Taking another pass with the Wildcat
Whether or not you are wild about the Wildcat offense, the Miami Dolphins' success while using it last season has made a direct snap for expanded use in 2009.
The Dolphins used a second-round draft choice on West Virginia quarterback Pat White to take the Wildcat to the next level. Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher is thinking about giving the formation a try, which could give Vince Young an opportunity to get back onto the field. And what if Michael Vick lands with a team to run some Wildcat?
Coaches have devoted plenty of practice time in minicamps and organized team activities experimenting with their versions of the formation and trying to find ways to stop it.
"It will be around," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said of the Wildcat. "It will be around because it changes your rules in preparing a defense. The quarterback position is a runner, and you have to account for him. It's like a punter who can run on special teams. You have to prepare for fake punts. Having that extra runner you account for creates an overload.
"Plus, the Wildcat is probably [in] 80 percent of your college offenses today. That's what is making it hard to find quarterbacks now, because finding one who is able to play under center is a new adventure."
The Dolphins parlayed the surprise of the Wildcat into an improbable 11-win season and the AFC East title. In the Dolphins' first game against the New England Patriots last season, the Wildcat accounted for 119 yards in six tries, resulting in four touchdowns. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was able to adjust in the teams' second meeting and limit the Wildcat to 25 yards in eight attempts in a Patriots victory.
During the regular season, the Dolphins ran 90 Wildcat plays, accounting for 580 yards and eight touchdowns. The Wildcat was sprinkled into each of the team's 11 victories. It turned a modest rushing attack that averaged 3.8 yards per carry into a more dangerous power running attack. Overall, the Dolphins averaged 6.4 yards with the Wildcat.
Like it or not, it'll be around for a while.
"It's going to be part of the league," Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I believe offensive coordinators have secret meetings to come up with things. I don't like to use the word 'copycat,' but if you feel like it could help your team, you do it. I feel it will be more prevalent this year than last year. Look at college teams. Sure, they are going to use it, and it's not going to stay status quo. It's going to grow and expand, and you want to be up on it as much as possible."
The addition of White -- a good thrower -- to the Dolphins' Wildcat arsenal is the biggest fear for opposing teams. During the course of the 2008 season, defenses managed to contain the running portions of the Wildcat to some degree. It's the passing aspects that cause the greatest fears.
"You have to make sure you eliminate the big play," Fisher said. "You work deep to short. You don't want the guy taking the ball and you have everybody chasing him, and then he throws it."
If you track the Dolphins' ability to operate the Wildcat, you see that teams kept finding answers. The Ravens stuffed the Wildcat during one regular-season game and again in the playoffs. After being burned by the Wildcat and losing their first meeting with the Dolphins, the Patriots shut it down and won the rematch. The element of the pass, though, is the next wave, and defensive coordinators have spent considerable time this offseason trying to come up with counterstrategies. At first, you'd see the starting quarterback move out of the way and locate himself on the side of the field. Now, teams are inserting a Wildcat package in which the starting quarterback is off the field, replaced by someone who might be a threat while running or passing.
"It gives you an extra blocker because now the quarterback is a runner," Fox said. "It creates that extra guy because historically, defenses never had to account for the quarterback as a threat to run or block. In the Wildcat, the quarterback position can now be a runner. If the back is not the runner, he's a blocker, so you get that overload in the running game."
The Panthers aren't intimidated by the Wildcat because they've played against one of the foremost running quarterbacks in NFL history -- Vick. The Panthers usually did well against Vick, who had the elusive running skills of a Barry Sanders and once rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
"When you played Vick, you'd have to make adjustments on the bootleg because he could pull up and throw," Fox said. "As a defense, you had to pick your poison. If you concentrate on stopping the bootleg, then they could get the cutback run. You just have to adjust and throw different pictures at him."
That's where players such as Pat White and others who can throw the ball cause so much concern. This offseason, defensive coordinators are preaching discipline as the way to stop the Wildcat. If players get out of position, the Wildcat will succeed.
"I went to Syracuse, where we ran some triple option," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "The biggest challenge in stopping the triple option was having everybody on the same page and having everyone knowing their keys. The guy who is supposed to tackle the quarterback has to get to the quarterback. The guys on the backside of the defense have to worry about the cutback. The frontside guys have to worry about the quarterback. The secondary has to worry about the pass. You need discipline, and you've got to stop it early. But with Miami, you know you have to deal with it. It's a real pain."
Teams with great quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady probably won't use much Wildcat because it takes the ball out of the hands of top playmakers. But more than three-quarters of teams in the league don't have those topflight quarterbacks, so anything goes.
"I hope it doesn't go as wild as it does in college," Smith said. "Even though many teams are doing it with nonquarterbacks, spread offense is the prevalent offense in college. It can go a number of different directions. It's option football. It's ability to space and have four wide receivers and two running backs. It does create different scenarios than we are used to in the NFL."
The Wildcat is here -- but for how long?
"I think you have to wait and see," Fisher said. "It's a matter of time, and you can't define time. I could be here for a year or could be here for four or five years. Go back in history and look at the run-and-shoot. The run-and-shoot came from college. Houston, Detroit and Atlanta were running it, and they were strictly run-and-shoot teams. I don't remember any of them winning championships. Look at the 46 defense. It came, and a lot of teams started using it. Then it disappeared. You just have to wait and see."
In the meantime, defenses prepare for the known and the unknown of Wildcat.
Wild about the 'cat
A look at the teams that ran the Wildcat in 2008. (Carolina, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New Orleans, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and Washington didn't use the formation last season.)
|Arizona||The Cardinals used it sparingly with onetime college quarterback Anquan Boldin handling the plays. He had a 31-yard gain against the Panthers in Week 8.|
|Atlanta||Falcons coach Mike Smith didn't use the Wildcat much and doesn't really plan to now that Matt Ryan is developing at quarterback. Last season, halfback Jerious Norwood took the snaps.|
|Baltimore||Wildcat QB Troy Smith connected with quarterback Joe Flacco on a 43-yard pass play. The Ravens called the formation the "Suggs package" because Suggs said early in the season that Smith should be the starting quarterback.|
|Buffalo||The Bills tried it maybe eight or nine times with running back Fred Jackson as the Wildcat quarterback. They used it only for running plays.|
|Chicago||The Bears tried it a couple of times last season with Devin Hester taking the snaps.|
|Cincinnati||The Bengals tried it only a couple of times in which wide receiver Andre Caldwell either would run a draw or try a reverse.|
|Cleveland||The Browns experimented a couple of times with Joshua Cribbs taking the direct snaps.|
|Dallas||The Cowboys have a package involving former Arkansas running back Felix Jones. Now that Jones is healthy, expect to see the play a little more this season.|
|Kansas City||Larry Johnson and Jamaal Charles took direct snaps a couple of times, but the Chiefs didn't try to the Wildcat often. They were too busy using the college spread formation with Tyler Thigpen at quarterback.|
|Miami||The Dolphins were the kings of the Wildcat. They ran 90 Wildcat plays that resulted in 580 yards and eight touchdowns. They were 11-3 in games in which they used the Wildcat.|
|New England||The Patriots tried a couple of direct snaps with Kevin Faulk last season, but they probably won't do much in the fall if Tom Brady is healthy.|
|New York Jets||The Jets tried it a few times with Leon Washington and Brad Smith, and you might expect more this season.|
|Oakland||The Raiders averaged about 5 yards a carry with Darren McFadden taking the Wildcat snaps.|
|Philadelphia||DeSean Jackson is the natural candidate for the Wildcat, but Andy Reid doesn't want to tinker with the formation too much. He has Donovan McNabb at quarterback.|
|San Diego||The Chargers had a package with LaDainian Tomlinson, which makes a lot of sense. He has been a double threat in red zone situations through the years with his ability to rush and throw for touchdowns.|
|San Francisco||Former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, now a running back, tried it about a dozen times last season. The formation averaged about 4 yards a carry.|
|St. Louis||The Rams tried it several times with Steven Jackson taking the direct snaps. They probably will expand on it more with Jackson this season.|
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Jets-Bills game moved to Monday in Detroit
- Blount returns to Patriots on new deal
- Union appeals NFL's 'unlawful' Peterson ban
- NFL: Games dominating TV airwaves this fall