The Miami Dolphins and The Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The PhinisherCorrespondent IOctober 2, 2008

Two weeks after Miami’s stunning victory over the New England Patriots in Foxboro, a general consensus has been reached. It concerns the question of how good this Dolphins team is.

The formula used by the practitioners of common wisdom is a simple one. The answer to the question lies between Weeks Two and Three. Somewhere between the team that got drubbed by the Cardinals and the team that humiliated New England lies the 2008 Miami Dolphins.

To be fair to this prevailing idea, there are components to the theory beyond the simple contrast between the two performances. There is also the close (winnable, really) game between the Jets and Dolphins in Week One. That same Jets team just got done giving Arizona a sound beating, courtesy of Brett Favre and his six (apologies to those already sick of hearing about this) touchdown passes.

So the Dolphins have played two good teams in a tough manner and humiliated one of them, which was thought to be the class of the division. Sans Tom Brady, of course.

Then there is also the Dolphins’ implementation of an “alternative” offensive formation called the “Wild Hog” or “Wildcat” formation. The Dolphins lone victory, so states the common wisdom, came upon successfully befuddling the New England defense with trick plays. Sure, they beat them fair and square. No one is arguing otherwise. They thumped them though, because of trick plays.

This is where I get off the bus. Conventional wisdom is, well, too conventional to understand what the Dolphins might be trying to do this year. In this case, it is also uninformed.

Let’s get some history first.

The Dolphins’ quarterbacks coach, one David Lee, was the offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He was one of the chief architects of the “Wild Hog” offense that made Darren McFadden and Felix Jones famous.

It was out of this offense that the Dolphins made all those “trick” plays against New England.

With direct snaps going to McFadden and Felix Jones coming across in motion from the wingback slot, defenses were often in fits to stop Arkansas’ rushing game. The ball could be carried by a viable threat in almost any direction, regardless of strength alignment and personnel.

Sure, there is a halfback pass element to it, too. McFadden did very well with this, as he has experience at playing quarterback. Such a play reeks of being a gadget or trick play. There is the overloaded line, too, which looks somewhat strange.

The left tackle lines up as the tight end on the strong side, and the tight end lines up as the left tackle on the weak. Yes, the quarterback has to block a corner. Or at least slow the cornerback. All these things seem strange, and that’s why they have been labeled as trick plays.

They aren’t though. They’re not even new plays. The formation is a variant of the single-wing offense. Those of you that once donned shoulder pads and helmet will surely remember either running or playing against some version of the single-wing offense. Invented by Glenn “Pop” Warner and originally called the “Carlisle offense,” the single-wing has been around since at least 1907.

Carlisle refers to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was located guessed it: Carlisle, PA. The story goes that "Pop" warner crafted he single-wing offense in part because of one particularly gifted athlete that played for him.

That athlete was none other than the legendary Jim Thorpe. As many of you know, Thorpe could run, pass, punt, and do just about anything on an elite level.

The “Carlisle” or single-wing formation evolved over time. Motion was introduced to confuse or put defenses out of alignment. The “wingback” could come across in a hard motion and (possibly) receive the handoff from the quarterback (who has to be a running threat himself).

If the wingback gets the ball, he will have it at full speed because of the motion. They get to hit the hole at a sprint if they so choose.

Otherwise, the quarterback can keep the ball and run it themselves in several different gaps, including off tackle and in a bootleg-style rollout. From this bootleg rollout, the quarterback can throw the ball, typically to a very limited number of downfield targets, or they can keep themselves. Different still, the bootleg can also set up a traditional wide-receiver reverse.

That’s a lot of options. It’s also a lot for an opposing defense to keep track of. The offensive difficulty of running a single-wing offense is in having the right personnel. You need two gifted running backs (one of them capable of passing), a speedy receiver as a reverse threat, reliable (blocking and catching) tight ends, and a quarterback that isn’t scared to throw a block.

Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tedd Ginn Jr., Anthony Fasano, and Chad Pennington. Sounding less and less like a trick play, is it not?

Maybe, just maybe, the reason why the Dolphins beat the Patriots was that they finally figured out how to utilize their personnel. The key to any offense is finding the right personnel to fit it.

Cam Cameron’s Coryell system requires a tight end that is a deep threat and a sure-handed workhorse running back. Andy Reid’s West Coast offense requires speed and a big armed, mobile quarterback. Not to mention a running back that can line up and be effective as a wide receiver (see Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook).

This leads back to the Dolphins and their version of the single-wing. How many teams boast having Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams? The R & R Express consists of two fast, agile running backs with impressive size and vision. I can’t think of a team that matches up with the Dolphins from a backfield standpoint. Maybe Minnesota.

For the record, the Dolphins’ typical offense (the one they ran plays out of in prior games) is the very mundane pro set. The pro set is the offensive formation of smash-mouth football. Running back right. Running back left. Play action pass to the tight end. Running back right. Running back toss left. You get it.

The pro set offense requires big tough lineman, a game-managing quarterback, and a bruising running back. The Dolphins’ personnel also fit here, which is exactly the point. Miami can run both successfully. Both are “base” offenses that contain different formations and plays within.

Neither are “trick” offenses. Just as a toss right to Williams might pick up four yards, so too could a Ronnie Brown quarterback keeper going off tackle. In a game of inches, both are running plays that picked up four yards.

The bottom line is that teams will have to game plan against both now. Time will have to be divided, and that is an advantage. Many have remarked that the NFL is a copycat league, and that more teams might run a few plays from the “Wildcat” version of the single-wing offense.

Others point out that NFL defenses will learn to stuff these “trick” formations. Peter King even remarked that if the Dolphins try and run plays like that against New England next time, “Bill Belichick will personally come out on the field and rip the ball from Ronnie Brown.”

Right. Bill Belichick, the guy who went 36-44 with Cleveland before striking gold at the No. 199 pick in the 2000 NFL draft. Tom Brady didn’t make the field in 2000. The Patriots won five games that year. In 2001, well, you know that story by heart.

So lay off the Belichick stuff. This year is his year to prove his genius.

To wrap up this already unwieldy article (already longer than Hank Paulson’s first bailout proposal), let me say that defenses will adjust. They won’t be outright fooled. Just like they know that LaDainian Tomlinson is going to get the ball when they play the Chargers, defenses will still have to account for the personnel involved.

Knowing Tomlinson is getting the ball and stopping him are two different things. Now, instead of one running back, teams will have to worry about where both of the Dolphins talented backs are.

The ironic part is that Dolphins will probably use the single-wing sparingly, as it is turnover prone if used a lot in passing situations. The point here is that it isn’t a string of trick plays but actually a traditional and storied football (if not NFL) offense. It’s not like the flea flicker or the triple reverse pass. Those are trick plays.

Coach Tague, you miserable turncoat, eat your heart out. Sorry, got a bit obscure at the end.

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