Bob Ford: Wildcat a poor fit for Eagles

Posted: September 23, 2009

There is a story in one of the national magazines this week about a high school football coach in Arkansas who has decided that punting and placekicking are just things he's not that into any longer.

If you look around every season, you can find something like this, some strange twist on the old way of playing football, some team out in the boonies that puts in lefthanded players for plays to the left, or snaps the ball sideways, or has finally perfected the hidden-ball trick.

It gets boring as you stand around monitoring fourth-period gym class and the mind tends to wander. You come up with things.

Kevin Kelley, the football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, hasn't punted since 2007. He doesn't much like to try field goals, either.

"The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn't make sense to give up the ball," Kelley told Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. "Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don't believe in punting and really can't ever see doing it again."

I don't know if Andy Reid subscribes to SI, or if he has time for idle reading during the football season, but if he does, look out, Sav Rocca. This is, after all, the season of copycat innovation for Reid, who has become infatuated with the Wildcat offensive wrinkle, apparently to the extent that he added a convicted felon to the roster just to make the playbook even more fascinating.

The Wildcat and its various offshoots came along for essentially the same reason that Kelley decided not to have a punter on his roster. If Pulaski Academy had a punter who could consistently net 50 yards, Kelley would punt. If there were a placekicker on the roster who was reliable on field-goal attempts of up to 40 yards or so, he'd try some field goals. That's not the case, however, and the odds tell Kelley he's better off going for it on fourth down.

In the same way, the option packages and direct-snap wrinkles came along because teams didn't have good passing quarterbacks. The Wildcat may eventually become a forgotten orphan - at least at the pro level - but right now it has a clamoring mob of fathers.

Some believe it developed (from murky mists of the single-wing and wing-T formations) at West Genesee High School in New York state, where Steve Bush, now an assistant with the Miami Dolphins, coached the Wildcats.

Others give parentage to Hugh Wyatt, a mad blackboard scribbler for the La Center High School Wildcats in Washington state, or to the coaching staff of the Kansas State Wildcats a decade ago.

It is probably all the above with variations thrown in, the way jazz musicians can improvise on a melody. For the Eagles' purposes, with the whole Michael Vick tangent, it's just a good thing the offense didn't start at a high school where the nickname was the Pit Bulls, or the Fighting Dogs, or the Jumper Cables.

Last week against the Saints, with Kevin Kolb at quarterback, the Eagles ran some form of what Reid calls their Wildcat a total of 12 times, according to the coach. Nine of those plays had direct snaps to either a receiver or a running back, and the three others snaps to Kolb that initiated a sprint-out or Wishbone-type option package.

Overall, the Wildcat was 16 percent of the offense, which is a deep wrinkle, almost a crease. In the first half, before the game became a chuck-and-duck affair for Kolb, it was 23 percent. In other words, Andy likes his toy.

The strategy is defensible for the time being because it worked reasonably well, but mostly defensible because it took heat off Kolb and because the wrinkles came while the regular group was on the field. That dynamic will change, however, with Vick now eligible and whenever Donovan McNabb returns to the lineup.

There is an undeniable element of surprise that helps the Wildcat. That element will disappear every time Vick runs onto the field to join the huddle. (Indeed, the only logical use of Vick is as the regular quarterback in an offense that is 100 percent Wildcat, but that's fodder for another time.) As it is now, when Vick comes into the game for his five or 10 plays or whatever it might be, the surprise is lost and the advantage swings to the defense.

Then there is the question of why it makes sense to use the Wildcat at all when McNabb is playing. This is an offense that was invented to cover the flaws of quarterbacks who can't throw as well as McNabb. Turning McNabb into a wide receiver and placing someone who isn't as good at the quarterback position may be exciting and different, but eventually it will get you beat.

Kevin Kelley is a smart man and an innovator, but if he had a punter, he'd punt. And if he had McNabb at quarterback, he'd damn sure leave him back there. Sometimes it doesn't pay to get too smart.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or Read his blog at

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