By CHARLES SIEBERT
Football, for allof its brute force and ferocity, is a game of guile and gamesmanship. This is especially true today, when the space in which the sport is played has been foreshortened by the size and speed of the athletes playing it, and outcomes are increasingly decided as much by the quality of a team's game plan as they are by the level of play. Football has essentially become hour-long sessions of high-speed, crash-helmet chess, and more fun to watch because of it. Even the biggest and most heavily favored juggernauts can on any given day be suddenly undone by a group of scrappy upstarts with a wealth of passion and a well-wrought stratagem: some riotous, rhythm-ruining array of timely defensive blitzing packages, or a stunningly inventive attack formation such as the new "Wildcat" offense.
The NFL, with its dizzying speeds and hard hitting—to say nothing of its preponderance of high-salaried stars—has long had a way of tempering the more fanciful, free-wheeling schemes of high school and college ball. And yet all that seemed to change last year, when the then-struggling Miami Dolphins overwhelmed the mighty New England Patriots in game three of the season with a sudden, whirlwind display of Wildcat wizardry. Six times in the course of that game, the Patriots' defenders suddenly found themselves standing opposite an odd-looking offensive alignment. Rather than the traditional front line of a guard, a tackle, and a tight end on either side of the center, the Dolphins now had a guard, two tackles and a tight end all stacked on one side. More disturbing still, standing a few yards behind the center, awaiting the snap in the quarterback's traditional "shotgun" position, were two running backs, the dual run-and-pass threat of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. As for the Dolphins' quarterback, Chad Pennington, he was positioned up on the overstacked side of the line, just outside the tight end, now an entirely misplaced and therefore unknown proposition.
This is the most subversive, the nearly mutinous aspect of the Wildcat, and the very essence of its explosive potential: the way in which it wholly bypasses the quarterback, the traditional pillar and field general of the offense. Among the things that a defense likes to see when an offense lines up opposite them before the start of play is the quarterback at his traditional post, either directly under center or a few yards behind center in the "shotgun." This gives the defense an edge, some would say an 11-on-10 advantage. Because, unless the quarterback is that exceptional dual run-or-pass threat in the mold of Vince Young or Michael Vick, or the 2008 champion University of Florida's Tim Tebow, then a defense can focus less on him and more on the action that he, through either a hand-off or a pass, is about to set in motion.
The most fixed figure in an offense, the middleman, the interlocutor of each play, the quarterback is the guy through whom a defense—via the lean of his body or the direction of his gaze—often gets the best fix on where a play is going. By removing the quarterback from his predictable hand-off, passing-machine role and enfolding him into the larger offensive mix, the Wildcat makes him one more variable for the defense to consider, and thus neutralizes their tacit one-man edge. The Wildcat is, in effect, a classic instance of eliminating the middleman and cutting, or snapping, directly to the chase. That could be a straight run behind a phalanx of blockers, or a hand-off to another back or roving flanker or "wingback," who was set in motion behind the line before the snap. Or it could be just pulling up and passing the ball down field to an open receiver, possibly even to the quarterback—a dizzying array of options that tends to slow a defense down, give them pause.
In chess, even in speed chess, one has time to ponder a response to a new formation. In football, even the slightest hesitation equals loss. In fact, before the Patriots' vaunted defense was able to get a read on what was going on around them that day, the Dolphins would score four touchdowns with the Wildcat (three rushing and one on a pass from Brown), abruptly ending the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak with a 38-13 drubbing. Over the next 11 games, the Dolphins went on to average seven yards per play from the "Wildcat" and qualified for the playoffs. They have since acquired West Virginia's multitasking quarterback, Pat White, in the draft, a potentially lethal move that has teams around the league including the Eagles (with the newly acquired Michael Vick), the Baltimore Ravens, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Jets and even the New England Patriots dreaming up Wildcat packages of their own.
There's something at once sleekly high-tech and decidedly throwback, nearly sandlot, about the Wildcat: an elaborate and well-honed version of that basic backyard-pick-up-game ethos of "let's just get as many of the best players on the field as we can and then wing it." Winging it is, after all, increasingly difficult to do within any organized field of endeavor. But this is especially so within the parameters of a football field. While nuns may not fret their convent's narrow room, as Wordsworth wrote in his famous sonnet about the paradoxically liberating powers of the sonnet form's strictures on the imagination, offensive coordinators are forever scratching about for ways to pry open and fly the confines of a 100-yard gridiron.
In this regard, the Wildcat is an inspired bit of football poetry, affirming as it does that there are still an infinite number of new ways to re-imagine inherently finite spaces. And when one considers the growing number of big, fast, multidimensional, run-and-throw style quarterbacks that high schools and colleges are now churning out—to the extent that some pro scouts are lamenting the imminent extinction of the classic drop-back, field-general style—then the Wildcat formation begins to look less like a passing fancy and more like something permanent.
Still, for all the talk of the Wildcat representing football's future, it is, in fact, a direct derivative (some would say a near carbon copy) of an early offense formation known as the "Single-wing," which might well have faded into extinction if not for a few high school coaches who kept it percolating in their playbooks. One of the game's very first attempts to fly its own inherent confines, the "Single-wing" was the brainchild of the University of Pittsburgh's Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, the father of modern football, and it was advanced by football inventors like Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, and Warner's protégé at Pitt, Jock Sutherland.
After the ploddingly crushing rugby-like scrums and somewhat oxymoronically named "Flying Wedges" of yore were outlawed, in the interest of safety, back in 1905, Warner took advantage of new rules allowing, among other things, the forward pass and arrived at a scheme that should by now sound familiar: an unbalanced offensive line with a quarterback positioned just behind one of the strong-side tackles, a pair of running backs waiting in the quarterback's shotgun position to take the snap from center, and off beyond the strong-side end, the roving, multipurpose "wingback," who gave the Single-wing its name. The best athletes of their day, wingbacks are now the stuff of football legend: George Gipp of Notre Dame, Michigan's Tom Harmon, Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Western Reserve's Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
The Single-wing would dominate college football right up through the 1940s and then gradually yield to newer formations. As the forward pass and freer substitution rules became ever more prominent in pro offenses of the 1950s and '60s, formations began to accommodate and codify the quarterback's emergent field-general stature, placing him directly under center and the running backs behind him in a "T" or "I" formation. The "T" and the "I" soon morphed into the "Wishbone" and from there into more widely dispersed formations, designed to make use of every inch and angle of football's blank page—offenses that, in name alone, "Flexbone," "Triple Option," "Veer," and "Spread," suggest the evolution of some huge, flightless bird struggling to free itself from the confines of its own proscribed shell.
College and high school have long been the Petri dishes of football innovation, and it is there that the Wildcat's recent emergence can be traced. In a 1998 article for Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director magazine, a high-school football coach and Yale graduate named Hugh Wyatt wrote of a direct-snap, single-wing style formation that he named the "Wildcat," after the mascot of the school where he coached at the time. Seven years later, Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for the Arkansas Razorbacks, implemented a single-wing style package that he'd used successfully coaching high school ball. Conspiring with Razorback running back coach Danny Nutt to get their best players on the field at the same time, he put the multidimensional running back Darren McFadden, now of the Oakland Raiders, in the quarterback position and fellow running back Felix Jones at wingback. The Wildcat was soon spreading like wildfire.
An estimated 80% of high school and college teams are expected to be featuring the formation this season, including, of course, Arkansas, Tulsa (where Gus Malzahn now coaches) and Ole Miss (coached by Danny Nutt's brother Houston), as well as Alabama, Michigan State and Minnesota. And when Gus Malzahn's replacement at Arkansas, David Lee, moved on to become the quarterback coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2008, the Wildcat was soon baring its claws in the pros—appearing as a bizarre and uncontainable creature to a stunned New England Patriot defense but wholly recognizable to an astute football historian like Bill Belichick.
"Call it what you want," the Patriots' coach would tell Sports Illustrated after the Patriots-Dolphins game. "But that's single-wing style football."
Corrections & Amplifications: Football star Steve Belichick attended Western Reserve University, a forerunner of today's Case Western Reserve University. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he played for Case Western Reserve.
Collegiate Images/Getty Images
George Gipp of Notre Dame, shown here in 1920, was one of the multipurpose ‘wingbacks’ who gave the early ‘Single-wing’ formation its name.
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