Thursday September 10, 2009, 8:40 AM
Cam Cameron was convinced he had stepped back in time this summer.
Nine-year-old kids were mimicking football's past under the South Florida sun, running a variation of the old single-wing with a new twist to a formation with plenty of aliases.
"The Wildcat is real," said the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator. "Everybody's doing it. And we've all done it in the backyard. The key is being able to execute."
A year after the Miami Dolphins jolted the NFL with their Wildcat offense, teams are preparing for the newest wrinkle destined to wake up defensive coordinators in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Wildcat 2.0 will branch out of its ground-heavy roots with athletic, mobile quarterbacks -- rather than running backs like Miami's Ronnie Brown -- taking direct snaps to present a viable run-pass option.
While exotic pressure packages served as Wildcat's kryptonite last season, a legitimate passing threat like the Eagles' Michael Vick or Dolphins' second-round draft pick Pat White will temper a defense's desire to blitz to prevent getting beat through the air.
The Jets plan to use former college quarterback Brad Smith more and the Titans hope to exploit Vince Young's versatility in the evolution of this increasingly popular scheme.
"It's another opportunity for us to present pressure on the defense," said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who lined up at flanker in preseason Wildcat looks with Vick taking the snap in shotgun formation. "I may line up at receiver, tight end, running back. You never know."
That element of surprise is what makes McNabb certain that "a lot of good things could happen" by employing the newest dimension to this scheme.
Last season, 20 of the league's 32 teams ran at least one play out of the Wildcat formation, according to STATS. Of the Dolphins' league-high 90 Wildcat plays, Brown attempted just three passes.
The new twist virtually eliminates that predictability.
"You have to spend a considerable amount of time in the offseason knowing how to defend the Wildcat," Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "For their punch, what's your counterpunch?"
CAGING THE CAT
The common thread in a league anchored by freakishly large men with blinding speed and strength is simple.
Whether teams routinely empty their Wildcat packages or use them sparingly, the mere threat will likely give defensive coordinators weekly migraines.
Concrete plans to deal with the Wildcat are now part of defensive playbooks across the league. Even the Giants coincidentally devoted practice time to the trendy offense the morning after the Eagles signed Vick last month.
"It gives defenses something to focus on," Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "It's eight plays less that they get to work on your top run or your top pass (plays). If you don't work on (the Wildcat), there's a good chance you'll get embarrassed."
On the flip side, Cameron likes the Wildcat, but devotes minimal practice time to it, subscribing to the notion that "if they can't do it right away, it's not something we want to spend a lot of time on."
"We don't have time to go through all the potential defenses," Cameron said. "If they can do it right the first or second time in practice, we'll put it in, because it's natural to them. But we're not teaching them how to do it."
Although Giants secondary and safeties coach David Merritt likened it to preparing for an option college quarterback, the versatility of players like Vick, Smith, Young -- or even the University of Florida's Tim Tebow next year -- makes defending the next generation of the Wildcat an arduous task.
"It's a little bit of defending the unknown," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the first victim of the Dolphins' surprise attack last season. "Defenses are going to have to work against it and have some plan for how to deal with it. But there are so many different versions of how to run it."
Several coaches believe a Cover 2 defense with athletic inside linebackers adept at stopping the run and pass is the best way to slow down the Wildcat phenomenon. In a standard Cover 2 shell, two safeties split the deep part of the field in half (beyond 15 yards from the line of scrimmage).
The Cover 2 scheme could also call for a spy on the Wildcat quarterback, the same strategy employed on many mobile quarterbacks in conventional offensive sets. In theory, if the defensive backs don't get lured into run action, the Cover 2 should successfully combat the Wildcat.
Since most passes out of the alignment are roll-out plays to the signal-caller's throwing side, the biggest hole in the Cover 2 -- the deep middle of the field -- wouldn't be as much of a concern. Wildcat quarterbacks would have to make a high-risk pass across their bodies to a potentially open spot.
"Like all other offenses, eventually the defense is going to come up with a scheme," Merritt said. "There's a scheme that's going to eventually stop that offense and hopefully move it out of the league."
HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW?
The shelf life for NFL's latest phenomenon is unknown.
Although players and coaches agree the Wildcat isn't going to vanish this season, its long-term viability remains in doubt.
The Dolphins' scheme, which ignited a slumping offense by averaging seven yards per play during an initial seven-game stretch, wasn't nearly as effective during the last quarter of the season.
After Miami amassed 119 yards and four touchdowns on six Wildcat plays in its Week 3 debut against the Patriots, it managed just 25 yards on eight plays in a 20-point loss in the Week 12 rematch (The Jets were marginally effective when Smith ran the formation last season as well.).
Expect more defensive adjustments this season despite the new dimension.
"It certainly was an innovative move," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of adding running quarterbacks into the Wildcat mix. "People are now seeing the various different styles of athletes that are lining up at that position and (causing) you problems defensively. We'll see how that goes. You'll have to wait to see how the season goes before you find out if anybody really has an answer."
The Wildcat itself -- as much as adjusted defensive gameplans -- might determine the scheme's lifespan in the NFL.
McNabb, who was shuffled in and out of the Eagles third preseason game to make way for Vick, hinted that disrupting the rhythm of a team's conventional offense could be one potential downside to the newest wrinkle.
"Before you can come up with gimmicks or come up with something else," McNabb said, "you've got to get your base offense going."
But the temptation to use Vick, the poster boy for the upgraded version of the Wildcat, may be too powerful to ignore.
"The sky's the limit," Vick said. "I was thinking about so many different things that we can do. It's almost scary."
Staff writer Jenny Vrentas contributed to this story.