win a game.

This year’s Blue Jackets team got off to a respectable 11-5-4 start. On November 29, the Lightning came to Columbus and left with a 5-1 defeat. That was the first in a string of 16 consecutive wins for the Blue Jackets.

On Thursday, Tortorella and Columbus will try to match the consecutive wins record held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. That team was led by Mario Lemieux and coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman.

While Tortorella has eight fewer Stanley Cups than Bowman, a win on Thursday would have him standing next to hockey royalty for good reason. No one, other than Tortorella, Davidson and a few others saw this team come together this fast.

He has instilled a strong work ethic in a team devoid of superstars. He likes to call them a “group of focused businessmen.”

“They’ve accepted the thought of coming to work every day and worrying about that day, worrying about that game and not worrying about what happened, what’s ahead of us,” he told local media. “That’s where we are right now. We’re becoming pretty good pros.”

If the streak continues for another week, the Lightning would have the chance to be the ones to start and end it. The Blue Jackets visit Amalie Arena on Friday the 13th.

Thirteen years after winning a Stanley Cup, it appears John Tortorella has come full circle.


Did participants in epic Rose Bowl deserve spot in CFP?

Sometimes adjectives are often overused when describing sporting events. Epic; classic; legendary; incredible.

All of those and more describe to the 2017 Rose Bowl. The words seem insufficient to define Monday’s back-and-forth between Penn State and Southern California, which the Trojans won 52-49 on Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard field goal as time expired.

Are there better words to paint a picture of a game that featured Penn State coming from 13 points down to take a 15-point lead early in the second half? How about USC roaring back from that deficit to score 17 unanswered fourth quarter points to steal the win?

It would take thousands of words to describe all of the twists, turns, scrambles and runs. The game was that good.

The quality of play between two top caliber teams no doubt caused some to wonder if either of these teams belonged in the College Football Playoffs. I am one of those and must and must answer in the affirmative.

Both teams defeated their conference’s representative in the playoffs. Penn State gave Ohio State their only regular season loss, 24-21 in State College on October 23.

USC went to Seattle and gave Washington their only regular season loss, 26-13 on November 13.

The Nittany Lions had a better case than the Trojans. By beating Ohio State, they prevented the Buckeyes from even competing in the Big 10 Championship Game, which Penn State won over Wisconsin. Penn State finished 11-2, while Ohio State was 11-1.

Despite beating Washington, the Trojans did not qualify for the Pac 12 Championship Game. They were 9-3 on the season, including a 52-6 beating from Alabama. After a switch to Sam Darnold at quarterback, USC won their last nine games.

For all of the criticism of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), this year proves that the process of determining a college football champion is still a work in progress. The noise level and Twitter commentary would have been reduced had Ohio State not looked as bad as they did against Clemson on Saturday. 31-0?

Give Clemson credit for most of that, but a strong case can be made that on the day the four playoff contenders were announced, Penn State was a better football team than the Buckeyes. Plus, they defeated Ohio State head-to-head. Plus, they were the champions of their conference.

Again, USC could not make the case for inclusion that Penn State could, but it is fair to say that on the day the CFP four were chosen, they were the best football team in the Pac 12.

Didn’t we get rid of the BCS and the system before that because polls and computers were deciding who would have the chance to win the title? Well, in the case of these two teams, Penn State lost out because of polls and computers.

Sure, Penn State lost on Monday, but they lost to a team with which they were evenly matched. They may have fared no better than Ohio State did against Clemson. However, I believe they would have given the Tigers a much better game.

Hopefully, the NCAA will tweak the system and mandate the four representatives in the College Football Playoffs must be, at minimum, conference champions. That is why little controversy surrounded Pac-12 Champion Washington.

In the end, Alabama and Clemson, clearly the two best teams in the country, will be in Tampa next Monday for the championship game.

We can only hope that game is half as good as the Rose Bowl featuring two championship level teams.


Jags drop season finale to Colts; coaching search to begin in earnest

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ 2016 season came to an end Sunday in heartbreaking fashion. After Jason Myers kicked a go-ahead 41-yard field goal with 1:33 to play, Andrew Luck drove the Indianapolis Colts the length of the field to take a 24-20 win at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

It was certainly a different way to lose. Jacksonville led 17-0 at one point, but could not close the deal. It was the second time this season the Jaguars had a 17-point lead on Indianapolis. The other occasion came in early October when the Jags were able to hang on for a 23-20 win in London on October 3.

The game brought back memories of the December 19 game in Houston, when the Jags held a two-score lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Texans scored late to win the game, 21-20, after which Head Coach Gus Bradley was fired.

It is always difficult (exhausting when talking about the Jaguars) to find the upside after a painful loss, but there is actually is one: the play of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Since Bradley was dismissed two games ago, Bortles has looked like the quarterback the Jaguars management and fan base hoped to see. On Sunday, he was 25 for 39 passing for 301 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Over the last two games under interim coach Doug Marrone, Bortles has completed two-thirds of his passes for 626 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That is no coincidence.

There can be little argument that Bortles regressed this season, but his recent play shows there is still a strong upside.

Corey Grant was given the nod at running back on Sunday and he responded with 122 yards rushing. He had the play of the day with a 57-yard scoring run. Jacksonville, who struggled all year on the ground, rushed for 182 yards on Sunday.

With all of that in mind, this was still a devastating loss. Jacksonville finished the season with a 3-13 record, the six straight year of double-digit losses.

“I told the players at halftime, you are either going to be the hunter or the hunted,” said Marrone. “You’ve got to learn to hunt, you really do. We had an opportunity at the end of the half to go up by three scores and we didn’t do that. We didn’t answer in the third quarter when they got themselves back in it.”

As Marrone closed his second and final post-game interview as head coach, attention will now shift to the search for a new head coach. It could be a familiar name or one not on many people’s radar.

The Jaguars need another version of Adam Gase. One year ago, the Miami Dolphins hired the Offensive Coordinator of the Chicago Bears to take over in south Florida. He got the Dolphins into the playoffs in his first season.

Other coaches will be fired this week and some of those will likely be interviewed for the job. Former Jags’ and New York Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin has already had one interview.

The rumors will begin in earnest starting Tuesday morning.


Dolphins fall to Patriots; prepare for playoffs

The New England Patriots will not be traveling for the 2017 NFL playoffs. Thanks to their 35-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, the Patriots will host any playoff game in which they are involved.

Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady showed why he earned that moniker. He completed 25 of 33 passes to seven different receivers for 276 yards and three touchdowns.

Despite the fact New England had the Eastern Division of the AFC wrapped up, the Patriots still needed the victory to guarantee home field advantage. They treated it like a playoff game.

Another incentive was the fact New England had lost their last three visits to Miami. Brady made sure that would not happen again.

“This has always been a challenging place for us, for one reason or another,” he said. “But we just found a way to be a good football team.”

The final score does not accurately reveal that Miami was in the game until late in the fourth quarter. After falling behind 20-0, Miami came back on two touchdown passes to from Matt Moore to Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry.

Even after Brady hooked up with Julian Edelman for a rally-killing 77-yard catch and run touchdown, Miami again came back. With the Dolphins in the red zone attempting to get back within one score, Damien Williams was stripped after a catch at the 13 yard-line.

After a 69-yard return by Shea McClellin set up the Patriots, LeGarrette Blount put the game out of reach with a one-yard plunge. The entire sequence of events perfectly describes the Patriots.

As the GEICO commercial says, “that’s what they do.” The victory gave the Patriots a perfect 8-0 record on the road this season.

There is a bright side for the Dolphins. They took on a New England team that was not holding anything back and stayed with them for the most part.

Moore shows that he can make plays against a championship team as he fills in for Ryan Tannehill. He threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns.

This game was a good indicator that Miami has an opportunity to perform well in the playoffs. While the Pittsburgh Steelers, next week’s first-round opponent, is a battle-tested team, they are not the Patriots.

Depending on weather conditions in Pittsburgh, Moore should be able to make some throws and Jay Ajayi will have opportunities to run. The Steelers are a fitting opponent. Miami began their incredible season-ending streak of nine wins in their last 11 games with a 30-15 thrashing of Pittsburgh on October 17 in Miami.

The Dolphins (10-6) will be looking for their first playoff victory since December 30, 2000 when they beat the Indianapolis Colts.

Alabama shows Huskies, nation what great defense is all about

As expected, Alabama advanced to the college football national championship game in Tampa with a 24-7 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl win over the Washington Huskies on Saturday in Atlanta. Running back Bo Scarbrough put up 180 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to lead his team to the next step.

They did not need anything else from the offense after the vaunted Crimson Tide defense did what they normally do. That means sacks, stuffs, pressures, knock-downs and, oh yes, scoring touchdowns.

Ryan Anderson took the air out of the Huskies with a pick-six with less than three minutes left in the half. With the way the defense was playing, increasing the lead to 17-7 seemed like 47-7.

This defense is among the best that has ever played the college game. They have speed and strength mixed with a high football IQ.

Despite solid play from the Washington defense, they had no chance to stay with Alabama if their offense could not produce points. Despite some false hope early on, the game played out the way the odds makers predicted.

After an eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive provided a brief 7-0 Husky lead, Washington was put in a vise for the remainder of the game.  Quarterback Jake Browning connected with Dante Pettis for the opening score, but was unable to move the ball thereafter.

Meanwhile, Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts passed for only 57 yards and ran for another 50. Some of his runs came on third down, but Scarborough provided all of the offense the Tide needed. He turned out the lights in the Georgia Dome with a 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that made the score 24-7.

As the game wound down, things got a bit chippy with a number of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on both teams. The frustration for Washington must have been immense.

Despite being dominated by the Tide, the Huskies are a very good football team. They probably are the fourth best team in the land. There is no reason to believe Penn State, Oklahoma or any others ranked below Washington would have done any better.

Alabama is that good.

For all of those frustrated by what at times appears to be an SEC bias, there is no choice but to realize the obvious. Unless Alabama turns the ball over or makes a blunder in coverage, an opponent must play a perfect game to have a chance to beat them.

On September 19, 2015 Alabama committed five turnovers and lost to the Mississippi Rebels 43-37. They have won their last 25 games since that night.

They will be favored to make it 26 on January 9 at Raymond James Stadium.

LSU manhandles Louisville in Citrus Bowl

The LSU Tigers made Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson look like an average quarterback on Saturday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando. With Jackson unable to create a single touchdown, the Tigers rolled over the Louisville Cardinals 29-9.

With LSU missing NFL-bound running back Leonard Fournette, backup Derrius Guice rumbled for 138 yards and a touchdown to help crush the Cardinals. Fournette sat out the game to avoid injury as he prepares for the NFL draft.

Jackson looked like a shell of the dynamic runner and passer that put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the Heisman. He rushed for only 33 yards on 26 attempts and was 10 for 27 passing for only 153 yards.

With his team leading 16-6 early in the third quarter, Guice put his stamp on the game with a 70-yard touchdown run that seemed to break the will of the Cardinals. Guice also caught a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Danny Etling in the second quarter.

The LSU defense manhandled the Cardinal offense throughout. They held Louisville to 220 total yards and allowed the Cardinals to convert only two of 17 attempts on third down. Jackson was sacked eight times.

On offense they dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 36 minutes to 24 for Louisville. LSU converted seven of their 17 third down attempts.

LSU finishes the season with an 8-4 record. Saturday’s win was the first for new coach Ed Orgeron, who was elevated from interim coach at the end of the regular season.

Louisville finished the season with three consecutive losses to wind up with a 9-4 record. Coach Bobby Petrino will face numerous offseason questions about the meltdown of a team that defeated Florida State 63-20 during the season.

They will play in Tallahassee next fall.

Former FSU star EJ Manuel to start for Bills on Sunday

As the calendar turns the page to a new year on Sunday, a familiar face will be back at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. Former Florida State star EJ Manuel will lead his team against the New York Jets in the season finale for both teams.

While starter Tyrod Taylor is officially being “benched,” the move is being described as a “business decision,” by sources close to the Bills. Taylor would be owed more than $27 million in guaranteed payments were he to be injured on Sunday and not be able to play in 2017.

“EJ playing is strictly for injury reasons in Tyrod’s deal,” the Bills’ source told ESPN.

Had the Bills won last Sunday and remained in playoff contention, Manuel would not be playing. The loss prompted the firing of Coach Rex Ryan, who had stated he fully intended to play Taylor despite the risks.

Sunday’s game was being billed as a “revenge game” for Ryan. He was New York’s coach from 2009-2014 before being fired.

Manuel was the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft. While it is not yet time to call him as an NFL bust, it is entirely fair to apply that tag to his time in Buffalo.

Let’s be honest; can anyone name a successful Buffalo quarterback since Jim Kelly? They have missed the playoffs for the last 18 seasons.

At 26, he is young enough to have the chance to succeed somewhere else. With 16 career starts under his belt, Manuel has 19 career touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.

He lost his job to the more mobile Taylor for good in 2015.

While the Bills are in protection mode, this is a big deal for Manuel. He will be a free agent at the end of the season and will have the chance to re-introduce himself to other NFL organizations.

“Teams know what I can do, what we can do as players,” Manuel told the Buffalo News. “People are always going to have their opinions, but the opinion that matters is (management) and around the league.”

Whether or not Manuel stays in Buffalo, he can expect to find a few teams interested in his services. In a couple of places, he could realistically compete for a starting position, but neither are ideal situations.

Cleveland has several holes besides the quarterback position. Robert Griffin III seems to be a physical wreck that may again see him miss significant time in his second year with the Browns. He has played in only four games this season.

With Griffin signed only through next year, Manuel would most likely see some time on the field in 2017 and have the chance to earn the starting job the following season, if not next fall.

San Francisco is another opportunity. The 49ers know Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are not long-term solutions.

Their third-string quarterback is Christian Ponder, the man Manuel succeeded at FSU. Ponder is at rock bottom, unable to get on the field even for one snap for a dreadful 2-13 team that featured terrible play from those ahead of him on the depth chart.

Other teams will be looking for backups or maybe looking to move on from veterans near the end of their careers. San Diego and Phillip Rivers is an example while Chicago is almost certain to part with Jay Cutler.

These teams would be looking for a quarterback with the physical attributes and playing experience of today’s bigger quarterbacks. Manuel (6’5”, 240 lbs.) can check both boxes.

It will be good to see what Manuel does with his chance on Sunday. With the Jets serving as the opponent, things could not have worked out better for him.

Don Shula, Dolphins have great Christmas memories

Don Shula is known for winning a lot of games as an NFL head coach. For those in need of a reminder of just how many, make a reservation at one of the Shula 347 Grills in Coral Gables, Lake Mary or Tallahassee.

Of those 347 wins, 276 came while he was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Until the Buccaneers came to Tampa and the Jaguars to Jacksonville, the Dolphins were Florida’s team for a decade.

Two of Shula’s career victories came on memorable Christmas Day games. The first is the most legendary sporting event ever contested on December 25 as the NFL played on Christmas Day for the first time ever.

It was on that day in 1971 that Miami and the Kansas City Chiefs played the longest NFL game in history. On their way to the Super Bowl that year, the Dolphins outlasted the Chiefs 27-24 in double overtime.

This struggle between the reigning NFL champions and the up-and-coming Dolphins went back and forth until Santa Claus gave the Dolphins another gift that day. The Chiefs’ reliable kicker, Jan Stenerud, had an easy 31-yarder to give Kansas City the victory.

Inexplicably, he missed, sending the game to overtime. When Garo Yepremian drilled a 37-yarder in the second overtime, Miami and Don Shula had made history in more ways than one.

Three weeks later, the Dolphins were playing in their first Super Bowl. They were pounded by the Dallas Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl VI, but that game and that season put Shula and the Dolphins on the path to excellence for years to come.

By being so good for so long, Shula approached the record for most regular season coaching victories held by legendary Chicago Bears’ Coach George Halas. On December 25, 1994 the Dolphins hosted the Detroit Lions in a night game with a playoff berth on the line.

Dan Marino did not throw a single touchdown pass that night, but Bernie Parmalee rushed for three scores and the Dolphins won, 27-20. The victory was the 319th regular season win, putting him first all-time.

Shula had passed Halas the previous season for total combined wins. He would go on to post 328 regular season wins, plus 19 in the post season.

Shula has several off-the-field Christmas memories over his long life (he will be 87 in January). When it comes to football, he also has every reason to smile each December 25.


Jaguars snap losing streak with 38-17 victory

For the first time since October 17, the Jacksonville Jaguars walked off the field as a winner. They 38-17 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans broke a nine-game losing streak and made a winner of interim coach Doug Marrone in his first outing.

Marrone may have had an immediate impact on his quarterback, Blake Bortles, who had a spectacular day. The former Central Florida star threw for 325 yards and a touchdown without an interception.

A good portion of the criticism directed toward former coach Gus Bradley was the lack of improvement coming from Bortles this season. He was actually going downhill.

Whether a cloud was lifted or Bortles just had a good day, the Jaguars will think about that later. All that matters is they saw what they thought they would see from their quarterback on a regular basis.

Marrone also excited the fan base by opening up the offense. A connection between Bortles and wide receiver Marquise Lee for a touchdown should be a common occurrence.

Jacksonville’s first score was a 21-yard connection. In the fourth quarter with the Jags leading only 25-17, it was Lee hitting Bortles for a 20-yard score on a trick play that pushed the lead back to two scores again.

The Jaguars’ defense deserves their share of accolades as well. They harassed Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota all day, limiting him to just 99 yards passing before leaving with a severe leg injury in the second half.

They also held Tennessee to only 58 yards rushing. To cap off the afternoon, Jalen Ramsey picked off a Matt Cassel pass to racing 30 yards to the end zone with a pick-six. It was his first career touchdown.

Any team breaking a losing streak like the Jaguars ended should have them near the top of the sports center highlights. It is their luck that the Cleveland Browns won for the first time on Saturday against the San Diego Chargers.

Jacksonville finishes the regular season on New Years’ Day with a trip to Indianapolis to face the Colts.

Then, the search for a permanent coach will begin in earnest. Former coach Tom Coughlin is said to be interested.


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons