Friday, October 23, 2009

Wildcat offense not as innovative as some think

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 2:46 PM
Anders Larson is a ThisWeek staff writer. He can be reached at

If you've watched at least one hour of ESPN's coverage of the NFL over the past week, you've probably heard that Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano is the innovator of all innovators.

Sparano, along with offensive coordinator Dan Henning, is responsible for implementing the now-popular Wildcat offense in the NFL.

The Dolphins began using the scheme last year, but they aren't the only team using it now. It seems almost every team in the league has some variation on the theme, which they use on occasion. More and more, the offense is getting widespread use at the college and high school levels.

By now, there are plenty of fans out there, including me, who are growing tired of all the hype. But no one is more frustrated than the good folks of the Single-Wing Sentinel, a blog for enthusiasts of the nearly-defunct offensive system. If there was any precedent for copyright infringement for football schemes, the Single-Wing Sentinel likely would be seeing the Dolphins' lawyers in court right now.

The blog, which finds and republishes articles from around the country about single-wing teams, recently featured a column by Ron Grillo of the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram. Grillo pulled no punches:

"Folks, the "Wildcat" has been around for more than a century. It probably deserves the title as football's first offense. It has, however, before last season, been referred to as the single wing."

Oh, (shotgun) snap! Take that Sparano.

Grillo acknowledges that the modern Wildcat is not an exact replica of the single-wing, but he goes on to explain that the basic premise of both offenses is the same: snap the ball to your best runner, not your best thrower.

Upper Arlington coach Mike Golden said he sees the similarities, although he hasn't seen a team in central Ohio run a true single-wing consistently since Northland in the 1970s.

"I'm so old I can remember when a few teams ran it," Golden said. "(The Wildcat) is a little more sophisticated than that. The single wing was a little more of a lead. The quarterback would spin around and do all this stuff. But I think it's a fair comparison."

Regardless, there is no denying that the Wildcat, even if it is just a variation on the oldest offense in the game, has made an impact. Golden is one of many coaches around the area who have used a variation of the Wildcat this season. UA, in fact, used the scheme quite a bit last season with Alex Drake, normally one of the team's starting tailbacks, taking the snap.

"Last year, before our first game (starting quarterback Kyle Cassady) got hurt," Golden said. "We had three great running backs and we couldn't get them in there in the same set. So we would put Alex in at quarterback and kept Tommy Farwick and Isaac Wildermuth in the game at running back."

Gahanna, Columbus Academy and Thomas Worthington are among several other teams to use the system with success this fall. Thomas uses its variation, the "bad bird," about 10 percent of the time, with running back Eric Monfort taking the snap.

Academy broke the Wildcat out of its playbook for the first time in a 27-19 win over Newark Catholic on Oct. 2, with tailback Austin Peterman taking the snaps.

Gahanna has used the package to get the ball in the hands of Earl Cunningham, one of its fastest players. In a 42-31 loss to Lancaster on Sept. 25, Cunningham, who has played tailback and wide receiver this season, ran for 76 yards and a touchdown and also completed a 40-yard pass.

"For us, it puts an athlete in a position to do more than hand off or throw a pass," Gahanna coach John Snoad said. "It makes you more difficult to defend. With most teams, unless you're just running triple-option all game, the quarterback is just going to hand off or throw a pass."

Even Snoad labeled the term "Wildcat" as "just a catch-phrase," saying that this type of offense has been around for a while. Golden said he only looks to add a new wrinkle like this to his playbook if it doesn't significantly alter the blocking schemes already in place. The Golden Bears' standard wing-T offense has enough similarities to the Wildcat to make it work.

There has been some debate about how long the Wildcat will last before it fades away like many trendy systems of the past. Snoad and Golden said this type of offense certainly can work at the high school level for years to come. The talking heads at ESPN said they believe the next evolution is to incorporate the pass into the Wildcat more frequently. Eventually, the same player could take the snap every play if he was dangerous enough as a passer to keep the defense honest.

At that point, you would have a system with the team's primary runner taking a shotgun snap, using misdirection and fake handoffs and occasionally throwing the ball.

The guys at the Single-Wing Sentinel probably can suggest an offense that fits those criteria.

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