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Wildcat Widens Roles in NFL

When the Miami Dolphins looked to change their offensive structure in the wake of a Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, they unwittingly opened the door for different formations, ideas, and players in the NFL. Head coach Tony Sparano and quarterbacks coach David Lee started talking about something Lee had run with running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones as Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2007, and the "Wild Hog" made its debut against the New England Patriots the following week. The subsequent 38-13 win turned the 'Hog into the 'Cat, got the Dolphins going on their improbable division championship run, and inspired a spawn of imitators.

What's so special about the Wildcat, and why has it worked so well? It's basically a derivation of the old single-wing, and the player receiving the ball from center in a shotgun set has multiple options. As Lee explained it on CSTV in 2007 (and as I detailed for Football Outsiders after the Miami win over New England), there are three primary plays:


Wildcat_Steeler_3309.jpg"Steeler," in which the running back moves from left to right after the snap and takes the ball from the quarterback. The running back then blasts off to the right behind a pulling left guard, an unbalanced right offensive line, and an H-back either between and behind the two right tackles or just outside the right tackle to block. One Steeler option is a handoff to quarterback Chad Pennington from wide right -- the Fins completely fooled the Texans with this one -- when Pennington threw to halfback Patrick Cobbs from the slot, there was no Houston defender within ten yards of him.

Wildcat_Power_3309.jpg"Power," in which the fake to the running back in the "Steeler" formation leaves the quarterback to (hopefully) blow through any one of four different holes to the right. The H-back will stay in to block, and the pulling guard is the key. Left guard Justin Smiley was money for the Dolphins on this play until a leg injury ended his season early (the red arrows indicate secondary options for the back; dashed arrows indicate fakes or players running dummy routes.).

Wildcat_Counter_3309.jpg"Counter" (70 Weak), in which the running back fake leaves the defense biting on "Power," only to watch helplessly as the back runs left through a huge open cutback lane. The line uses slide protection instead of a pulling guard. There's a passing option out of the Counter, as Miami running back Ronnie Brown showed against the Pats when he hit tight end Tony Fasano for a touchdown.

In 2008, the Miami Dolphins ran a total of 965 plays for 5,529 yards, a 5.7 yards-per-play average and 38 offensive (rushing and passing) touchdowns. Of those plays, 91 were run out of the Wildcat formation -- the actual Wildcat, not a read-option or shotgun draw misclassified as such -- for 580 yards, a 6.7 yards-per-play average and eight touchdowns. It didn't work all the time (it REALLY didn't work against the Baltimore Ravens' malevolent defense), but imitators sprouted up everywhere. The Falcons started running "Dirty Bird" formations with direct snaps to running back Jerious Norwood, and the Browns found success with their "flash" packages, using receiver/return maven Josh Cribbs, a former quarterback at Kent State, as the main man.

Judging from the tone set by many coaches and executives at the 2009 Scouting Combine, the Wildcat isn't going away anytime soon. "It's going to be a part of our personality," Sparano said. "There's no question about it. I think our players like it. I think our coaches feel like there's some advantages there. There's some things this offseason that we had to go back and look at and reevaluate how to do it better, those type of things. There was a lot left on the bone that we didn't roll out there during the course of the season for one reason or the
other."

Was he surprised that so many other teams tried it? "I wish I had a dollar for every person who ran it. But I was surprised only because we knew when we rolled it out during the course of the New England week that you're taking a chance one way or the other. We also knew that, hey, this might be a two-play deal. We might go out there for two plays and if it backfires or it doesn't give us the look that we wanted, maybe we don't see it anymore. It just so happened we started to get a couple of the pictures that we wanted to see, and we were able to go with it a little bit longer. But to see other people running it, that surprised me a little bit."

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff engineered his own miracle turnaround in 2008, and odd formations will be a part of Atlanta's future. "I think the Wildcat situation is something that a lot of us are trying to figure out what's the best way to defend it and as well as use it. I think (Falcons offensive coordinator) Mike Mularkey has a very good understanding of that as well. I think it will continue to bring players to the forefront that are a little bit of that "slash" (multi-position) ability, where they can also toss the ball. That's also important as well. If you can get that runner who is run as well as be a receiver, versatility in this league is huge at any position. But when you get a receiver/skill position, a guy who has the versatility to run it out of the backfield, to me that adds a whole different dimension."

The name on everyone's lips when it came to scouting and drafting for the Wildcat was West Virginia quarterback Pat White, who Dimitroff called "an incredible athlete." The all-time NCAA rushing leader among quarterbacks with 4,768 yards -- he ran for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, if you include bowl games, White may be able to transcend that damnation of faint praise among NFL personnel people -- the designation of "running quarterback," and he may be able to do so for two reasons. First, unlike many "Slash" players, White has a passing arm strong enough to make downfield plays. Second, a team running odd formations could find him to be a supreme asset.

The question is whether White will play quarterback at the NFL level -- he told the NFL Network on Tuesday that he intends to run routes as a wide receiver at his Pro Day on March 12, deapite the fact that he hasn't played the position since high school. "I would love to play quarterback but I also want to help in any way I can," he said at the Combine, "whether it is to receive or (return punts). I just want to get on the field somehow. (The Wildcat) is definitely a unique offense and gives defenses that much more film to study."

NFL experts seem divided on White's future, but NFLDraftScout.com senior draft analyst Rob Rang says that White could be the great equalizer of the 2009 draft.

"In the ultimate copy-cat league that is the NFL, the Miami Dolphins can't possibly hope they'll be the only team employing variances of their Wildcat offense after the level of success they had with the scheme in 2008," Rang said. "Due to his strong, accurate arm, poise in the pocket, and remarkable elusiveness, Pat White has emerged as the wild card of this year's quarterback class.

"At a very-receiver-like 6-0, 197 pounds, White certainly doesn't look the part of an NFL quarterback, but he turned heads at the Senior Bowl with some eye-popping throws and when everyone was waiting to see juniors Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman take over the Combine with an impressive workout, White upstaged the lot of 'em. A traditional passer he is not, but the proliferation of the Wildcat offense could be coming at precisely the right time for this unconventional weapon to make a more immediate impact than any other passer of the draft, even potential #1 overall pick, Matthew Stafford."

In other years, White would be chomping at the bit, knowing that he has only two months to prove to the NFL that he has what it takes. But the success of the Wildcat seems to mean that the league, and its varied and complex offenses, have met the player halfway.

By Doug Farrar  |  March 4, 2009; 1:00 PM ET  | Category:  Dolphins Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Back when Red Hickey introduced the 'shotgun' (a variation of the old double wing from his high school and college days in Arkansas)to the NFL with the 49ers', he ended up with 3 quarterbacks, Bill Kilmer, Bobby Waters, and then John Brodie. The formation lost it's effectiveness when it became predictable based upon which QB was in -- Brodie (a T-formation QB)always passed, Kilmer (a single wing QB)almost always ran, and only Waters would do both. The so-called spread always means pass except for the occasional draw. If there are quarterbacks who can both run and pass, the spread becomes more effective. Most of the college spread QBs can only pass and are not very effective in the NFL. A Waters-like QB can succeed.

Posted by: jdrd58 | March 5, 2009 12:29 PM

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