Monday, September 21, 2009

Colts to face Dolphins' wildcat offense

Unusual formation turned around Miami's season last year

By Phil Richards

Miami was coming off a 1-15 season. It was 0-2 and had scored only 24 points. Desperate times, coach Tony Sparano decided, called for desperate measures.

In Week 3 last season, he introduced the Dolphins' version of an offense quarterbacks coach David Lee had run at Arkansas. Six plays, all direct snaps to running back Ronnie Brown, produced 119 yards and four touchdowns to batter New England 38-13 and snuff the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak. Brown scored on runs of 2, 5 and 62 yards, and threw a 19-yard pass to tight end Anthony Fasano for the fourth touchdown.

The world met the wildcat. Brown's No. 23 jersey now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a memento of the game.

"To be honest, when we introduced it, there were a lot of people mocking it," said Sparano, whose Dolphins play the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night at Land Shark Stadium. "Now I think a lot of people are trying to run it."

Miami wanted to get Brown and running back Ricky Williams on the field at the same time. So it put Brown in the shotgun formation, Williams in the backfield, moved quarterback Chad Pennington outside and shifted an offensive lineman from one side of the ball to the other. That created an unbalanced line, and mismatches.

The ploy triggered a turnaround that helped the Dolphins to an 11-5 season.

The wildcat derives from the old single-wing formation conceived by Pop Warner shortly after the turn of the century and used by Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Its appeal is obvious. It brings option football to the NFL. Defenses have to account for the player taking the snap not only throwing or handing off but as a runner.

"Every defensive coach hates the option," Colts president Bill Polian said. "And one of the nice things about our league is you never had to play against it because quarterbacks get beat up so bad, teams didn't run it."

When the 2009 NFL season opened last weekend, Carolina used it with wide receiver Steve Smith taking the snap. Cleveland kick returner Joshua Cribbs, New York Jets running back Leon Washington, Miami's Brown and backup quarterback Pat White and Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew also took direct snaps in the wildcat or one of its variations.

Jones-Drew took a shotgun snap on a two-point conversion attempt, faked to wide receiver Nate Hughes, then charged into the middle. He was swarmed under well short of the goal line, preserving the Colts' 14-12 win.

The Colts were prepared. They had practiced it little but planned for it and discussed it during the preseason.

The wildcat's effectiveness waned late in the 2008 season as teams prepared responses. Miami scored eight touchdowns out of the formation the first seven games it was used but none over the last seven. When the Dolphins and Patriots met during Week 12, eight direct snaps to Brown yielded 25 yards.

Miami has a new element this season: White, a rookie second-round draft pick. As a 31/2-year starter at West Virginia, White passed for 6,049 yards and rushed for 4,480, an NCAA record for a quarterback.

The Dolphins used him on three snaps during a 19-7 loss at Atlanta last week: a sweep for no gain, a deep play-action pass on which he overthrew wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and a reverse handoff to Ginn on which Ginn had the option to pass but ran for 1 yard.

The Colts have given the wildcat and the spread out of which White operates more attention this week, but they haven't overdone it. They don't "chase ghosts."

"It wouldn't make sense if they did it 1 percent of the time," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said, "and we practice for it 98 percent of the time."

Whether the wildcat becomes an enduring NFL staple or a ghost remains to be seen.

"Red Hickey came out with the shotgun at San Francisco (in 1960). That hasn't gone away," said Polian, who has been involved in the NFL for almost a third of a century. "I think it's possible for the wildcat to remain."

Colts-Dolphins injury report

Rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers, tight end Gijon Robinson and guard Jamey Richard did not practice Saturday and are questionable for Monday night's game. A look at the entire injury report:


• Out: S Bob Sanders (knee), WR Anthony Gonzalez (knee), TE Tom Santi (ankle).

• Questionable: OT Charlie Johnson (back), G Jamey Richard (shoulder), S Jamie Silva (abdomen), CB Jerraud Powers (groin), TE Gijon Robinson (back).


• Questionable: LB Akin Ayodele (back).


The Indianapolis Star

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