By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Miami scored a total of 24 points in season-opening losses to the New York Jets and Arizona. The Dolphins averaged only 60 yards rushing and 3.0 yards per carry in those games.
Coming off a 1-15 season, it looked like the same old Dolphins. Then rookie head coach Tony Sparano decided to go wild(cat).
"We had the idea at the end of the second game, when things didn't go so well in Arizona, that we needed to maybe give our offense something that they could put their arms around," Sparano said. "And also try to create a little bit of space, some misdirections ... and get Ricky (Williams) and Ronnie (Brown) on the field at the same time."
So they sprung the "Wildcat" formation on the unsuspecting New England Patriots in Game 3. The Dolphins' running game — and their season — hasn't been the same since. In the Wildcat, the quarterback splits out like a wide receiver, and the running back takes a direct snap from the center in the shotgun.
The Patriots and their guru of a head coach, Bill Belichick, didn't know what hit them. The Dolphins rushed for 216 yards and four touchdowns to spring a 38-13 upset. Starting with that game, Miami has won six of nine to play itself into playoff contention.
"It's an old single-wing type concept in terms of the running game," Rams defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "The runs look a little different because they're not handed off. There's some misdirection looks up in there."
And beware of the forward pass. Brown tied a franchise record with four rushing TDs in that New England game, and he also threw a 19-yard TD pass. He thus became only the second player in NFL history to score four rushing TDs and throw a TD pass in the same game.
The other? Paddy Driscoll of the Chicago Cardinals in an Oct. 7, 1923 game against the Rochester Jeffersons.
Miami quarterbacks coach David Lee, a native of Dexter, Mo., ran the Wildcat with Darren McFadden at the University of Arkansas. The Dolphins worked on it during spring practices, so it was part of their overall offensive package.
It has been a regular part of their offense since the Patriots game in September.
"It's been anywhere from eight to 20 plays (per game)," Venturi said. "You have no idea how many it's going to be. It's like an alternate offense right in the middle of the game, and you have to adapt to it because you don't know when it's coming. It's not like they substitute (personnel) to get in it."
The Dolphins were ranked 26th in total offense after the two pre-Wildcat games. Since instituting the Wildcat, they've risen to No. 8. All told, they've run 67 plays out of the Wildcat, averaging 6.6 yards per play. In 675 plays in their conventional offense, the Dolphins are averaging 5.8 yards per play.
In the Wildcat, Brown has 40 carries for 233 yards and five TDs; Williams has 22 carries for 145 yards and one TD.
In a copycat league like the NFL, lots of teams are using a little Wildcat in their offense. But nobody runs it as often, or as successfully, as the Dolphins.
"These guys are the poster boys, I mean, they've done a terrific job with it," Venturi said. "It's a little bit different in terms of how plays look. They're really the same plays that you would see, but without the handoff, they look different."
And playing defense in the NFL is all about recognition and reaction. The Rams' defense spent a lot of time working against the Wildcat in practice during the week.
"You've got to be really sound in what you're doing defensively," coach Jim Haslett said. "Because if one guy is out of his gap, that's when you see these big long runs they've been having."