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  Breaking Down the Wildcat
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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“I believe it’s important that the system fits the players, not the players fit the system.” – Head Coach Tony Sparano, introductory press conference, January 16, 2008.

 

I did a double take. Many of you did too, I’m sure.

 

The first thing that caught my eye was left tackle Jake Long, lining up in an unbalanced formation on the right side of the line. Then I noticed quarterback Chad Pennington lining up wide.

 

“What is this?” I said aloud.

 

Before my eyes could dart back to the offensive backs, the ball was snapped and everything was a blur. Somehow running back Ronnie Brown had the ball. Who had handed it off to him? Was it a direct snap?

 

The Patriots were confused, too. A second later, Brown found the end zone.

 

Later in the game we saw other plays from the same basic formation. RB Ricky Williams took a handoff from Brown on one play, and another was a pass play where southpaw Brown rolled out and hit tight end Anthony Fasano on a flag route for a touchdown. The pass was right on the money, too.

 

The rout, the glorious rout, was on.

 

It took a while, but eventually I came to the realization that I’d seen this before, in high school, but also from watching college ball. It’s not a trick play or a gimmick; it’s old school. It’s basically the single wing formation.

 

This old scheme, dating back almost a century, has a new name in Miami – “Wildcat”. It was first installed during training camp, after practices had been closed to the public. It emphasizes the strength of the Dolphin offense, namely Brown and Williams, and gets tight ends Fasano and David Martin on the field at the same time.

 

The success the Dolphins enjoyed with Wildcat means that we’ll see it again. 

 

“Quite honestly, we had even some other people in mind for down the road”, confirmed head coach Tony Sparano in his day after press conference.

 

WR Ted Ginn might be someone that Sparano is thinking of. Ginn saw extensive action in this formation at Ohio State, usually as a tailback next to QB Troy Smith. The Buckeyes called it the “Shot Ginn” formation.

 

So what took so long for the Dolphins to break out Wildcat, now the talk of the NFL?

 

The answer is that Ronnie Brown, who plays QB in the formation, hurt his thumb during the preseason. This forced the coaches to temporarily shelve the idea.

 

After the 31-10 blowout at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals, Sparano, offensive coordinator Dan Henning, and quarterbacks coach David Lee discussed changes on offense. They needed something different to give the Dolphins an edge using the personnel they had.

 

It was time to unveil Wildcat.

 

Wildcat was brought to Miami from the University of Arkansas by Lee, where he served as offensive coordinator before joining the Dolphins. The Razorbacks, who call the package “Wild Hog”, have enjoyed great success with it, most recently with RB Darren McFadden.

 

Against the Patriots, Wildcat was unstoppable…even after halftime adjustments were made. In the end, Bill Belichick was forced to admit that he had been outcoached.

 

"I don't think we did a good job coaching, starting with me, and didn't do a good job of playing”, he said.

 

Now that’s the sort of thing Dolfans had become used to hearing from the Patriot “coach-of-the-moment” over the years, before this decade’s wandering in the wilderness began.

 

Think back to Sparano’s introductory press conference, when he promised that he would use whatever system made the best use of the talent on hand.

 

Promise kept.

 

So what is Wildcat, exactly?

 

Wildcat, commonly referred to as the single wing, starts with an unbalanced line formation. This means that Long lines up to the right of right tackle Vernon Carey, giving the Dolphins three offensive lineman to one side of center Samson Satele. This alignment creates match-up problems for the defense by forcing the front seven out of position. It is particularly effective in setting up double teams at the point of attack by having that extra man on one side of the line. It also is effective in creating cutback, or weakside, opportunities if the defense overplays the double team(s) as space is opened up by the missing defender(s).

 

Various skill player combinations are possible, with the stipulation that a minimum of seven men must be on the line of scrimmage.

 

Fasano and Martin can line up outside of the offensive linemen as true offensive ends, or one of them can be just off the line of scrimmage. Williams or RB Patrick Cobbs can split out wide (the wingmen), on the line or off, or can set up in an offset backfield. To maintain deception as long as possible, the Dolphins have Pennington stay on the field as a split end to either side. He can just stay out of the way, which Sparano would prefer, but could go out for a pass if the defense decided to ignore him.

 

It is important to note that having a talented center, like Satele, is essential to the entire concept as the single wing demands a center who can direct snap to various players whilst being able to get on his man quickly.

 

When the ball is snapped to Brown, he has the option of keeping it, handing it off, pitching it, or throwing a pass. Brown is the team’s best all-around player on offense. His versatility and talent makes the Wildcat especially dangerous.

 

The thing gets even nastier when you start fiddling with personnel. Ginn, for example, would add an entirely different dimension on the perimeters with his speed and ability to execute a pass option. Brown could even use playaction to try and sucker in the safeties, and then throw a pass to Ginn over the top.

 

The beauty of Wildcat is that it enables the Dolphins to get their best players on the field, regardless of position, at the same time. And, because of the many run/pass options, the plays can be tailored to the strengths of each individual player and in finding mismatches with the opponent.

 

Because Wildcat is not considered to be a conventional offense, opponents will now have a more difficult time preparing for the Dolphins. For now, expect to see more of Wildcat as the Dolphins to continue to mix in these plays with their conventional offense.

 
     
   
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