NFL: How Does the Wildcat Package Fit into the 2012 Season?
Professional football coaches are rarely open-minded and can be best described as "risk-averse." Every Sunday, the odds are against them on every snap their team plays, and if they make tactical mistakes, there's a strong chance that they'll be replaced.
However, what happens when the coach's back is already against the wall and they're forced to doanything to provide a spark?
What happens is the Wildcat package, a smash-mouth running game derived from Pop Warner's single-wing offense of the early 1900s that came to the NFL scene in 2008 with a thundering performance that embarrassed the NFL's best tactician, Bill Belichick.
But four years later, the once-promising package sits at a crossroads, slowly eased out of Sunday game plans after the same guy that it embarrassed helped put it to rest with his brilliant defensive adjustments. Now, it's limited to a situational offense that might be brought back into the AFC East—this time by the rival New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.
Late into the first quarter of a 0-0 game, the Miami Dolphins drove down the field in Foxborough after a string of runs and passes from running back Ronnie Brown and quarterback Chad Pennington. On second down and goal, the Dolphins broke the huddle and lined up in a somewhat unfamiliar formation.
It featured an unbalanced line (two tackles to one side), two tight ends and two running backs, a typical personnel package that NFL coaches aptly titled "22" (referring to the number of backs and tight ends), but the quarterback was not Chad Pennington; it was Ronnie Brown, a running back playing quarterback. And a quarterback, Chad Pennington, playing wide receiver...
But Pennington wasn't a significant factor in the play. Instead, the slot was, which was Ricky Williams, another running back. Williams executed a "jet-motion" at full-speed towards quarterback (I use that term loosely) Ronnie Brown to confuse the defense as to what their assignments were.
Brown then faked the handoff and followed the left guard, who administered an inside trap by coming across the formation and lead-blocking for the ball-carrier, for the touchdown.
The play would be the start of something special on that day for the Dolphins, who scored four touchdowns on six snaps out of the package. However, it wasn't anything new; a year earlier, Jets running back Leon Washington took the same snaps, as did DeAngelo Williams for an injury-riddled Carolina Panthers team in 2006.
The package wasn't new to football in general. It was derived from the single-wing offense that Pop Warner developed around 1905 (according to multiple accounts) and was mastered by a high school football coach named Hugh Wyatt, who wrote a an article on the system and introduced others to it via coaching clinics. Subsequently, former Arkansas offensive coaches Gus Malzahn and David Lee implemented the scheme.
Lee would go on to the NFL and bring it to the Miami Dolphins, who made the most noise with the formation at the professional level. Embarrassed opposing coaches often referred to it as a "gimmick" after failing to devise a defensive game plan to counter the tricky offense.
After the Miami Dolphins had success with the Wildcat, the rest of the league took notice and attempted to put their own spin on it in order to throw more looks at defenses. One of the teams that had the most success was the New York Jets, who did damage by not only running it, but passing it with then-"slash"-player Brad Smith.
The Dolphins passed the ball a few times, but not with as much success as the Jets. One reason was because Smith was a quarterback at the University of Missouri who converted to wide receiver for the Jets. Despite working as a receiver, his quarterbacking talents still had a place on the team (as they do now for the Buffalo Bills), and that was as a trigger-man in the Wildcat.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Jets went to a "trips" set (three pass-catchers to a side) by replacing the quarterback with another potential pass-catcher. They also made another change to the package by using the back in motion to go in behind the trigger-man (Smith) so that a speed-option could be run.
When the Jets had success running the speed-option with the mobile Smith and the running back, they would sneak out a receiver (who was pretending to block) vertically for a pass. New York did damage through the air by forcing the defense to come up to play the run, and then dropping the ball in behind it to the receiver.
Unfortunately, Smith would leave the Jets for the Bills in the offseason, and the Wildcat package would be phased out of the playbook—much like the rest of the NFL would do.
When the Miami Dolphins (re)introduced the Wildcat into the NFL in 2008, it took the league by storm, causing sleepless nights for defensive minds such as Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.
Belichick is rarely outcoached, but in Week 3, such was the case, and it forced him (as well as many others) to go back to the drawing board. The Wildcat was a power-running package that featured an unbalanced line, which gave the offense a numbers advantage to one side and put the team's best run-blockers to that side.
Can the Wildcat be effective in 2012?
What this meant was that the defense was outflanked; thus, it had to either rotate its coverage and drop an extra defender in the vacated area or "stem" (football word for "shift") the defensive line one gap over to account for the extra gap. When it did this, it took away any numbers advantage that the offense would have and treated the package as a simple running play.
As a result, teams have gone away from the unbalanced line and, consequently, haven't had as much success. Due to the lack of success, they have purged the Wildcat from their playbooks. However, there are still situations in which it is useful if done correctly.
Play-callers tend to use these types of packages around the middle of the field and in the goal-to-go situations, where it is most effective. A couple of teams that could turn to this package this season are the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
The Bills are a possibility because they have former Jets trigger-man Brad Smith. Smith was an all-purpose (slash) player for the Bills last season, and this season, he's said to be working as a quarterback.
This doesn't necessarily mean that there's little possibility of head coach and play-caller Chan Gailey using him as a Wildcat quarterback, however. Gailey is one of the few very open-minded coaches in the NFL, as previously witnessed last season when he ran a spread offense.
Gailey would be wise to use Smith as a Wildcat quarterback in certain situations because the team has a lot of weapons that can do damage with their feet once the ball is in their hands, so if Smith can throw the ball or pitch it to a player such as C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson, there's a chance they can make a big play happen.
Similarly, the New York Jets will have the opportunity to use quarterback Tim Tebow as a goal-line threat in the Wildcat. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has experience with it, and Tebow is a very powerful runner that is best when he is on the move, as he showcased last season.
Getting the ball in his hands would allow him to play a similar style to what he did at the University of Florida, when he was power-running it into the end zone or faking it and executing a jump pass to a slanting receiver, which the Jets often do with their receivers in the red zone.
Beyond these two teams, I don't expect many more to embrace it as much as the Jets and Bills potentially could because they either don't have the type of slash players that the aforementioned teams possess, or they simply do not need to utilize it in order to move the ball.
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