Taking another pass with the Wildcat
By John Clayton
(see link for video - mesa)
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.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.