Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wildcat has found its place in the NFL

By Scott Brown
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tony Sparano turned around the Miami Dolphins in his first season as coach, but he might have gained more recognition for the offense he helped popularize around the NFL.

Sparano unleased the "Wildcat" formation last year, and it was so successful that others were quick to copy.

"I wish I had a dollar for every person who ran it," Sparano said, jokingly.

The "Wildcat" proved to be money for the Dolphins.

They caught the New England Patriots flat-footed with it last September. The 38-13 thumping of the defending AFC champions helped propel Miami to an eventual division title after it had won just one game in 2007.

The success Miami and other teams had with the "Wildcat" in 2008 has turned the back-to-the-future package into the wrinkle du jour in the NFL. And the intrigue created by the "Wildcat" could impact the NFL draft and enhance the value of players in it with local ties.

"Obviously, there's some people that have given it some thought and have used it in our league and, naturally, those things expand," Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "There's a few players in this draft that would make you think about that."

West Virginia quarterback Pat White and Penn State wide receiver/kick returner Derrick Williams are two of the more notable examples.

They have the blend of versatility and athletic ability to succeed in the "Wildcat," a progeny of the single-wing formation that predated the sophisticated passing attacks of the modern era.

White and Williams could add another dimension to the "Wildcat," which usually features a direct snap to a team's top runner, since each would also represent a passing threat.

White set a record for career rushing yards (4,480) by a quarterback at the Division I-A level, but he also threw well enough to become the first quarterback to win four bowl games in NCAA history.

And as NFL teams evaluate White in advance of April's draft, the possibilities with a pass-or-throw option in the "Wildcat" is, no doubt, a part of their thought process.

"I think the implementation of the 'Wildcat' and other spread systems will definitely help me out," White said, "because of the style of offense we ran at West Virginia."

'Wildcat' makes Williams a wild card

The "Wildcat" may help Williams, or at least his draft stock, even more.

Unlike White, who had an impressive showing at last week's NFL scouting combine and may convince teams to draft him strictly as a quarterback, Williams did not fare well in Indianapolis.

He ran a 4.62 in the 40-yard dash, raising questions — if not red flags — even though illness may have factored in to his pedestrian time. Teams that aren't convinced Williams has the speed to play wide receiver on a regular basis may covet him for what he can do in the "Wildcat."

Williams took his share of direct snaps at Penn State last season, and he rushed for 243 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The former high school quarterback also completed a couple of passes out of the formation, forcing teams to respect his arm and his legs.

When asked about the prospect of Williams playing in the "Wildcat" in the NFL, Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler, who is also eligible for the draft, said, "He'll be good at it. He can throw passes, he can run, he's big enough to take some of those bigger hits."

The punishment players are exposed to in the "Wildcat" is primarily why teams don't use their starting quarterback in the formation.

While the package gained traction in the NFL last season, it has been used before.

Arizona Cardinals coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said the Steelers employed a direct snap earlier in the decade when they had Antwaan Randle El — the shifty wide receiver who excelled as a running quarterback in college.

The idea then, as it is now, is to put the ball in the hands of a dynamic playmaker and allow him to exploit a team that isn't sure how to defend the "Wildcat."

"I think the 'Wildcat' situation is something that a lot of us are trying to figure out what's the best way to defend it as well as use it." Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

"Until somebody finds a way to make something unsuccessful," said Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, "they'll continue to do it."

Following the Dolphins' lead

Indeed, the NFL is nothing if not a copycat league. And the "Wildcat" became more prevalent after Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown executed it so adroitly that he rushed for four touchdowns and threw for another score against the Patriots.

It was enough of a concern for the Steelers prior to their regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns that they prepared for the "Wildcat" in practice.

Rookie quarterback Dennis Dixon so impressed his teammates with the way he emulated Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs, an explosive open-field threat who played quarterback in college, that several of them said the Steelers should consider adding the "Wildcat" to their offensive repertoire.

"I think we should get our offense to put Dixon in there," Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Farrior said in December. "I think we can make some plays with him on offense."

That "Wildcat" sentiment, while widespread, hardly has launched a revolution in the NFL. The formation has given defensive coordinators something else for which they have to prepare, even if it is only used for a handful of plays.

And to think the Dolphins had doubts on the "Wildcat's" effectiveness before they unleashed it — and Brown, who averaged well over five yards a carry last season and made his first Pro Bowl — on the Patriots.

Recalled Sparano: "We might go out there for two plays, and if it backfires or it doesn't give us the look that we wanted, maybe we don't see it anymore.

"It just so happened we started to get a couple of the pictures that we wanted to see, and we were able to go with it a little bit longer."

Now what had been old is new again, and the "Wildcat" looks like it is here to stay.