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Tuesday, October 14, 2008
REVIVING THE WILDCAT


Miami's experiment with the Wildcat offense versus New England created a trend.

The term "Wildcat football" may conjure up visions of a certain program in Tucson, or a similarly inept program in Evanston, Illinois. For some, it may even remind them of a rag-tag high school team led by gangly flanker Woody Harrelson and coached by the relentless Goldie Hawn. Yet in today's football landscape, specifically that of the NFL, Wildcat refers to a long-forgotten offensive formation that the Miami Dolphins have recently made en vogue again. They debuted the formation in Week 3 against the New England Patriots. It was run a total of six times, resulting in five touchdowns. As Adam Sandler might sing during the holidays, "Not too shabb-eeey."

Naturally, they've used it ever since. The set up involves a direct snap to the running back, who can then scan the field and find a hole to run through, or if he chooses, he can pass the ball. In utilizing the Wildcat versus New England, Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown rushed for touchdowns of 2, 5, 15 and 62 yards while also completing a 19-yard touchdown pass. "I don't know why in the world we couldn't stop that play," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said after the game.

The original "Wildcat" was Jim Thorpe.

New England's inability to tame the Wildcat is probably due to the fact that the formation has been dormant at the professional level for more than 60 years, when it was then known as the single-wing. Glenn "Pop" Warner created the single-wing in 1912, more than a decade before the first NFL game was played. It was born from Warner's desire to utilize the talents of his star player, Jim Thorpe. Turns out the guy was a decent athlete. While coaching the Carlisle Indian Institute's football squad, Warner came to the quick realization that Thorpe—who was equally adept at running, throwing and kicking—needed to have the ball in his hands on every play. Warner devised a system where on each play the center would snap the ball four yards into the backfield directly to Thorpe, who then became a triple threat. With Thorpe directing the single-wing offense, the Indians amassed a 38-3 record over three seasons, including a 27-6 rout of the then-powerhouse team at West Point. Like we said, things have changed. Even in those days, football was a copycat game, and by the time the NFL played its first game, every team in the league was using the single-wing. It wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s, when footballs became smaller and easier to throw, that the QB was asked to be the focal point of the offense. That, coupled with the popularity of George Halas' T-formation, effectively killed off the single-wing. In the 60+ years since, NFL offenses have gone through countless permutations, yet not since the Run-N-Shoot has a genuinely new offensive formation been created with any amount of success. It can be equated to the NBA slam dunk contest, where every dunk, sans props, has been repeated ad nauseum. Creativity on the offensive side of the ball has become stagnant, with every game plan just a copy of those previous, with maybe a few new wrinkles. That was until the Dolphins/Pats game, when Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano dusted off the single-wing and, at least for a day, made a mockery of the once dominant New England defense."One thing I have found very interesting in my conversation with (Bill) Walsh is that he regretted he never tried the single-wing formation with the 49ers. He felt that Steve Young could have run the formation to perfection, and that the league's defenses would have had a difficult time stopping the old formation."

This is not the first time that NFL coaches have been tempted to resurrect the single-wing. Howard Cosell wrote, in his 1991 book What's Wrong With Sports, "One thing I have found very interesting in my conversation with (Bill) Walsh is that he regretted he never tried the single-wing formation with the 49ers. He felt that Steve Young could have run the formation to perfection, and that the league's defenses would have had a difficult time stopping the old formation." Walsh was most likely correct. Even the great Vince Lombardi warned of a possible single-wing resurrection. "What would happen if someone came out with the single-wing offense?" he asked. "It would embarrass the hell out of us." In the weeks following Miami's 38-13 rout of the Patriots, the NFL has seen numerous teams employ the Wildcat formation. In Week 4, Jacksonville RB Montell Owens, during the first and only carry of his career so far, took a direct snap and rumbled 41 yards for a touchdown. Other teams have utilized the single wing as well, but no team has been as proficient with the formation as the Dolphins, who continue to snap the ball directly to Brown. The NFL has now reached a point where there is a de-evolution on the offensive side of the ball, where what is new is actually old and thus new again. Defensive coaches must now game plan for the single-wing, something most can't be too happy about, considering game film of Jim Thorpe isn't too readily available these days.