Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wildcat offense infiltrates every level of football

November 19, 2009
By Roy Lang III

Despite the fact it's derived from football's most rudimentary roots, the mere mention of the Wildcat offense can send elite defensive coordinators into convulsions.

When's it coming? Who's going to have the football? Run or Pass?

In less than five years, the Wildcat has climbed the ladder: high school to college to the pinnacle of the sport — the NFL. It's created problems for defenses at every stop.

But is the offensive set made popular under Houston Nutt at the University of Arkansas really a "gimmick?" Will it take a resting place next to the Run-and-Shoot or can it sustain long-term success?

Opinions are varied. But, for now, the Wildcat is a viable weapon.

"It's a schematical nightmare," said former LSU defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto, now the head coach at Northwestern State University.

The Wildcat (teams often change the "cat" to fit its school's nickname) is an offense used to capitalize on mismatches created by shifting skill players around the field. A running back/wide receiver normally lines up in the quarterback position out of the shotgun formation.

A second skill player is sent in motion to force the defense to respect the outside threat. The Wildcat "quarterback," after having a moment to process the defense, has the option of handing the ball to the man in motion as he passes, running the ball himself, or throwing a pass.

Offenses have evened the numbers game.

"You're really playing back to 11-on-11 rather than the quarterback under center who's not a runner," New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "It allows teams to run the ball effectively against some down-safety defenses."

Peveto's nightmares came from watching Darren McFadden and Felix Jones gash LSU's defense with Arkansas. Payton got a good dose of the Wildcat against Miami last month when the Saints traveled to play the Dolphins — the NFL team that has used the Wildcat most effectively at the top level.

Under Nutt, Arkansas put the Wildcat on the map. However, in reality, Nutt just offered his seal of approval in 2006. The idea came from brother Danny, through a former high school coach and new Razorbacks assistant Gus Malzahn, who ran it at Shiloh Christian and Springdale (Ark.).

McFadden and Jones both ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2006 as opponents scrambled to find an answer.

"It makes you defend 12 people," Peveto said. "Most of the time you have to defend the run, but you're also having to defend the spread passing game as well. If that (Wildcat quarterback) can throw it at all, it can give you fits."

McFadden (182) and Jones (137) combined for 319 rushing yards against Peveto's Tigers in 2006 and McFadden was a perfect 2-for-2 throwing the ball.

In a 2007 upset of No. 1 LSU, McFadden rumbled for 206 yards on the ground and added a passing touchdown. Jones and Peyton Hillis combined to run for another 174 yards as Arkansas tallied more than 500 yards of total offense at Tiger Stadium.

"I should have got on the offensive side of the ball when I had the chance years ago," Peveto would later say.

But why does the Wildcat work at every level while the option hasn't really been considered in the NFL?

"You didn't see the option because people invest so much in their quarterbacks; in the option game, the quarterback gets hit," Peveto said. "In the Wildcat, it's actually a tailback or a big skill guy in that quarterback position. You're not having to put your quarterback at risk."

Even though the Wildcat isn't an every-down offense, defenses can't look at it that way.

"At LSU, we spent 75 percent of our week with the problems the (Wildcat) posed and 25 percent on what they did the other 75 percent of the game," Peveto said. "They are forcing you to spend 75 percent of your time worrying about something they are going to do only 25 percent of the game. But you have to, because it can be a long, long night as they are finding out in the NFL."

The Miami Dolphins welcomed the Wildcat offense to the NFL in glorious fashion last season. The Dolphins were a 1-15 squad from 2007 and 0-2 to start the 2008 campaign when quarterbacks coach David Lee — a former Arkansas assistant — suggested first-year head coach Tony Sparano take a chance with his toy.

The Dolphins, using running back Ronnie Brown as the Wildcat quarterback, stunned the vaunted New England Patriots — a 16-0 team in the regular season the year before — with a 38-13 triumph at Foxborough, Mass.

Brown scored four rushing touchdowns and added a fifth through the air to end New England's 21-game regular season winning streak. The Dolphins won for the second time in 22 games.

The Wildcat become a staple with Brown and Ricky Williams and the unpredictable Dolphins went on to capture the AFC East at 11-5.

Naturally, fellow NFL teams have since dabbled in the Wildcat, but Miami remains the NFL team that employs it most often.

"From our end, the guys take great pride in it," Sparano said. "It's something that we've been able to put our arms around here. It's a small part of what we do. It's not everything we do, but it certainly gets a lot of attention."

Sparano laughs at the Wildcat's detractors, who believe it's a fad and not "real" football.

"What I've learned in this league is that yards are hard to come by, so are wins," he said. "Anyway we can get yards and get closer to wins, we're going to do it. I really could care less about what anyone else has to say."

The Dolphins have no plans to curb the Wildcat, although they may be hampered by Brown's recent injury.

"We had no idea about how people were defending it and we still don't have any idea how people defend it, meaning every week, there's something different," Sparano said. "We're trying to stay ahead of the curve."

Meanwhile Nutt, now in his second year at Ole Miss, continues to employ the Wildcat. Maybe he didn't invent the Wildcat, but he will forever be linked with it.

"A lot of times we are given way too much credit for that formation," Nutt said. "That formation was way back in the single wing days with Pop Warner and all those guys."

The Wildcat, like any offense, will need some tweaks and some variations to remain effective, but Peveto said it isn't going anywhere. Thankfully, he doesn't have any hair left to lose.

"I don't think it's a fad; I think it's here to stay," he said.

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