Football Mythbusters: Breaking Down "The Wildcat"

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Football Mythbusters: Breaking Down
(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
MYTH: “A year from now the Wildcat will be fading away, almost gone, another toy gone to the gimmick gravesite.” (Pete Prisco, June 9, 2009)

FACT: The opposite is true.  Though the Wildcat formation lost some of its effectiveness last year when teams started run-blitzing it, it will come back stronger and be used by more teams this year.

Just to clarify, I am referring to the Wildcat formation as run by the Miami Dolphins, not just any direct snap play. 

For example, in Super Bowl XLIII, Willie Parker ran to the right on a direct snap where Roethlisberger was out wide to the left and there were three players on the right (I don’t remember if it was three WRs, or one TE and two WRs. I can’t find a video of this play anywhere to verify it either).

It was obvious before the play even started that Parker was running to the right: There’s no way a team would make their QB block during the Super Bowl, because if he had gotten hurt, it would have been disastrous.

Parker ran around for a few seconds, but was tackled for no gain. This play was destined to fail due to the obviousness of where Parker was running, and it completely lacked the versatility and creativity of the Wildcat. 

However, Madden and Michaels referred to it as the Wildcat during the game, and columnists afterward started saying that play was proof that defenses had finally figured out how to stop the Wildcat. 

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This picture shows the Wildcat formation as employed by the Miami Dolphins last year.

They had a receiver out wide to the left, RB Ricky Williams in the left slot, RB Ronnie Brown in the shotgun, and QB Chad Pennington out wide to the right.

Basically, there are three main options for the RB taking the snap: Hand the ball off, keep it and run with it, or pass. Before the play, the slot RB motions towards the right.

When the ball is snapped, the RB in the shotgun hands the ball off as the slot RB crosses in front of him. The slot RB runs around on the sweep to the right, and the shotgun RB runs up the middle as if he has the ball.

On the other hand, the shotgun RB could keep the ball and run up the middle, but first he has to pretend to hand the ball off to the slot RB, who runs around to the right as if he has the ball.

This helps freeze the defense: Since both the shotgun RB and the slot RB run as if they have the ball, the defense isn't sure who really has it.

There's also the third option of the shotgun RB throwing the ball. This is where Miami's Wildcat offense will improve significantly this year.

The reason that Miami put a RB in the shotgun was because they didn't have a fast QB. Eventually, Ronnie Brown’s inability to throw as well as a QB led to teams such as Baltimore run-blitzing and slowing down the Wildcat.

Now that they have a speedy QB in Pat White, if defenses run-blitz to stop the Wildcat, the Dolphins will be able to make them pay through the air.  Defenses will have to be conscious of this, leaving more running room in order to defend against the pass.

If your QB is a fast guy, such as Pat White or Vince Young (who often ran this formation in college), then you have the advantage of not having to line your QB out wide and risking injury to him.

However, if a team with a less mobile QB kept their QB out wide, they could have a fourth option in the Wildcat, where they can run this play that the Dolphins ran against the Texans

On this play, Ronnie Brown handed the ball off to Williams, who went to the right on the sweep.  As Williams went around to the right, he pitched the ball to Pennington, who bombed the ball deep to his tight end.

This is yet another wrinkle in the Wildcat offense, making it even harder to defend.  However, teams have to decide whether this extra wrinkle is worth subjecting their QB to hits from defenders. 

Even if teams decide not to keep a QB out wide instead utilizing another WR in his place, the Wildcat formation is still a potent weapon to include in an offensive gameplan. 

Like any formation, it shouldn’t be overused, but using it a couple of times a game can force opposing defenses to spend extra time preparing against it, giving them less time to prepare against the other aspects of the team’s offense.

With the right personnel, the Wildcat can be a highly effective weapon.  The question then arises, which teams have such personnel?

San Diego: LaDainian Tomlinson has thrown seven touchdown passes in 11 attempts throughout his career.  Put him in the shotgun, Darren Sproles in the slot, and Phillip Rives out wide to the right.  With a tight end like Antonio Gates, the Wildcat could be an incredibly dangerous weapon for San Diego.

Minnesota: Apparently they’ve been experimenting with the Wildcat, with Percy Harvin in the shotgun and Adrian Peterson in the slot.  The reasoning behind this is that Harvin took direct snaps at Florida, so he’d be a good Wildcat QB.

Due to the Vikings' instability at QB, the Wildcat formation would be a great fit for the Vikings, and they could tweak it even better to suit their personnel.

First of all, I think they should put Peterson in the shotgun and Harvin in the slot.  Peterson is much better suited as a violent, between-the-tackles runner, and Harvin is a pure speed guy, better for running the sweep.

Vikings coaches have often said they want to put Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson on the field at the same time, because Taylor is a talented back, too.  Instead of putting a QB out wide to the right, they could use Taylor there, and occasionally give him the ball on a reverse from the sweep.

The weakness with this would be that there is no passing threat present, meaning defenses could load up the box without fearing they’d be exploited through the air.  If Tarvaris Jackson could improve his accuracy, then he could become a factor in the offense.

Eliminate the WR on the left.  Instead, line up Jackson in the shotgun, with Peterson as his RB to the right.  Send Harvin in motion to the right.  Snap the ball, and Jackson can hand it off to Peterson and send him up the middle.

If he fakes the handoff to Peterson, he can then hand it off to Harvin on the sweep while Peterson runs up the middle as if he has the ball.  Harvin can run around to the right, and he could give the ball to Taylor on a reverse.

Also, Jackson could fake the handoff to both Peterson and Harvin, and then roll out of the pocket and pass the ball.  If nobody is open, he can scramble for a few yards, as he has proven he is more than capable of doing. 

This adds yet a FOURTH possible rusher to the formation, along with a threat of passing the ball.  To me, the Vikings could have the most exciting Wildcat offense in the league if they made the modifications I listed above.

Oakland: They don’t have a strong passing game, and Darren McFadden used to line up in the shotgun in the “Wild Hog” formation at Arkansas.  They can then put one of their many RBs in the slot, allowing them to emphasize their strengths in the running game to take some pressure off of their weaker passing game.

Dallas: Felix Jones used to play at Arkansas, where they often used their “Wild Hog” formation, which is very similar to the Wildcat, so he would make an easy transition into the slot RB position in this formation.

The Cowboys are known for ignoring character issues if they think a player can help make big plays, so if they signed Matt Jones, a former “Wild Hog” QB at Arkansas who is a current free agent, they could have a potent Wildcat attack.

Atlanta: Michael Turner in the shotgun, the speedy Jerious Norwood in the slot, and Tony Gonzalez at TE so Turner can make short passes to him.  If Matt Ryan struggles (which I doubt will happen, but you never know), we could see a bit of this formation in Atlanta.

Tennessee: Vince Young ran this formation a lot in college, so he knows the offense.  Now imagine Chris Johnson in the slot.  This could make the Titans offense even more potent.

Also, this would help satisfy Vince Young’s desire to play this year, without taking away from Kerry Collins’ authority as the starter. 

When asked in an interview if he was planning to use the Wildcat with Young, Jeff Fisher smiled and said “Maybe, it’s a copycat league.” He then declared boldly, “You don’t want to open against us.”

Look for the Wildcat to play a role in the defending Super Bowl champions starting off 2009 with an 0-1 record.

New Orleans: The Saints have had a hard time utilizing Reggie Bush, who did everything in college, to his fullest potential.  Though Sean Payton said he’s against using the Wildcat because he doesn’t want to take snaps away from Drew Brees, he should rethink that commitment.

Brees is an incredible passer.  He passed for 5,069 yards in 2008, only a few yards short of breaking Dan Marino’s single-season record.  However, the Saints missed the playoffs.  The Saints’ defense was sub par, ranking 26th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed.

If the defense continues to play this poorly, the Saints will need to start rushing more if they want to win more than eight games.  Though their passing offense was ranked first in the league, the rushing offense was ranked 28th.

Running more often will take more time off of the clock, keeping the Saints’ defense off of the field for longer, and keeping their offense on the field.  This will give opposing teams less opportunities to score.

Putting Reggie Bush in the shotgun will allow him to run or pass once in a while, and the Saints can put either another RB or a receiver in the slot to run the sweep.  This could help give the offense some of the balance it was missing last year, giving the Saints a chance to go back to the NFC championship.

Keep an eye out for these teams, and perhaps others, too, to employ the Wildcat next year.  Without a doubt, the Wildcat is here to stay.

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