When the Miami Dolphins looked to change their offensive structure in the wake of a Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, they 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. It's often termed a spread option, but the NFL success of
the Wildcat has as much to do with the blocking as with anything else. While the doomed
spread sets left backside blocking lanes open for speed rushers, Lee's
formations put extra blockers in the line of fire. 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
"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.
"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
"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 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.
How could the Seahawks best run it? They have the base personnel to run any of the three formations pictures above, but I really like what the Browns did with their "Flash" package in their 35-14 upset over the Giants in Week 6.
With just under a minute gone in the second half and the ball at the New York 46, the Browns went with the Wildcat formation and showed a new wrinkle.Derek Anderson played himself as the quarterback, with Cribbs as the sweeper from the left slot. Fullback Lawrence Vickers was lined up as the H-back, and running back Jerome Harrison lined up to the right. At the snap, Anderson handed off to Cribbs on the sweep, but then Cribbs pitched to Harrison, who was coming the other way. As the Giants pushed their defense in Cribbs' direction, thinking that they had the Wildcat foiled, Harrison had a clear enough path on the left sideline for a 33-yard gain, down to the Giants 13-yard line. This would be a great play against any defense prone to overpursuit to the ball (i/e. the Arizona Cardinals, who had a problem with that throughout the 2008 season). The Browns added to the fake to the right by selling slide protection from the line.
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 can 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.
"I would love to play quarterback (in the NFL) but I also want to help in any way I can," White 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."
Miami drafted White in the second round, and they're already looking at new ways to use these formations. The Ravens were able to foil the 'Cat because the limited playbook allowed Baltimore to take a safety to spy the ball. With White as a running and throwing option, he may be able to keep that safety on a tether, leading to openings upfield. There's no question that the Seahawks could use Seneca Wallace in such a system, in the Cribbs sweeper role, and Hasselbeck still on the field and away from danger lined up as a wideout.
Doug Farrar is the Publisher of NorthwestFootball.net. He also writes for Football Outsiders, the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and the Seattle Times. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.