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The Wildcat: Gimmick or Innovation?

   by Hollywood Sports - 10/16/2009

The Wildcat: Gimmick or Innovation? The answer is innovation. Going into last Monday night, there certainly was a line of thought arguing that the Miami Dolphins Wildcat formation would not be successful against Rex Ryan and the strong New York Jets defense. After all, Ryan was the defensive coordinator and brain-child for the Baltimore Ravens successful defensive schemes against the Dolphins' Wildcat offense last season which limited Miami to just six yards in seven Wildcat plays over two games. But on Monday night, the Dolphins executed 16 plays in the Wildcat formation in accumulating 110 total yards for a 6.9 yards per carry average against the Ryan-led Jets defense. Something about this offense set works. This is not to suggest that all 32 NFL teams will be running Wildcat formations by 2010. Nor is this to suggest that a prerequisite for winning the Super Bowl will be to have the flexibility to deploy multiple Wildcat formations. But much like the shotgun or the 3-4 defense, the Wildcat is a legitimate offensive formation that should maintain some level of effectiveness even after defenses fine-tune their adjustments. Understanding the history of the Wildcat and how it fits into the current evolution of offensive innovations in general helps to identify why the Wildcat is here to stay.

The Wildcat formation began in the 1920s allegedly by Kansas State (hence, the "Wildcat" moniker to identify the Kansas State Wildcats) and remained popular through the 1940s. But the Wildcat was just a variation of the single wing formation popularized by Pop Warner. What distinguished the single wing was the center's direct snap to either the quarterback or a running back. The Wildcat is just one of many variations of this single wing direct snap concept (the Wildcat twist is a double wing with a second running back lined up next to the player receiving the snap). These formations allow an offense to stack one side of the line of scrimmage. In an era dominated by running schemes, single wing formations make sense. The offense seizes an advantage in direct snaps since this avoids requiring a middleman quarterback to deliver the ball to the running back. Not only does this exchange increase the risk of a turnover, but the exchange slows down the development of the play which then helps the defense. A direct snap allows the runner to be able to more quickly choose a lane and exploit it. However, as the era of the forward pass began to take shape, the desirability of an offensive formation that was mostly locked into a running play began to lose its appeal. But two of the fundamentals behind the Wildcat -- quickness in attacking the defense and limiting ball exchanges -- remain desirable. Modifications to the single wing formation survived -- most notably illustrated by the use of designed quarterback running plays. Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick are two modern examples of quarterbacks that often ran plays similar to the single wing plays. Urban Meyer has also incorporated direct snap running plays into his offensive schemes for the college teams he has coached.

But if the Miami Dolphins Wildcat formation is part descendant of the single wing offense, the other "parent" (or perhaps "grandparent" is more appropriate) is the quarterback option offenses that remained popular in college football through the mid-1980s. Often (but not always) deployed in a "wishbone" formation of three running backs, this offense relied on both the mobility of the quarterback and the decision-making ability of this quarterback to choose if and when to pitch the ball to one of his running backs. It is important to note that the Dolphins do not seem to be currently deploying the "option" element from this offensive set. Rather, as discussed below, Miami runs a multiple set of designed plays that originate from a single formation. However, there are two developments within this offensive formation that remain critical to the evolution of the modern incarnation of the Wildcat. First, as defenses stacked the line of scrimmage to stop the run, offenses began to add passing plays to add to the options that were available to the quarterback. These designed passing plays would burn defenses that were stacked to stop the run. Additionally, by establishing a legitimate passing threat, defensive formations needed to remain honest in defending longer passes with their safeties which re-established an offensive advantage for their rushing attack options. Second, with three or four legitimate running threats in the backfield, quarterback option offenses began to incorporate misdirection formations and movements to fool the defense after the snap. Of course, misdirection has always been a part of offensive football. Pop Warner and Knute Rockne relied on them in their single wing offenses. But the quarterback option offense has witnessed a bit of a comeback over the last few years -- most notably from coach Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech and formerly of Navy. Johnson's spread option offense incorporates two wrinkles to the old quarterback option formations of the past. First, the offense borrows from the spread formations that have used by traditional passing offenses that wish to get more wide receivers on the field and get the ball to them quickly. If "spreading" the offense forces the defense to spread itself as well, it creates more pockets where receivers can quickly get open. Similarly, offensive spread formations can create open pockets for a rushing attack to exploit. Second, current incarnations of the spread option offense rely heavily on misdirections since mistakes made by defensive players can be more effectively exploited on a field with more open lanes. Offensive coaches are always looking for mismatches and the recent success of spread option offensive rushing attacks re-introduces some old concepts.

A few years ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks were blessed with two outstanding running backs in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones who were both future first round draft picks. With an obvious desire to use both talents on the field at the same time, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn incorporated the "Wild Hog" offensive scheme he used back in his high school coaching days where McFadden would take direct snaps from center just like the base formation of the Wildcat of the 1920s. From that set formation, McFadden would either run the ball himself or a misdirection handoff to Jones. When defenses stacked the line of scrimmage to stop this formation, plays would be designed for McFadden to throw passes out of this look. After Malzahn left Arkansas for Tulsa, David Lee took over as offensive coordinator at Arkansas and continued the Wild Hog formation. When Bill Parcells took over the Miami Dolphins last year, he hired Lee to be his quarterbacks coach. With Ronnie Brown taking over the role of McFadden and Rickie Williams playing the part of Jones, the Miami Wildcat offense was born.

There are two versions of this modern incarnation of the Wildcat: one where the quarterback remains on the field (usually in a wide receiver location) and one where there is not a "traditional" quarterback on the field. This important distinction will be discussed below. The current evolution of the single wing is here to stay for four reasons. First, misdirection plays work. Fooling the defense never goes out of style. For the same reason that spread passing offenses evolved from June Jones' Run-N-Shoot formation to four and five wide receiver sets that almost every team in the league keeps in their playbook, the misdirection possibilities from an offensive formation that has two legitimate running backs are strong. The Dolphins currently run a base formation that creates four plays: (1) Brown handing off to Williams moving in motion left-to-right out of the backfield; (2) Brown faking this handoff and finding an opening to the inside right of the line of scrimmage; (3) Brown faking this handoff and sweeping left to the position from which Williams just moved; (4) Brown dropping back to pass downfield. Four legitimate schemes from one formation is what winning offensive football is all about.

Second, the Dolphins' Wildcat brings back the valuable advantages of limiting ball exchanges while also improved quickness in attacking the defense with direct snap running plays. What makes Brown particularly effective within a spread formation is that he has the option to choose which lane is opening with that little extra quickness advantage of having the ball in his hands just a little sooner.

Third, this offense allows teams to tailor offensive schemes to the talent on the roster. A common criticism of the Wildcat is that it takes your quarterback off the field. Why would anyone want to take Peyton Manning or Tom Brady off the field? Well, yeah, if every team had a Hall of Fame quarterback, then that would be a terrible idea. But winning football is about establishing and then exploiting player mismatches. The Wildcat is not for every team in the league. If a team had both Warren Sapp and Leon Lett in their prime at defensive tackle but only three credible linebackers, then they would be silly to still play a 3-4 defense just because everyone else was doing it. But when your quarterback is Chad Pennington, it is not such a bad idea to get two strong running backs on the field at the same time. This particularly makes sense given the recent trend for teams to rely on multiple running backs rather than one player taking the majority of the load. Teams these days usually have more than one talented running back. Designing offenses that get your best talent on the field seems smart especially when it creates situational mismatches. Just like the Run-N-Shoot's reliance on four wide receivers at all times becoming one of its biggest weaknesses, it won't make sense to run the Wildcat exclusively throughout a game. But in the right situation (and perhaps catching the defense with their wrong situational players on the field), the Wildcat formation will remain a viable option. Just like the Patriots situationally deploy four or five wide receivers for a certain amount of plays, the Wildcat likely will thrive in a similar way.

The final reason why the Wildcat will survive is their is a situational advantage in getting the traditional quarterback off the field because he is replaced by another blocker. Last Monday night when Dolphins' quarterback Chad Henne lined up as a wide receiver, his only function was as a decoy for trick pass plays where he either throws the ball from a reverse or runs a wide receiver route. It is always dangerous to put your starting quarterback at risk of being blocked or tackled. When the Dolphins can run formations with Brown taking snaps and Henne can be replaced by another blocker, then Miami can match the defense man-for-man which reduces the inherent disadvantage an offense has when the quarterback exits participation in running plays. However, the problem with this variation of the Wildcat is that without the traditional quarterback on the field, the credibility of the passing attack is dependent on the arm of the running back taking the direct snap. If Brown fails to develop a credible threat to pass the football, then the defense will cheat safeties to the line of scrimmage and close holes. It is this eventual problem that compelled Miami to draft quarterback Pat White. White was a dual-threat option out of West Virginia. When White takes the direct snap, the offense still retains its credible threat to throw the football, which keeps the defense honest and retains the original advantages of the running game aspects of this attack. It is for this reason as well that there was strong interest in Michael Vick once he became eligible to play in the NFL again. Dual-threat quarterbacks running the single wing formations will ensure that this offensive tactic remains effective.

In 2008, Miami deployed a Wildcat formation 90 times and averaged 6.4 yards per carry with it. By the end of last season, seventeen other NFL teams employed this offensive scheme for at least one play. Defenses will adjust -- and offenses will adjust to those adjustments -- this is the nature of the NFL. But once it is understood how the Dolphins' incarnation of the old Wildcat single wing attack is not so much a gimmick from the past but the next step in the evolution of offenses looking for situational mismatches within spread formations that rely on misdirection, then the true value of this Wildcat becomes apparent. Miami had success against the Jets last Monday for sound fundamental football reasons. Its called innovation.

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