Dissecting the "Wild Horses" Success of the Denver Broncos

Chaz MattsonAnalyst IOctober 14, 2009

Let the Old Man Speak

So you like the modern game do ya there, sonny?

Well, sit on down and stay a spell so you can understand what the heck happened on Sunday when the Broncos went Wild Horses upside the Beantown Patriots.  In the meantime someone should get Shannon Sharpe on the phone and see if he’s ready to call the President…again.

The Broncos version of the wildcat offense is called the Wild Horses, and was integrated seamlessly into the Broncos' game plan on Sunday’s victory against longtime foe the Boston Patriots in the AFL Legacy Game, as designated by the NFL.

In The Beginning…

In the beginning…well sort of, not really, but yes…sort of…okay, just be patient and let the meaning of all this be explained.

At its core, the wildcat offense is a scheme that is gimmicky in nature and designed to pose problems for defenses with unconventional methodologies behind its execution.

It is possible to trace the origins of the wildcat offensive scheme back to the early days of football in the United States starting somewhere in the 1920s.

In the early days of football, there was a number of what would be later known as full backfield attacks.  These schemes would place up to four backs behind the line of scrimmage in nearly any backfield position imaginable in order to create controlled chaos as a way for dissecting a defense and to expose weakness. 

This approach was adapted and refined by the Notre Dame's Four Horsemen offense that featured Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden who played for legendary coach Knute Rockne.  This group was all freshmen in 1921, and got the offense going a year later as sophomores under Rockne.

As a short answer to a trivia question, their nicknames were coined by a sports journalist at the time, Grantland Rice, with the following excerpt from the famous article he wrote about the group.

In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden.  

The offense eventually became popularly known as the Wing-T offense sometime around 1934.  It has also been credited back to originating out of six man high school football rules since the original person to touch the ball could not run past the line of scrimmage and had to get the ball to another player for advancement of the ball. 

This brought about the quick toss to a player who could advance the ball since early football had the original position that touched the ball listed as blocking backs instead of what is modernly known as the quarterback position.

The Wing-T usage becomes widespread, and eventually leads to a great deal more sophistication within the running game, new formations, and blocking schemes.  Derivatives of the Wing-T have been in use primarily at the high school and college levels since that time.  Offensive attacks like the wishbone and power-I option attacks derived out of this original formation of the Wing-T and Power Wing-T.

At the professional level, the run game and various formations are heavily studied by teams to gain competitive advantage over their opponents; so, the NFL version of the scheme is the ultimate key to success.  It’s the ability to keep the opponent on their heels and off-balance so plays have the chance to succeed in combination with other plays. 

It also boils down to a numbers game, instead of the usual 10 on 11 (minus the QB on offense), the wildcat gives the offense a dedicated 11 on 11 matchup against the defense called.  This generally favors the offensive rushing attack.

For a very long time in the NFL, however, these sorts of offensive approaches were ignored, in large part because the passing game had evolved so much since the early days.  This meant that teams needed a dedicated quarterback to run the offense.

In More Recent Times…

The meaning of the Wing-T in the modern day has more to do with an unbalanced line, a back who intends to run, and a special set of reads on how to execute the play.  Idealistically, these plays are run with the intent to create options on offense while causing problematic issues on defense.  At its core, this approach tests the dedication of a defenses dedication to each gap assignment.

In recent times, the University of Texas used an early version of today’s wildcat with Vince Young in the shotgun formation, making an option read on the defense.  The uniqueness here began with unbalanced line formations to make some reads easier and blocking more rudimentary.  Young would usually key on the defensive end and outside linebacker.  Based on their position, they were committing to either one set of actions or another.  This left the read up to the quarterback Vince Young.  He would then have the ability to handoff to a back, fake the handoff and run, or fake a run and even pass.

This system of thought is similar to what the solo back in the current, more popularized wildcat offense is responsible for.  The offensive line is usually unbalanced with only a running back in the backfield.  These plays can be run with a set of option reads, but are usually designed for a primary purpose in exploiting specific gaps along the defensive line.  One of the recent innovations by the Miami Dolphins was to run sweeps with reverse action out of the slot receiver position.  This, in essence, takes the place of the option read that was used at Texas.

The ideology behind this attack is about putting the ball in the hands of the most athletically talented players on the field, thereby opening up a number of available options on the field.  This can be done through play calls and creating sudden mismatches through motion or reads.  It can also key on defenders that cheat or play out of position enough to hurt their teams’ defense.

It is not the most glitzy offensive approach—there usually is a mass of humanity gathered in clusters—and so breaking through that can be a challenge for the offense.  The wildcat, however, because of this clustering has an ability to open up big plays if successfully executed.  It is precisely this inherent characteristic that makes the wildcat attractive to teams that could be outmatched in executing other offensive schemes.

While Michael Vick claims to have created the wildcat, that’s not entirely true.  The success of the wildcat can most successfully be traced to former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator and current Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning.  In the third game of last season (2008), the Miami Dolphins faced the New England Patriots in a game, which, on paper, was a clear mismatch in favor of New England.  The Dolphins lined up either Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams behind the center about six yards deep and gave them the option to run, handoff, or pass.  This gave the Patriots headaches all game long and the Dolphins came out on top 38-13 in this lopsided upset affair.

This set off a league wide implementation of some wildcat into a large number of team playbooks.  As of last weekend, 19 of the league's 32 teams had some form of the wildcat in-house, thereby validating its potency, even at the NFL level.

Denver’s Wild Horses Implementation

Certainly, Denver is not the first team to implement the idea of quickly lining up in the wildcat with the quarterback split out wide.  They might not even be the only team to think of giving their quarterback the option to read the defense from the slot position and run the appropriate play.  They are, however, the Denver Broncos, and they came up with the term that will more than likely forever ensconce the idea upon the football world with two words: Wild Horses.

In a nutshell, the Wild Horses offense gives the quarterback the opportunity to read how the defense is lined up from other skill positions on the field prior to running a play.  This allows the QB to choose an appropriate execution option of the play call.

This is how the Broncos used the Wild Horses against New England on Sunday.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kyle Orton lined up as a receiver to the wide left side of the offense.  Running back Knowshon Moreno lined up just over six yards deep in the backfield.  New England was surprised, and checked out of their original defensive play call to a man cover-one, which brought their safety Brandon Meriweather out of cover-two down inside the box.  The safety Meriweather picked the right gap, but missed out on the tackle of Moreno.  The play winded up gaining 12 yards for the speedy and elusive Broncos running back. 

With this formation in mind, the Patriots lined up in the man cover-one again, anticipating more of the same trickery from the Broncos.  This again dedicated the safety to put eight defenders in the five-yard box between tight ends.  Kyle Orton liked what he saw and went under center with man-on-man coverage being shown.  Patriots’ safety Meriweather began to back off on the play, and Orton chose the opposite side, connecting on the pass for a short gain to Brandon Marshall.

This immediate play combination opened up the door for the Broncos when they ran a play out of their regular playbook to cross up the defensive pass coverage and Brandon Marshall was able to pick up a first down with a great run after catching the quick out route.

The Broncos then gashed the New England defense for five yards with another Wild Horses direct snap to Moreno.

The next play, quarterback Orton lined up on the right side of the offense wide, then went back under center, hooking up on a big pass play with tight end Tony Scheffler.  This again caused Meriweather to check out of the current coverage and out of the box. 

The net result was a first down, but the importance of it was that it kept the Patriots from disguising pass coverage because they were forced to deal with the option piece of the Wild Horses offense.

After another five-yard run out of Wild Horses by Moreno, New England Coach Bill Belichick had seen enough and wanted a timeout.  Following the timeout, New England had figured out they needed a dedicated eight men in the box pinching down towards the middle of the field to keep the Broncos from successfully running out of the single back formation.

Had the Broncos run an option pass at this point, with the defense clearly getting settled in after the timeout, the Broncos might have had more success after the short break.

The Broncos could not connect on a short pass on third and six, and were forced to settle for a long field goal attempt which they missed wide-right.

The concept however was proven, and did work against the Patriots defense.  It took New England out of their original defensive play calls, and put them on their heels.

The Broncos would use the offense again sparingly, but on this day, they proved their point.  They could allow their quarterback to get better pre-snap reads of the defense by allowing him to make option calls based on the defense's alignment.

The Conclusion

This is certainly an offensive philosophy that will be used in the future by teams, though somewhat sparingly.  It will probably be implemented as a great teaching tool for young quarterbacks on all levels, and does provide an element of entertainment to the game of football on all levels.  It also has ways of inherently taking defenses out of their original game plans and forcing them to rethink how they will disguise coverages.  Just like the Wing-T and the wildcat, the Wild Horses is here to stay.

Contact Chaz at sportsmanagement@gmail.com