Rich Hofmann: What's not to like about the Wildcat?

Posted: September 23, 2009

THE DEBATE takes place in coaches' offices and front offices all over the National Football League, and on "Monday Night Football" as well. It is now headed here, though, this debate about the so-called Wildcat offense. As Michael Vick prepares to return this weekend, Philadelphia is about to become ground zero.

On ESPN, analysts Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden have set themselves up for a seasonlong argument - one highlighted on Monday night, when the Miami Dolphins (who brought the Wildcat to the NFL in a significant way last season) played the Indianapolis Colts. The Wildcat - a spread offense that usually features a direct snap to a running back - worked great for the Dolphins, and they ran for a million yards, but Peyton Manning still carved them up in the end. Yes, the passing game is still king.

But the real story was this ongoing conversation between Jaworski and Gruden, a quarterback and a coach, Old School and New School.

"I've been from Oregon to Appalachian State studying the spread offense and the Wildcat formation," Gruden said at one point. "The only guy I can't get to is that guy, David Lee [the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach]. They won't let me near him. This guy has brought a whole new package to pro football, whether you agree with me or not, Ron. The Colts are having a very hard time dealing with it."

A minute later came the reply.

"I don't think it'll ever be a staple in the NFL," Jaworski said. "I think it's a gimmick, it's a gadget, and it has its place in the game. If you really look at the big picture of the Wildcat a year ago for the Miami Dolphins, they ran it 8.4 percent of the time, it gained 10.5 percent of the yards. That's 2 percent more than your normal offense would give. Are you really worried about that 2 percent more, coach? I think it does give some problems for the defense. It will give you some plays in the red zone. But gimmicks and gadgets don't work consistently in the NFL."

There are statistics and there are statistics, though. The Dolphins ran the ball out of the Wildcat 55 times last season, for an average of 6.5 yards per carry. They ran the ball 393 times out of more conventional sets for an average of 3.9 yards per carry. It's a no-brainer. Why do people not see this?

People talk about how it disrupts an offense's rhythm - but how? The overwhelming majority of them are just running plays out of different formations. What's the difference between a quarterback calling the play in the huddle and handing it to a guy or a quarterback calling the play in the huddle and having the ball directly snapped to the runner? Either way, it's just a running play. Where is this great, paralyzing breaking of your rhythm?

Unless, of course, the starting quarterback isn't on board. And when Donovan McNabb comes back, we'll see.

Reid hates the "Wildcat" term, probably because neither the Eagles nor the Dolphins really run a Wildcat - which involves an unbalanced offensive line, with both tackles on the same side of the center. When the Eagles do it, the thing really is a spread offense, and sometimes a spread option in which the handoff either does or doesn't happen based upon what a key defender (usually a defensive end) does. The whole idea is just to spread the defense and isolate individuals and hope an advantage can be gained.

The Eagles did it a dozen times Sunday against the Saints, three of them with Kevin Kolb taking the shotgun snap and running the option (and a couple of which ended up being passes, or short pitches forward). Only once did they fall overly in love with it - on that first-half series when Kolb ended up with the second handoff and about nine guys chasing him into the backfield. Best as I can tell, on the running plays, they averaged 6.5 yards per carry out of the Wildcat and a 2.9 yards the rest of the time.

Again, how is this bad?

Just because it looks different?

And if you can get Vick in there for a half-dozen or so plays, with the real threat to run and throw, why wouldn't you want to see what happens? If the plays gain yardage and McNabb gets the same number of throws he always gets, what's the risk?

If it doesn't work, that's one thing. But if it works, what's the issue?

One final point. A generation ago, the run-and-shoot offense made its way into the NFL. It was used at times in Atlanta and Houston and Detroit, and a lot of people scoffed. Four wideouts and one running back? Old-school NFL people laughed. "Chuck-and-duck" is what a fellow named Buddy Ryan called it. Worse, they referred to it as "unsound," which is coachspeak for intellectually unworthy. They dismissed it, and none of the teams that used it won a whole lot, and that was that.

Except that everybody does it today, at least sometimes. Except that, in Kolb's very first play in his very first start for the Eagles, the thing was run out of an empty backfield - no running backs at all. People barely noticed, because you see it so often these days. Nobody says it is unsound anymore.

With that, welcome to ground zero. *

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