Thursday, December 11, 2008

How the Wildcat reignited the 'Fins and altered the '08 season

By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY

DAVIE, Fla. — Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano's season-saving huddle at 39,000 feet ignited his sputtering team and the season's wildfire, Wildcat craze.

The impetus for Sparano's eureka moment?

WORST TO FIRST? Dolphins could win AFC East after 1-15 in '07
A desire to get running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on the field at the same time.

Flying above the clouds on his 0-2 team's charter flight after a Sept. 14 loss at Arizona, Sparano got a clear sense of what was needed.

That's when the first-year head coach summoned quarterbacks coach David Lee, the former University of Arkansas offensive coordinator who orchestrated The Wild Hog featuring direct snaps to tailbacks Darren McFadden (now with the Oakland Raiders) and Felix Jones (now a Dallas Cowboy).

Since Sparano sanctioned the direct-snap-to-a-running back, sleight-of-hand Wildcat formation, Miami has jumped from a 1-15, 2007 disaster to 8-5 and in a three-way tie for the AFC East lead with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. If they win their final three games (including the season finale at the Jets), the Dolphins would clinch a division title and tie the biggest one-season turnaround in league history of 10 wins, equaling the 1999 Indianapolis Colts.

"We were all miserable at that point," Sparano says. "I didn't feel like we had an identity in the run game. I also felt it was getting harder to put Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the game at the same time and get them touches.

"I called David to the front of the plane and said, 'Look. Here's what I want: Tomorrow when we get back, I want three runs, maybe a pass out of this Wildcat package …

"We need to find something we can put our arms around as an offense that can create space."

In a league brimming with Kurt Warner-type passing offenses, leave it to a former offensive line coach, Sparano to revive legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner's 1907 single-wing formation designed for multi-faceted, future Hall of Fame halfback Jim Thorpe.

Lee dubbed it the Wildcat and Miami's single-wing takeoff caused double- and triple-threat trouble for the New England Patriots in a 38-13, Sept. 21 turnaround. Six Wildcat snaps yielded four touchdowns. Brown ran for 69 yards and three touchdowns, including a 62-yarder. He also hit tight end Anthony Fasano on a 19-yard touchdown.

"It goes to show the fundamentals of football never change, that the importance of blocking, tackling and executing never changes," Miami quarterback Chad Pennington says.

The last single-wing tailback to win a Heisman Trophy was Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951. Kazmaier watched highlights of the Patriots befuddled by galloping ghosts.

"My reaction was one of amusement that something from 57 years ago would be resurrected and create a spark," Kazmaier, 78, says. "The single wing is a timeless treasure.

"Something that's been extinct for so many years takes some blinking and thinking to say, 'What's going on here?' "

That's exactly what defenders are saying.

"There was confusion about where their guys were supposed to be," Dolphins guard Justin Smiley says of the Patriots in that first game.

That changed in their second meeting when the Patriots shut down the Wildcat, staying more disciplined in their gap responsibilities to hold the Dolphins to 25 yards on eight Wildcat snaps.

'Like an encounter with a giant, raging egg beater'

With its unbalanced line, the Wildcat creates 6-on-4 blocking mismatches at the point of attack, particularly against a two-gap scheme like New England's 3-4.

"Against defenses that play so fast, it's a changeup that slows them down just a step," says former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, now the head coach at Ole Miss. "Here's a fast back coming at you. Is he going to stretch the field around the corner, run inside or run a counter? And defenders have to make sure they cover the receivers so they're not tricked."

A 1999 NFL Films Presents feature on the single wing noted late Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Jim Finks as the last player to take a single-wing snap Dec. 16, 1951.

"(Baltimore Colts defensive tackle) Artie Donovan said playing against the single wing in its heyday was like an encounter with a giant, raging egg beater," NFL Films president Steve Sabol says. "Guys would spin, run, fake and pass. It creates enormous deception."

In 76 Wildcat snaps, the Dolphins deceived for 453 yards and eight touchdowns.

"You have to give coach Sparano credit for having the courage to bring something to the pro game that hasn't been done in a while," Pennington says. "It creates good angles for the offense."

Brown lines up 6-7 yards deep and takes the direct snap from center with the option to run, hand off, pitch or pass. Pennington splits right at receiver, while Williams or Patrick Cobbs line up as a wingback, who come in motion to take a possible handoff.

"With Ronnie and Ricky, that gives us two threats at once with neither one having to block," offensive coordinator Dan Henning says. "That's the key. We don't want them banged up.

"We have an extra blocker because the quarterback takes one guy out of the box."

Sparano, Lee and Henning experimented with the Wildcat this offseason until Brown injured his thumb.

Defensive end Vonnie Holliday recalls practice before the Wildcat's successful debut.

"The defense was laughing, saying, 'That's not going to work,' " Holliday says.

Afterward, Fasano got a call from his former Notre Dame quarterback, the Cleveland Browns' Brady Quinn.

"That Wildcat is a crazy offense," Quinn said.

Crazy flexible.

"There's three, four guys who can hurt you almost every play," Fasano says.

Wildcat copycats

Each week, another team unveils its iteration of gadgetry gone wild.

Coach Herman Edwards' Kansas City Chiefs had running back Jamaal Charles pitch to receiver Mark Bradley, who fired a 37-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Tyler Thigpen. Baltimore Ravens backup quarterback Troy Smith threw a 43-yard completion to quarterback Joe Flacco. Nearly half the 32 teams have dabbled, including New England.

"Maybe we can patent the Wildcat," Brown says. "We had success against New England and everybody knows their track record."

So teams started copying the 'Cat.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt was ahead of the curve direct snapping to wideouts Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward, both of whom played some quarterback in college, as 2004-2006 Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator.

Wideout Anquan Boldin runs Arizona's Wildcat package called "The Pahokee" after Boldin's Florida hometown.

"It's all part of what makes this game exciting, coaches and players constantly trying to get an advantage," Whisenhunt says. "Defensive coordinators have to spend time working on it in practice. That's what you want, make them take time away from preparing for your base offense."

The Cleveland Browns, forced to start third-string quarterback Ken Dorsey because of injuries, had wide receiver Joshua Cribbs run their version seven times Sunday in a 28-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Nutt's brother, Danny, a former Arkansas running backs coach, helped tweak the Wild Hog, introduced by Lee's Razorback predecessor, Gus Malzahn, for McFadden, Jones and Denver Broncos tailback/fullback Peyton Hillis.

"Now a lot of recruits are calling, asking, 'Can I run the Wild Rebel?' " Houston Nutt says.

So how do defenses tame the 'Cat?

"I'd check to a run blitz to disrupt any type of run or option play once you realize they don't have a quarterback under center," says former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and a fast, physical defense run blitzed Miami into 4-yard, five-snap Wildcat submission in a 27-13 Oct. 19 win.

Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had cornerback Frank Walker jam Pennington, "Into the Gatorade," says Ravens coach John Harbaugh. That dissuaded Miami from exposing its quarterback to further Wildcat contact.

But Henning keeps scheming new misdirection tricks, including Williams' 51-yard, Week 10 touchdown run against Seattle.

"We keep looking for different guys to do it," Henning says. "Some of the guys have been high school quarterbacks. (Former Michigan quarterback and Miami rookie) Chad Henne can do it."

Should Sparano get royalties when teams take a walk on the Wildcat side?

"We should get a nickel or something," Sparano says. "Our league is a copycat league. We didn't invent it. We copied it from a college team."

But his team made it their own, and Sparano's maverick move and become the seasons' biggest surprise.

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