Wildcat offense isn't running as smoothly

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:26 AM

IN MIAMI The electrifying Wildcat offense that swept through the NFL in 2008 has become an afterthought midway through this season, largely abandoned even by the team - the Miami Dolphins - that started the craze two years ago.

Once viewed as a potentially transformative scheme, the Wildcat, in which a non-quarterback takes a shotgun snap behind an unbalanced line, is looking more and more like a disappearing fad, ill-suited to frequent application in the NFL.

The formation continues to have a place in playbooks around the league - 18 teams have run at least one Wildcat play in 2010, according to STATS LLC - but the scheme has been largely relegated to the trick-play section, along with the flea flicker and the double reverse.

"It never was really a major staple of anybody's offense," said Boomer Esiason, the former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback who is now an analyst for "The NFL Today" on CBS. "I think most teams think it's a waste of time for them now."

Not only have defenses caught on, Esiason and others say, but the formation has been exposed as flawed. Unless a team sends the snap to a legitimate passer, the defense can hone in on the run, erasing the theoretical advantage of the unbalanced line and the extra explosive threat in the backfield.

"It doesn't work . . . it's the reason you don't see the wishbone or a lot of other college stuff," said Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach who is now an analyst for the NFL on Fox. "With the speed of the game, it's just not effective in the NFL. . . . Unless you can effectively throw the ball down the field, the cost-to-benefit ratio is too high.

"It's not a bad change-up, something you run on the goal line or in the red zone, but not as a staple, not something you run 10-15 times a game."

The Wildcat was fun when it debuted, its introduction in the NFL nothing short of a smashing success. Miami Coach Tony Sparano instituted the scheme - little more than a variant of the old single wing offense - in a stunning victory over Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in the third week of the 2008 season.

In that game, running back Ronnie Brown fielded the snaps and had the option of passing, running or handing off to a flanker - fellow running back Ricky Williams - streaking across the backfield. The Dolphins scored five touchdowns on seven Wildcat plays that went for 138 yards.

The phenomenon spread fast. By the end of the season, 17 teams had incorporated it into their offenses, running a total of 168 plays, or 12 plays per week starting with Week 3, according to analyst Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders. Last year, 20 teams ran 247 Wildcat plays, or 15.4 per week, according to Farrar.

But that rate has sagged this season; as of Week 9, 18 teams had run 109 Wildcat plays, or 12.1 per week, according to STATS LLC.

"The surprise element wore off," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an analyst for "The NFL Today" on CBS. "A lot of things in this league are cyclical. People tend to work on things in the offseason. . . . Teams are less inclined to do something that other teams are prepared for."

The Dolphins on Sunday summoned the Wildcat for five straight plays, but only because of a dire emergency: Their top two quarterbacks had been felled by injury.

Prior to the weekend, they had run the Wildcat 20 times for 30 yards, an average of 1.5 yards per play, and no touchdowns. In 2008, they ran it 91 times for 580 yards and eight touchdowns. Last year, they ran it 93 times for 441 yards and eight touchdowns.

Sparano joked earlier this year that the Wildcat's emergence had been met with the same reverence as when "Moses came down from the mountain." But he admitted Monday that defenses had adapted and the scheme did not fit as well with the Dolphins' 2010 offense. When Miami unveiled the Wildcat, it sought to get its top two playmakers, Brown and Williams, on the field at the same time.

But the Dolphins reverted to a more traditional offense after handing the reins to maturing quarterback Chad Henne and acquiring a game-breaking wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, in the offseason.

"It's always a good wrinkle," Miami wide receiver Brian Hartline said. "But we're not relying on it as much."

The New York Jets, who on Sunday ran seven Wildcat plays for 37 yards (5.3 yards per carry), and Cleveland Browns are the only other NFL teams to have used the formation at least 20 times this season, according to STATS LLC. Perhaps not surprisingly, both have former college quarterbacks at wide receiver who've been assigned to lead the Wildcat.

Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, who played at Kent State, and New York's Brad Smith, from Missouri, are perhaps the closest thing to prototypical Wildcat players in the NFL. Even so, of the 20 Wildcat plays the Browns have run, 12 have gone for three yards or fewer. Cribbs has completed two passes for 29 yards.

Finding a Wildcat stud is, apparently, no easy task. Most teams are unwilling to subject their primary quarterback to the pounding he would receive running in the open field. Miami drafted West Virginia's Pat White, the all-time Big East rushing leader at quarterback, with its second-round selection last year, intending for him to master the Wildcat. Yet White never met expectations and was cut this summer.

The Dolphins might pull out the Wildcat again Thursday, when they take on the Chicago Bears with third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen likely to start.

Whether it is successful or not is another question entirely.

"It's not a surprise any more," said Lousaka Polite, Miami's fullback. "Teams recognize that we have it in our arsenal."

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