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The origin and future of the 'Wildcat'

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By Kevin Fishbain

At 1:30 a.m. ET on Sept. 15, 2008, Dolphins first-year head coach Tony Sparano asked his quarterbacks coach David Lee to join him in the front of the team's plane.

The decision Sparano made next brought a formation to the NFL that, heading into 2011, is still a weapon in offenses around the league.

The Dolphins were flying back to Miami following a 31-10 loss to the Cardinals. Coming off a 1-15 season, the Dolphins already had an 0-2 record and had rushed for a combined 121 yards, even with the presence of talented RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.

"Tell me about this 'Wildcat'," Sparano asked Lee. "We need some space to run the ball in, and I think this 'Wildcat' can create some space."

"I said, 'Coach, there's no question,' " Lee told PFW, as he recounted the plane ride during which the 'Wildcat' was born in the NFL.

After three seasons with the Dolphins, Lee is returning to the college game as Ole Miss' offensive coordinator. In 2007 at Arkansas, the Razorbacks' rushing offense ranked fourth nationally under Lee, with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones taking part in the 'Wildcat.' Lee had used the formation a bit with Matt Jones in 2001 and ’02, but added triple-option concepts to it with the talented backs in 2007 and then brought that to the NFL.

"(Sparano) said, 'If the ball is snapped on the ground once, I'm throwing the whole thing out.' The center can screw up. I can remember the ball hitting McFadden right in the facemask in 2006," Lee explained. "The negatives were flying through my head. I'll be darned (if) the first time we snapped it we don't score a touchdown."

With 2:39 to go in the first quarter against the Patriots the following Sunday, Brown lined up in the shotgun and took a direct snap two yards into the endzone for a score. He also threw a touchdown pass to TE Anthony Fasano out of the formation. The Dolphins won 38-13 and rushed for 216 yards.

Miami used that big win at New England to turn its fortunes around, finishing with an 11-5 record and winning the AFC East. They finished 11th in the league in rushing, with 580 yards coming out of the 'Wildcat.'

The Dolphins, Jets and Browns used the formation the most during the 2010 season, with other teams around the league just dabbling in the 'Wildcat.' Coaching changes in Cleveland and Miami might change how it's used, and Brad Smith's uncertain future with the Jets has put their use of the formation in limbo. But the 'Wildcat' doesn't appear to be going anywhere, as long as so many college teams run versions of it and players like Cam Newton enter the NFL.

The formation succeeds by confusing defenses with an unbalanced front and having a skill player take the snap. Zone reads, triple option, reverse and passing plays all can be run out of the 'Wildcat,' and Lee said that the plays don't have a huge impact on the offensive line.

"The same core plays that you would run under center, you run in the 'Wildcat'," he explained. "That was the beauty of it — you weren't changing a bunch of rules up front."

Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who ran the 'Wildcat' at the University of Arkansas in 2006, is one of the foremost proponents of the formation. His success with it, as well as the hurry-up offense, at Springdale (Ark.) High School helped land him the offensive coordinator job at Arkansas. He still runs the 'Wildcat' at Auburn, where he directed the explosive Cam Newton-led attack for the reigning national champions. While almost any play that has a non-quarterback skill player lined up under center is considered to be the 'Wildcat,' Malzahn explained what the formation means to him.

"To me, 'Wildcat' is tackle over, unbalanced with a tight end," he said. "It is a speed sweep with a tailback, while having your 'Wildcat' guy at quarterback and your quarterback out to the 'Z' receiver.

"The idea was to get the ball to your best player, let him run behind the overloaded offensive line. You can speed sweep with your fastest guy coming in motion, and the better your 'Wildcat' guy can throw it, the more pressure you can put on the defense."

Lee emphasized that the formation's triggerman is the key to its success. When he installed it in Miami, he envisioned Williams as being the 'Wildcat' quarterback, but the team's veteran running backs had other ideas.

"Ricky said, 'No, no, I want to run across like Felix Jones.' And Ronnie said, 'I want to handle the ball.' They knew what they wanted to be if we ever went to it, and that was months before we used it," Lee said.

Lee believes the 'Wildcat' quarterback needs to be a player who can handle the ball, handle a bad snap, and have the eyes and hands to look the ball into the pocket.

"You need the right guy to do that. (Josh) Cribbs is perfect with Cleveland, and I think the Jets are doing a really good job with Brad Smith, a college quarterback," he said. "Having that kind of quarterback on your team, (Smith) can read, he can pitch and he can pass — that's when he's lethal."

Smith rushed for 212 yards and one touchdown out of the "Wildcat" last season, gaining 7.1 yards per carry, according to Pro Football Focus. He has thrown only seven career passes, completing four of them. Smith had four rushes of 20 yards or more last season.

"When you talk about the 'Wildcat' formation with Arkansas, it was two running backs. What helps us out is having a guy that's played quarterback," Smith said about the Jets' 'Wildcat.' "But there's also stuff that some NFL teams don't do, such as running the option or zone-read-type stuff."

Despite his pedigree as an accomplished college quarterback, Smith hasn't had many opportunities to show off his arm in the NFL.

"It would be nice (to throw more), but I don't really care. Whatever it is that they see in the defense that we can try and take advantage of, whether it is taking the edge or attack, I'll do it," he said.

Michael Vick, the best running quarterback in the league, doesn't operate in what you would normally consider the 'Wildcat.' Tim Tebow, on the other hand, entered games last season as a backup to run the football like he did at Florida before taking over the starting job late in the season, and if he becomes Denver's starter in 2011, you could see him running plays similarly to what he did at Florida. This year, there might be another starting quarterback running the 'Wildcat' like he did in college — No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, who ran the formation at Auburn all the way to the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.

"If somebody was 'Wildcat' interested, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow would be the two perfect fits," Lee said. "(Newton) is such a good runner and was so accurate at Auburn. I watched that SEC championship game [a 56-17 victory over South Carolina] — the difference in the game was his accuracy."

"Cam is a great quarterback and will be successful in any system," Malzahn said. "He's the first regular quarterback that we did not exchange somebody in to run the 'Wildcat.' He's got the running back skills, but he throws it unbelievably. We started with [WR] Kodi Burns as the 'Wildcat' guy the first three games, but it just got to the point where we didn't switch anymore because we could run so well with Cam."

When Newton begins his NFL career in Carolina, defenses around the league will have seen the 'Wildcat' in one way or another for three seasons now. According to Pro Football Focus, 20 teams ran a 'Wildcat'-like play in 2010. (PFF defined a 'Wildcat' play as any play in which someone other than a quarterback lined upon in the QB position, and it did not account for running quarterbacks).

While the Jets thrived in the formation in 2010, the Dolphins' 'Wildcat' plummeted in productivity from where it was in 2008. The first year of the 'Wildcat,' the Dolphins rushed 93 times for a 6.4-yard average. It accounted for eight rushing scores and two through the air. In 2010, the Dolphins' 'Wildcat' rushed the ball 57 times for 189 yards (3.3-yard average) and only one score.

"You're seeing less and less of it after two pretty successful seasons. I think the team that's the best at it right now is the Jets," Lee said. "Once people have seen it enough times and know where the play's point of attack is going to be, they have played into it."

Shutting down the 'Wildcat' was an issue for defenses in 2008, and college defenses still struggle against the formation. NFL defenses are starting to pick up on the extra blocker and finding ways to slow it down.

"Teams try to start out with a base defense, then have a certain blitz to go with it," Malzahn said. "Most defenses are very specific on how they want to attack it. If you have a 'Wildcat' guy who can throw the football, it makes a big difference."

Lee agreed that without a legitimate passing threat in the formation, defenses have an easier time defending the 'Wildcat.'

"Your passing game is very limited. We rarely had a wide receiver in the game. Sometimes we had no quarterback," he said. "We were a little hamstrung that Ronnie wasn't a true passer. He could read the zone read, but his pitch wasn't always accurate. It's hard to pitch the ball when you're running 100 miles per hour."

Smith has noticed defenses adjusting when he, not Mark Sanchez, lines up at quarterback.

"Defenses have definitely loaded up or have a spy on the quarterback position," he said. "Our coaches do a great job of adjusting the blocking schemes to give us a chance to make a play."

The Dolphins' 'Wildcat' being bottled up by opposing defenses last season coincided with the team's inefficient play in the red zone. Miami finished 30th in the league in scoring, and some observers attributed that to the struggles in the formation it brought to the league. There are some different schools of thought as to where the 'Wildcat' is most effective.

"It's most effective in the red, tight-red areas. As a play-caller, you're less worried about the snap being on the ground or the mesh (motion) guy's timing being off," Lee said. "When you're backed up, you don't want to turn the ball over, but you don't want to be so conservative. (Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan) Henning believed when he crossed the 50, it's a part of his offense."

"It can work in any situation," Smith said. "Anytime you have an athletic quarterback, period. On third down (the defense is) expecting a run with the D-ends pinning their ears back. (Michael) Vick does it all the time. If they're going to give him a running lane to pick up 10 yards, he will take that instead of forcing the ball downfield. It's worked on 3rd-and-15 and it's worked on 4th-and-1."

In 2010, the Jets had one of the league's best offensive lines and boasted very good backs in Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. L.T. has proven to be one of the game's best backs in the red zone, and Smith's 'Wildcat' skill wasn't needed. In the red zone last season, Smith had just three carries for 16 yards. In between the 40s, Smith rushed the ball 17 times for 129 yards, including a 53-yard TD.

The Browns had their red-zone bulldozer in the form of RB Peyton Hillis. Cribbs had just three carries in the red zone, rushing for nine yards. He had seven rushes for 19 yards in between the 40s.

The Jets, Browns and Dolphins ran the 'Wildcat' the most in 2010. Pro Football Focus found that a total of 212 plays were run out of the formation, with 188 of those plays being running plays that gained a 4.3-yard average. Plays involving a handoff found the most success. Miami's stats were down, but the 'Wildcat' still works.

The question remains, how often will we see it in the future? On the one hand, defenses are clearly aware of the formation, but with players like Tebow and Newton coming out of college spread offenses each year, there's reason for putting some variation of the 'Wildcat' in a team's playbook to get the most out of the player's talents. Smith believes the formation will continue and go hand-in-hand with the spread offense.

"You would have to stop calling it the 'Wildcat.' You're going to see it evolve," Smith said. "Blaine Gabbert this past year at Missouri was not much of a runner, but when the defense is so spread out, he had running lanes to take advantage of.

"You'll see a lot more offensive coaches taking advantage of schemes and spread it out, throw it, run read option or regular option."

Malzahn pointed out that the formation isn't leaving the college game anytime soon.

"I think more and more teams in college are using versions of it each year. The more it's used, the more defenses will get comfortable with it," he said. "Over the last few years it's grown and I expect it to continue to do that. Most college offenses have some version of the 'Wildcat' anyways."

With more and more college teams using it, more players will come into the NFL with the type of skills that Smith, Newton and Tebow have to keep the formation evolving in the NFL.

As for Lee, he sees the use of the 'Wildcat' decreasing over time, especially considering what happened in Miami last season. He's modest about any sense of pride he might feel as teams continue to use the formation brought to the NFL on a red-eye flight to Miami.

"You know what, I don't have much ego, I just wanted to help us win and get a rushing attack," said Lee, who rarely has spoken about introducing the formation to the NFL. "The credit really goes to Tony (Sparano) for having the guts for taking something that looks high schoolish and giving it a shot because we were struggling to run the football and maybe it would create some space. And he was exactly right."  

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