Friday, October 31, 2008

Dolphins' wildcat look a scheme come true

Miami's unconventional approach creating nightmare for opponents
By Lynn DeBruin, Rocky Mountain News
Published October 30, 2008 at 9:54 p.m.

Michael Pittman heard the term and immediately knew where this was going.

"Hey, I got an arm on me. I used to quarterback in high school," the Broncos running back said with a smile.

Andre Hall was equally giddy.

"I could do that," he said. "In high school, we had hundreds of big plays off of it."

What the Broncos running backs were talking about was the wild-and-crazy Wildcat formation that ignited an anemic Miami Dolphins offense six weeks ago.

It left Bill Belichick's Patriots defense dumbfounded and had the Chargers scratching their heads all the way back to San Diego.

With the Dolphins coming to Invesco Field at Mile High on Sunday (2:05 p.m., CBS 4), the question is whether this modified version of the single wing already has become more fad than fantastic.

Will it go the way of the barefooted kicker of the 1980s or continue to grow and prosper like variations of the West Coast offense?

"I think defenses will eventually catch up to it," said's Gary Horton, who watched Baltimore's defense stuff it with blitzes in the Ravens' 27-13 win Oct. 19. "But I don't think it's as much a fad as you think. You may not be able to use it like Miami has, but you can pull it out once or twice in game situations.

"That's the beauty of it. You can catch teams totally off-guard because there's no substitutions and the reads are exactly the same."

Little Pop

The Wildcat dates from Pop Warner's single wing in which the tailback - in Miami's case, Ronnie Brown - does it all.

He takes the direct snap behind an unbalanced line and can fake a handoff and run it between the tackles.

Or he can hand off to the other back already in motion, in Miami's case, Ricky Williams.

Or he can roll to his left and take advantage of the misdirection and throw to the tight end.

As the Dolphins have showed, the trickery doesn't stop there.

"The reason I like it is you can keep adding nuances," Horton said.

The third week the Dolphins used it, they had Brown hand off to Williams, who handed back the other way to quarterback Chad Pennington, who passed 53 yards for a touchdown to a third running back, Patrick Cobbs, who slipped 20 yards behind defenders.

Other variations might have Pennington as a receiver or getting Williams more involved.

To this point, it mostly has been The Ronnie Brown Show - and he has shown why he was the No. 2 overall pick in 2005.

Against the Patriots on Sept. 21, the Dolphins used the Wildcat six times and scored four touchdowns - on runs of 2, 5 and 62 yards by Brown and a 19-yard pass from Brown to tight end Anthony Fasano.

Against the Chargers two weeks later, Brown took the direct snap 11 times and rushed for 49 of his 125 yards, including the winning touchdown.

In a 29-28 loss at Houston on Oct. 12, the Dolphins used the attack eight times, with great success, as Brown averaged 8.9 yards a carry going into the Ravens game.

But Baltimore's blitzing defense finally had an answer; the Wildcat formation netted the Dolphins only 4 yards on five plays.

The Dolphins ran six plays from the Wildcat for 35 yards Sunday in a 25-16 win against the Buffalo Bills but gave opponents more to think about with something new, a direct snap to Williams.

"It's hard (to defend)," Bills coach Dick Jauron told the Palm Beach Post. "They added some wrinkles, which they do every week. They do a really good job with it."

Blitz is best defense

Horton said many coaches think the best defense is to audible to a blitz as soon as they recognize the formation. And the more film opponents see, the easier it will be to recognize.

But Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said it was pretty wild seeing what the Dolphins came up with seemingly out of the blue, even though the formation still is used by some high school programs, in college. It was used in the pro game until the 1950s.

"Who's got who?" Bailey said was his initial reaction. "You don't see it in this league, and when teams are not ready for it, it's tough to stop."

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan insists he has been ready for it since the opener, when Denver played Oakland. Raiders rookie running back Darren McFadden ran it to perfection at Arkansas.

"It didn't surprise me that somebody else used it," Shanahan said of the Dolphins. "Colleges have taken it to a new level, trying to get the ball in the hands of the best athletes. It probably will grow in the NFL as well until somebody stops it."

The key is having a back who can throw, Shanahan said.

"Then the sky's the limit," he said. "But if the guy's just one-dimensional, I don't think it will last very long."

Fun factor

For Miami, the Wildcat formation was born out of desperation at 32,000 feet. After a humiliating 31-10 loss at Arizona in Week 2, coach Tony Sparano huddled with quarterbacks coach David Lee, who was familiar with the "Wild Hog" offense while working under Houston Nutt at Arkansas.

The Razorbacks had installed the package in 2006 to get the best three players - McFadden, Felix Jones and current Broncos fullback Peyton Hillis - on the field at the same time.

"I just felt like on the way back from Arizona that we needed to create space and create a little bit of enthusiasm within practice," Sparano said.

Pittman can imagine.

"It just brings you back to the old-school days. It adds fun to the game," said Pittman, who said he'd be the first one to sign up for a role in it - even at age 33. "I keep telling them to put the halfback pass in (here) but haven't sold them on it yet."

Sparano admits teams are finding more ways to attack the Wildcat but said his book of possibilities is pretty thick.

"We've just scratched the surface of really what we were trying to do," he said after the Houston game.

Despite the NFL being a copycat league, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson doesn't believe all teams could go to a Wildcat formation.

"Most teams have a diva quarterback or a diva wide receiver or both," Johnson wrote in his column for "Now, can you see a diva quarterback being a decoy? And a diva wide receiver? The Dolphins can get away using the Wildcat formation because they are not trying to appease Pennington and a wide receiver."

Johnson said there is no way Dallas would run the Wildcat.

"Tony Romo wouldn't like it, and we all know Terrell Owens would hate it," he wrote.

Broncos defensive end Tim Crowder believes the Broncos could pull it off, especially with two healthy rookies in the lineup in Ryan Torain and Eddie Royal.

"I've seen (Royal) throw the ball 60 yards just goofing off," Crowder said of the versatile receiver. "So you never know."

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