This was supposed to be the season the Wildcat evolved to the next level and swept through the NFL. A year after the Miami Dolphins used it to surprising success, coaches from coast to coast were expected to implement it as a game-changer, to keep defenses off balance and grab big chunks of yardage.
It hasn't happened. If anything, the Wildcat revolution is stuck in neutral. And now that the Dolphins have lost Ronnie Brown for the season with a foot injury, don't expect the offensive wrinkle to make a real impact in 2009.
Brown was Miami's best weapon in the alignment, which is loosely defined as a direct snap to a player other than the primary quarterback. The Dolphins can still run the offense with Ricky Williams and rookie Pat White, but manyoftheir plays will be less effective with only one good running back on the field, something that will be more than evident tonight when Miami takes on the Panthers.
But what about the rest of the league. What happened to their usual copycat intentions? Several NFL teams have tried, most notably the Browns and Eagles, but none has had as much success with it as Miami. Cleveland, the league's lowest scoring team, uses it to get the ball in the hands of playmaker Josh Cribbs, but often is trailing when doing so and only sticks with it because its passing game is so bad. Philadelphia created buzz in the offseason by signing Michael Vick, ostensibly to run the Wildcat. Through Week 10, he had all of 12 carries for 27 yards and had completed just 2 of 7 passes for six yards.
Former Ravens coach and current FOX broadcaster Brian Billick has been a consistent critic of the formation and thinks teams shouldn't even bother dabbling in it. "How do you take Donovan McNabb off the field for a single snap unless you're up 41-0?" asks Billick. "What the Eagles are trying -- and a number of other teams -- is different than what the Dolphins are doing. The lineup might be the same -- a direct snap and an unbalanced line -- but it's haphazard. If you get hit in the mouth a few times, are you really going to keep using it?"
At NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., the Wildcat debate unfolds every week in the tape room of the NFL Network show NFL Playbook. Joe Theismann and Sterling Sharpe have every Wildcat play run this year at their fingertips in the impressive video archive. Watching different teams use the offense, one thing quickly becomes clear to Theismann and Sharpe: no one executes the Wildcat like the Dolphins when Brown and Williams are on the field together.
"With Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, the Dolphins' attack is all about power," Sharpe said. "They're not using it for deception. The defenses know what's coming but still have trouble stopping it. I know other teams have been working on it and use the same run plays Miami does. But you just don't see the same sense of purpose with other teams."
The key strategic benefit is giving the offense an extra blocker (see picture, right). The quarterback is useless on a regular running play, and a direct snap allows a team to create an unbalanced line defenses can't account for. But Theismann illustrated play after play where teams fail to capitalize on that advantage. Often the quarterback fails to make even a slight attempt at a block or the back runs to the side of the field where the numbers aren't in the offense's favor. When the video gets to Vick, the distinction between a Wildcat with a running back and a mobile quarterback is pronounced.
"Look at the Jets safety when Ronnie Brown breaks through the line. He doesn't look happy to see him," Sharpe said before the producers flip to Vick running out of the Wildcat against the Chiefs in Week 3. "Now look at the safety coming after Vick. He can't wait to come and get a lick on him. That's why you're never going to be able to run the Wildcat the way the Dolphins do with a quarterback back there."
Occasionally this season, the Wildcat has worked perfectly and shown promise as a game-changer. The Bills executed a beautiful passing touchdown from Fred Jackson to Lee Evans out of the Wildcat in Week 10 ... but they still lost to the Titans 41-17. While an occasional trick play off a direct snap can look great and annoy defensive coordinators who have to game-plan against it, that can't make up for overall poor quarterback play.
"The biggest indictment of the Wildcat is that the elite teams aren't using it," Theismann said."You're not going to see it from the Saints and Colts. At the end of the day, is it really worth it if it possibly means sacrificing developing the passing game?"
Vick has made it clear his long-term plan is to be a regular quarterback and says he has mixed feelings about the Wildcat, even though it gives him an opportunity to get on the field. "[The Dolphins'] Chad Henne is used to coming out and used to letting those guys come in and run the Wildcat," Vick said earlier in the season. "They've been effective with it for the last two years. That's a big part of their offense. It's different than the way everybody else does it. I'm not sure I can do that as a quarterback."
Vick has claimed he was the "original Wildcat quarterback" in Atlanta when he ran for 1,039 yards and 8.4 yards per carry in 2006 for the Falcons. Vick could determine whether to run or pass based on how the defense lined up. He hasn't had the opportunity to do much of that in Philadelphia.
"When we line up in the Wildcat, they can almost predetermine what we're gonna do," Vick said. "When I'm at quarterback, it's a lot easier. They don't know if I'm going to pass or run and that's always been my biggest thing."
Vick's longest run of this season was 11 yards, and that came when he was the primary quarterback in the pocket during garbage time. On his Wildcat plays, Vick hasn't had the time to sit back, read defenses and take advantage of open running lanes.
"The Wildcat has done more for Michael Vick than Michael Vick has done for the Wildcat," Theismann said. "I'm not sure you're using Michael Vick's skill set the right way in a Wildcat scheme. He's a more effective runner when he starts out in the pocket. Everything just lines up better for him to take off."
Vick's inability to recreate the kind of run-pass success he had in Atlanta illustrates its biggest strategic flaw. Defenses have had some success containing Miami's offense by moving everyone close to the line of scrimmage. A bona fide passing threat would keep the defense honest, but as we've seen with Vick, that limits the Wildcat's potential in the power running game. On the flip side, NFL coaches don't seem eager to have running backs throw the ball more.
"Do you want someone other than your quarterback throwing?" Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "With Michael we will do that because he is a quarterback. But when you have a running back or receiver back there, you really have to think hard about throwing the ball. Miami has done the best job of it and they really haven't thrown at all that much out of it."
The Dolphins have completed just two passes out of the alignment this season. All the strategy enthusiasts who hoped this was going to be the year that Wildcat 2.0 -- the pass-run version -- took over the NFL will have to wait. According to some, that day may not come.
"At the end of the day, it's a running offense," Theismann said. "It helps churn up yards and time of possession without risking penalties or lost yardage. Can it be anything more? Maybe, but we haven't seen the right set of personnel in the right circumstances to do that yet. Not even in Miami."
Without Brown, the Dolphins may no longer be able to use the Wildcat in any fashion as often. They originally started using this offense because it better fit their personnel. Without Brown, they may have to come up with a whole new offense if they want to move the ball the rest of the season.