Friday, August 7, 2009

NFL: Wild about the Wildcat

By Ethan J. Skolnick
Published: August 7th, 2009
Athlon Sports Contributor

A grounded football franchise changed its fortunes somewhere around 20,000 feet. The sad-sack Miami Dolphins were returning home from Arizona last September after dropping their 20th game in 21 tries, this one to the Cardinals, 31–10. They couldn’t run conventionally, averaging only 3.0 yards per carry. They couldn’t get their two best offensive assets, running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, on the field at the same time. They couldn’t free up their receivers, and when they could, newly acquired quarterback Chad Pennington couldn’t connect with them. And they couldn’t possibly see much changing, not with a limited roster and a visit to New England on the schedule for the following Sunday.

“We’ve got to think of something,” new coach Tony Sparano, still looking for his first NFL win, told his quarterbacks coach, David Lee.

Lee had just the thing.

Before joining the Dolphins, Lee had served as the offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas. There, he had inherited from his predecessor, Gus Malzahn, two elite running backs, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, as well as an odd offensive package. Malzahn, who is now the Auburn offensive coordinator, had first used it at Springdale High in Arkansas, though he took no credit for inventing it. In fact, the package was a descendant of the old single-wing formation, which had been run in some form and with various names at various levels of football for decades. At Arkansas, it included a direct snap to McFadden, who would then run or throw behind an offset offensive line, with the power stacked to one side. There, it was called “The Wild Hog.”

The Dolphins didn’t have McFadden, though they had thought enough of him, and the formation, to investigate taking him in the 2008 NFL Draft. (The Dolphins took left tackle Jake Long at No. 1, while McFadden went to Oakland at No. 4). And they had worked on the formation in some training camp practices, with direct snaps to Brown while Williams sprinted in motion for either a handoff or a fake. Brown’s sprained thumb delayed the official unveiling.

In the week leading up to the game against the Patriots, with Brown healthy, they worked on it some more.

“We needed to create space and create a little bit of enthusiasm within practice, something the players can put their arms around a little bit out there,” Sparano says. “It wasn’t about what New England was going to do.”

The Patriots didn’t know what hit them.

Brown kept taking snaps, with Pennington flaring out as a decoy receiver. On his first carry in the formation that would come to be known as the Wildcat, Brown ran for a two-yard touchdown. He then ran for two more, including one for 62 yards. And he threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Fasano.

The Dolphins won, 38–13, as the Wildcat created not only points, but also enough confusion and concern to allow Pennington to complete 17-of-20 passes. They schooled one of the NFL’s most experienced, disciplined teams, led by Bill Belichick, arguably the league’s most resourceful, imaginative coach.

“We were running out there like chickens with our heads cut off,” Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour says.

The Dolphins? They were off and running. They won 10 of their next 13 games and captured the AFC East, while the mighty Patriots missed the playoffs. The Dolphins never replicated the ridiculous success they had in the Wildcat’s debut, but they had their moments as offensive coordinator Dan Henning kept adding wrinkles and players to the mix, running five to 10 plays per game out of the formation.

Williams ripped off a 51-yard touchdown run in a win against Seattle. Patrick Cobbs, a versatile third-string halfback who often found himself on the field in the Wildcat with both Brown and Williams, caught a 53-yard touchdown off a flea-flicker back to Pennington against Houston and ran for a 44-yard run against Kansas City. Brown finished the season with a 5.7-yard average on 56 Wildcat carries, compared with 3.8 yards from more conventional formations. Even in the final regular-season game, a win over the Jets, the Wildcat created touchdown chances negated only by poor execution (one drop, one errant pass).

“We knew when we rolled it out during the course of the New England week that you’re taking a chance one way or the other,” Sparano says. “We also knew that, hey, this might be a two-play deal. 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.”

Pennington credits Sparano for “having the courage to bring something to the pro game that hasn’t been done in a while. It creates good angles for the offense.”

It created excitement throughout the 2008 NFL season.

Will that continue into 2009, and beyond?

packages that feature his running and The Dolphins certainly believe so. They drafted West Virginia quarterback Pat White with the intention of designing passing skills, making the formation even more dangerous.

“I remember when it first happened and the Dolphins were scoring all those touchdowns, we were having discussions, me and (Jerome Bettis and Cris Collinsworth), and they were like, ‘This isn’t going to last,’” says former Giants running back Tiki Barber, now an NBC analyst. “I was like, ‘You know what, you’re going to start seeing everybody do it, because it works.’ And every team has something like this, even if they don’t call it.”

Sparano admits he was surprised to see the Wildcat spread so quickly around the league. “I wish I had a dollar for every person that ran it,” he jokes.

Half of the league’s teams experimented with some version of the formation in 2008, though no team cashed in quite like the Dolphins did that day in Foxborough.

The Bills had running backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson take turns in the Ronnie Brown role. The Chiefs rotated triggermen; the Rams stuck to one, power back Steven Jackson, who averaged only three yards on 10 carries. The Browns sent out a receiver, Josh Cribbs, who succeeded with a simple strategy: Fake to the running back one way, sprint the other. When he tried to pass, he was less prolific, completing only 1-of-4 attempts. The Bears experimented in practice for much of the season but tried it only three times, gaining a total of 16 yards with receiver Devin Hester taking one snap and rookie halfback Matt Forte (who had dabbled in the formation at Tulane) taking two.

Most of those teams had little to lose. None, after all, made the postseason. Some would have been willing to try virtually anything to gain an occasional first down.

But the Wildcat craze wasn’t limited to the league’s losers, nor to meaningless contests.

After getting burned by the Dolphins, even the Patriots gave it a shot against Indianapolis, with Kevin Faulk running once for five yards and losing two yards on a pass to Wes Welker. The Falcons used it roughly once per game, with reserve running back Jerious Norwood handling the snaps. In Carolina, running back DeAngelo Williams took a few snaps, as he had in 2006 when Henning was the Panthers’ offensive coordinator. The Giants waited until the postseason to try a variation, a direct snap to halfback Derrick Ward that went for little gain. The Steelers waited even longer. After dabbling with the formation in the preseason and never trying it again, they split out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII and snapped to Willie Parker. Parker was stuffed at the line.

Four teams had the personnel to attempt some version of the Wildcat, and all did to varying degrees.

The Raiders had drafted McFadden with the thought of using him like Arkansas did, but his injuries limited their plans. The 49ers (Michael Robinson), Ravens (Troy Smith) and Jets (Brad Smith) all had major college quarterbacks — all with excellent speed — either serving as backups or working at other positions. Baltimore derived the most benefit, especially in a game against the Raiders. Smith threw a 43-yard pass to starting rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, ran the option with running back Ray Rice for a 21-yard gain and totaled 13 yards on three carries of his own.

The Colts, Broncos, Seahawks and Lions were among the teams that ignored the trend in 2008, but all changed head coaches in the offseason. So that could change. And one team seems determined to not miss out on the fun again.

“We may want to do some things on our offense this year with a third quarterback,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. “… We could hopefully find a quarterback with a set of skills that we could put some packages in for.”

Jones also suggests that if they don’t find that quarterback, they could give some of those responsibilities to Isaiah Stanback, a quarterback at the University of Washington who now plays receiver.

The Cowboys, of course, would hope they’d get results similar to those of the Dolphins. But there’s no guarantee of that.

“The problem in this league is it’s a very small population, and if somebody does something with success, everybody is going to steal it and make it their own and probably wear it out,” says former Ravens coach Bill Billick, who is now a FOX Sports analyst.

“Look, our league is a copycat league,” Sparano says. “We didn’t invent this thing. We copied it from somebody. In our case, we copied it from a college team. People are going to look for different answers and people watch other people’s film, and that’s the way it goes.”

A Passing Fad

Not every offensive wizard is on board. Take Saints coach Sean Payton. He would seem to have the ideal Wildcat candidate in Reggie Bush. But he’s not particularly tempted.

“That’s just because I want (Drew) Brees to be getting the snaps all the time,” he says.

Washington’s Jim Zorn, another coach with an offensive background, didn’t use it in 2008 but said he would study it in the offseason. He did, and he still isn’t sold on it.

“If you use it, is it just a novelty or are you committed to it like the Dolphins, who have taken it to a higher degree?” Zorn says. “I’m not going to run it to look up and say, ‘Hey, we got it! Check this out! We’re smart, too!’”

Some players are equally skeptical of the Wildcat’s staying power.

“I don’t think it’s going to last too long,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne says. “I think it’s good now because it caught everybody off guard. But now you’re giving everybody a whole offseason to figure that out. It’s going to be the equivalent to having somebody run the option in the league. It won’t work too long. Teams that are doing it, good luck.”

Edgerrin James, Wayne’s former teammate with the Colts and Miami Hurricanes, agrees. James played with the Cardinals last season, and Arizona installed a Wildcat variation called Pahokee, in honor of receiver Anquan Boldin, who grew up in that Florida town. The Cardinals ran it only a couple of times, and James wasn’t overwhelmed.

“You can name it anything you want,” James says. “But when it comes to football, playoff football, and you see the teams that win, they go to old-fashioned football. And that’s what is going to always win. …

“When the game’s on the line and I want to move the chains, you can put the Wildcat away. Wildcat? It’s fun, but did you see what the Ravens did to the Wildcat?”

That wasn’t fun for the Dolphins.

Most skeptics cite those two contests against Baltimore as proof that the trend won’t last. The first time the teams played, the Dolphins gained just two yards on five carries out of the set, and it became apparent they could try all day and fail to gain much more.

“We were worried about the Wildcat thing,” Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said after Baltimore’s 27–13 win. “What we did is we went to a four-man front, and it worked out because I don’t think they expected it. I think they expected me and Terrell (Suggs) to be someplace, and we were somewhere else, so it left some favorable matchups we could take advantage of.”

The Dolphins practically abandoned the formation in a 27–9 loss to Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs, featuring it only twice.

“I don’t think there’s any future for that in the NFL,” Billick says. “It was fun. It was a great changeup. I give them credit for doing those types of things. But against a really good team, it got stuffed.”

Zorn found in his study that many teams will get a big play at first, due to the surprise.

“The next time you run it, it’s a two-yard gain,” Zorn says. “And for as much work as you’ve had to do (in practice) to get your running back to catch the direct snap, to fake an option and run ... you could have just run (a regular play).”

Just the Beginning

At least one Super Bowl-winning coach believes this Wildcat thing has legs. “With the success people had with it, I don’t think there’s any question you’ll see more coaches continue to experiment with it,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin says.

And not just because of the yards it might gain on the field. Its league-wide spread also forces other teams to spend hours learning to defend it. That could be its most sustainable benefit. “Just like if you’re a high school coach, you put in a Bear defense with an eight-man front, you put it in, you run it five times,” Barber says. “Because once you put it in, you show it, then everyone has to prepare for it, which takes away from preparation for everything else. All of a sudden (you) have to prepare for what the Dolphins regularly do, and then have a plan for the Wildcat. That diverts attention from a single game plan or focus.”

It has diverted attention this offseason, during what Coughlin calls “the research time” of the year, when coaches have more time to study film and devise solutions. “Believe me,” he says, “at this level there’s the talent and ability to take something away.”

That necessitates more offensive innovation. As teams put mobile backup quarterbacks rather than running backs at the controls, that should eliminate one of the formation’s deficiencies — that if someone immobile such as Pennington is split wide, an offense is playing 10-on-11. That’s because the running back isn’t usually a great thrower, and the starting quarterback isn’t usually a legitimate receiver. With someone multi-dimensional such as White or Baltimore’s Troy Smith at the controls, Payton says, “You get your number back and it’s single-wing philosophy.”

So maybe Payton will come around. After all, the Dolphins’ success created league-wide fear among coaches who didn’t want to risk looking bad on two fronts — getting fooled on defense, or appearing less innovative than a competitor on offense. They’ll also have to deal with their own players who are eager to give it a try.

“I think we have a guy who can do it,” says Santana Moss, the Redskins’ top receiver. “(Receiver Antwaan) Randle El can do it exceptionally well if we put it in. I like to see Randle El with the ball in his hands, especially as a quarterback. When he gets plays like that, I think it helps our offense to be unpredictable. You never want to be predictable.”

For all of those reasons, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett says, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I think it’s something that everybody is going to use. I don’t think they’re going to use it as much as maybe Miami did, but you’re going to see that a lot. Trust me. That’s something that has been successful, that has worked, and right now they don’t really know how to defense it that well.”

Retired analyst John Madden concurs. “It’s never going to be your base,” he says. “It’s always going to be something you do.”

Especially for the Dolphins. By December, their Wildcat version had evolved into more than a half-dozen formations, each with several different personnel groupings and play possibilities. That gave defenses a lot more to think about. Now they have drafted White.

“It’s going to be a part of our personality, there’s no question about it,” Sparano says. “I think our players like it. I think our coaches feel like there are some advantages there. There was a lot left on the bone that we didn’t roll out there during the course of the season for one reason or the other. This gives us a chance this offseason to push the envelope a little bit more.”

Oh boy, defenses can’t wait.

Athlon Sports, Inc


RBs to watch in 2009: Peabody’s Mark D’Addario

Aug 5th, 2009 by Matt Williams

There may not be a better home run hitter in the area than Peabody’s Mark D’Addario, the next running back we think is worth a look in 2009.

Consider that D’Addario scored 7 TDs last fall, and besides 3 short bursts, they were on runs of 69, 54, 62 and 57 yards. Like a locomotive, once D’Addario built up enough steam there was no stopping him.

What impressed us most about this senior, who recently committed to Division 1 Siena for lacrosse, was a particularly violent and punishing running style. Never mind shying away from contact, D’Addario, at times, seemed to look for it - and relish in running over a defender.

His 742 yards last year were the most by an underclassman save for Masco’s Batman-and-Robin duo of Chris Splinter (780 yards) and Evan Bunker (1200). Peabody’s hard-hitting runner has 1,120 career yards, also among the area leaders, and already ranks fourth among all Tanner runners this decade.

He’s also been a horse, carrying the ball over 100 times in each of the last two seasons. That kind of proven mettle is hard to come by.

Peabody lost more than 1600 yards with the graduation of Nick Hiou, Jon Balcacer and Kevin Bettencourt, so having D’Addario back should help smooth out that transition.

A bruiser like this playing in a single wing attack ought to be a recipe for success.

Note: This is the third in a month-long series leading up to the kick-off of the 2009 high school football season. The week of Aug. 3-7 features five running backs to watch in ‘09, the week of Aug. 10-14 features five QBs to watch and the weeks of Aug. 17-31 will examine the biggest question facing each of our local teams.