The Offensive Formation Known as the Wildcat Is Gaining in Popularity Around the NFL

The Dolphins' Ronnie Brown was a Wildcat pioneer, but defense hasn't been a Miami strong point in 2009.
The Dolphins' Ronnie Brown was a Wildcat pioneer, but defense hasn't been a Miami strong point in 2009. (2008 Photo By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In their first three games of the season, the Philadelphia Eagles had eight players take offensive snaps. That list includes four quarterbacks, two running backs and two wide receivers. They've lined up their starting quarterback at wide receiver. They've used a formation with their offensive tackles lined up out wide, like receivers.

Such is year two of the Wildcat offense in the NFL. Coaches appear increasingly intent upon trying to out-gimmick one another in the race to gain the slightest of tactical edges, and Eagles Coach Andy Reid said Sunday with a faint chuckle: "Well, it's kind of fun. You almost need an Ivy League education to do it."

The Miami Dolphins started the Wildcat rage by having tailback Ronnie Brown take direct snaps from center and barrel his way over the New England Patriots in a lopsided triumph on Sept. 21, 2008. After that, they made the package a key component of their offense for the rest of the season and reached the playoffs a year after a one-win season.

By the end of last season, other NFL teams had begun to trot out copycat versions. There have been variations, but the current NFL version loosely can be defined as an offensive setup in which the regular quarterback leaves the field or lines up at wide receiver or elsewhere while another player, often a running back or wideout, takes a direct snap from center, usually to run with the ball but sometimes to pitch it or throw it to a teammate.

However it is done, the number of Wildcat plays per week leaguewide is up from last season.

"I'm really interested to see what's going to happen with it," former San Francisco 49ers guard Randy Cross, now an NFL analyst for CBS, said by phone recently. "I think it's compelling to see what some guys are gonna do with it. Look at what Miami did. It's been very effective."

According to Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders, there were 8.2 plays per week leaguewide last season in Weeks 3 to 17 with direct snaps to non-quarterbacks. That has increased to 11 such plays per week this season (and 12.67 plays per week if the snaps involving the Eagles' Michael Vick and the Dolphins' Pat White, quarterbacks who are essentially Wildcat specialists, are counted as well).

Last season, 18 teams ran plays with direct snaps to non-quarterbacks in Weeks 3 to 17, and seven teams have run Wildcat plays through three weeks this season.

But defenses might be catching on. According to Farrar, teams averaged 7.24 yards per play last season on direct snaps to non-quarterbacks. It's down to 4.33 yards per such play this season, and only 3.95 yards per play when the snaps involving Vick and White are factored in.

The Dolphins' success led other teams to spend the offseason studying the Wildcat in greater detail.

"You try to make a calculated guess off of stuff you've seen in the past or stuff other teams are doing," Kansas City Chiefs Coach Todd Haley said during a news conference last week. "This offseason I know we put a lot of time in on the Wildcat, knowing in general it was kind of the wave everybody was riding and you were going to see more of it throughout the year than more than just a couple of teams."

The Wildcat craze isn't really something new, of course. It's a recycling and repackaging of something old.

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