2 Miami DOLPHINS

A fad, or the future? This season will tell whether the Wildcat, which sparked the Fins' playoff run, is here to stay
September 06, 2009

OVER THE years the NFL has had its share of fad offensive schemes, but few as promising as the Wildcat. Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee suggested adding the formation to the playbook heading into a Week 3 matchup against New England after an 0--2 start, but conventional wisdom said that the single-wing-based scheme wouldn't work as well against the speed of pro defenses as it does at the college level. Miami proved otherwise.

The Dolphins used the formation effectively and often enough to help them tick off 11 victories in the next 14 games and win their first AFC East title since 2000. "We were just looking for some type of spark to get a win and were open to anything," says 10th-year quarterback Chad Pennington, who was signed by Miami last August after being cut by the Jets and ended up winning his second NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. "Once we started to see some success, it created all kinds of momentum."

Last year's Wildcat, which featured a backfield of two tailbacks—from among Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs—with the quarterback either lined up as a receiver or on the bench, accounted for just 8.4% of the Dolphins' snaps, but it was remarkably effective: 580 yards (10.5% of the team total) and eight touchdowns (20%) on 81 plays. Meanwhile, Pennington expertly directed the regular offense, throwing for career highs in completions (321) and passing yards (3,653), and leading the league in completion percentage (67.4).

Not surprisingly, other teams scrambled to adopt their own version of the triple option. By season's end 17 teams had run at least one Wildcat play that featured a direct snap to a player other than the quarterback, and even more are expected to run some form of the package in 2009.

In a bid to stay ahead of the pack, the Dolphins drafted West Virginia's Pat White in the second round. The NCAA's alltime rushing leader among quarterbacks, with 4,480 yards, White was thought by some to be a reach with the No. 44 pick, but Miami was enamored of his speed and elusiveness as a runner and impressed with his playmaking ability as a passer outside the pocket. Had he come out a year earlier, he almost certainly would have been shifted to wide receiver in the NFL. Instead, he'll get a shot at being the third quarterback and maybe much more as the triggerman in Wildcat 2.0. Last year all but 72 of the 580 yards gained in the Wildcat came on the ground, in part because the Dolphins did not have a skilled passer in the backfield to exploit the one-on-one matchups the formation created. And ultimately that hampered Miami's ability to score. After the Wildcat produced two touchdowns against Seattle in Week 10, the Dolphins didn't score another point with it for the rest of the year.

Miami hopes that White can stretch the field with his arm from the Wildcat, opening up opportunities for receivers such as Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Camarillo, who says he's all the way back from the season-ending left ACL tear he suffered in Week 11. "Now defenses aren't going to know if we're in the Wildcat or in one of our regular formations," says Brown, who went to his first Pro Bowl last year. "If one way isn't working, we have other things that we can do to get the ball in different guys' hands in different situations."

The Dolphins have put together a Pat Package in hopes of capitalizing on White's talents, but it's unlikely they'll stray much from last year's formula, given how well it worked—and how little of it they actually revealed. "For a long time we were going into games with three plays, and we'd run them over and over again," coach Tony Sparano says. "We left an awful lot of meat on the bone that we're eventually going to get to."

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS

COACH: TONY SPARANO
11--5 in NFL, second season with Dolphins

OFFENSE

Ted GINN Jr.
POS WR
REC 56
YARDS 790
TTD 4

Vernon CAREY
POS RT
HT 6'5"
WT 340
G 16

Ronnie BROWN
POS RB
ATT 214
YARDS 916
AVG 4.3
REC 33
YARDS 254
AVG 7.7
TTD 10

Donald THOMAS
POS RG
HT 6'4"
WT 310
G 1

Chad PENNINGTON
POS QB
ATT 476
COMP 321
PCT 67.4
YARDS 3,653
TD 19
INT 7
RATING 97.4

Jake GROVE
POS C
HT 6'4"
WT 300
G 12

Lousaka POLITE
POS FB
REC 6
YARDS 24
TTD 0

Justin SMILEY
POS LG
HT 6'3"
WT 310
G 12

Davone BESS
POS WR
REC 54
YARDS 554
TTD 1

Jake LONG
POS LT
HT 6'7"
WT 317
G 16

Dan CARPENTER
POS K
FG 21--25
POINTS 103

Anthony FASANO
POS TE
REC 34
YARDS 454
TTD 7

RB Ricky Williams (160 att., 659 yards, 5 TTDs) will again spell Brown; 2008 second-round QB Chad Henne looms behind the brittle Pennington.

DEFENSE

Joey PORTER
POS OLB
TACKLES 47
SACKS 17½
INT 0

Will ALLEN
POS CB
TACKLES 50
INT 3

Kendall LANGFORD
POS DE
TACKLES 31
SACKS 2

Gibril WILSON
POS FS
TACKLES 133
SACKS 1½
INT 2

Jason FERGUSON
POS NT
TACKLES 22
SACKS 0

Channing CROWDER
POS ILB
TACKLES 113
SACKS 0
INT 0

Randy STARKS
POS DE
TACKLES 29
SACKS 3

Akin AYODELE
POS ILB
TACKLES 74
SACKS 0
INT 2

Jason TAYLOR
POS OLB
TACKLES 29
SACKS 3½
INT 0

Yeremiah BELL
POS SS
TACKLES 120
SACKS 1
INT 0

Brandon FIELDS
POS P
PUNTS 74
AVG 43.9

Sean SMITH (R)
POS CB
TACKLES 46
INT 5

With Taylor's return to Miami and switch to OLB, Matt Roth (53 tackles, 5 sacks) goes from 14-game starter to backup.

New ACQUISITION

(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns

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2009 SCHEDULE
2008 RECORD 11--5
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 11 > 10 > 12
DEFENSE 10 > 25 > 15

SEPTEMBER
13 at Atlanta
21 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
27 at San Diego

OCTOBER
4 BUFFALO
12 N.Y. JETS (M)
18 Bye
25 NEW ORLEANS

NOVEMBER
1 at N.Y. Jets
8 at New England
15 TAMPA BAY
19 at Carolina (T)
29 at Buffalo

DECEMBER
6 NEW ENGLAND
13 at Jacksonville
20 at Tennessee
27 HOUSTON

JANUARY
3 PITTSBURGH

(M) Monday
(T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 1

Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .594

Games against playoff teams: 6

ANALYSIS

Miami's remarkable '08 turnaround was aided by a schedule that included eight games against the weak AFC and NFC West divisions. This year the Dolphins get the much tougher AFC and NFC South. Their AFC East competition stiffened as well with the Jets' hiring of Rex Ryan, whose Ravens defense gave Chad Pennington fits in the regular season and playoffs last year.

SPOTLIGHT

Gibril Wilson, Free safety

SAY THIS for Wilson's brief stint in Oakland: It seemed like a good idea at the time. After helping the Giants win Super Bowl XLII two seasons ago, Wilson signed a six-year, $39 million deal with the Raiders, who hoped his work ethic and winning attitude would rub off on their dispirited locker room. And while his productivity didn't drop—he led all safeties in tackles last year, with 133—his enthusiasm eventually did. The more the Raiders lost, the more he realized he was stuck in a scheme that wasn't capitalizing on his coverage instincts. (He had only two interceptions after getting four in 2007.) Wilson's deliverance finally came on Feb. 20, when he was due a $4.9 million roster bonus. Rather than pay it, Oakland released him. "That was the best thing that happened to me in a long time," says the 27-year-old Wilson, who signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with Miami six days later.

A measure of toughness was missing from Miami's pass defense, which yielded 227.8 yards a game, eighth worst in the league last year. The Dolphins' hope is that their premier pass rush will free up Wilson to challenge receivers and make more plays. "I'm looking forward to not being an in-the-box safety," says the sixth-year veteran. "In this defense I'll actually get to use the skills I learned in my years with the Giants."

PHOTOTOM DIPACEMULTITOOL White, the NCAA's alltime rushing leader among QBs, is ideal for the new attack. PHOTOBOB ROSATO PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)