Why Is the N.F.L. Suddenly Ga-Ga About the “Wildcat”?

Earlier this season, the Miami Dolphins went to a “wildcat” formation, wherein the snap goes to a running back and the quarterback is in the slot. This creates new opportunities for the offense and chaos for the defense.

After the Dolphins shocked the world by beating the Patriots behind a five-touchdown performance by wildcat back Ronnie Brown (four rushing, one throwing), the entire league was suddenly boning up on the formation. Offenses tinkered with it; defenses were obsessed with stopping it.

Where did the wildcat craze come from?

Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach, has an interesting answer. From an interview on the Steelers’ website:

What has made it in vogue in the N.F.L. this year is that Arkansas did it, and they did it with Darren McFadden. Everybody watched tape of McFadden and Felix Jones leading up to the draft. Arkansas didn’t have a mobile quarterback, they had a passer, so they put McFadden back there. People in this league saw that if you don’t have a mobile quarterback you can still attack people in this way, by putting the back back there and splitting the quarterback out. I think it all stems back from everybody watching Arkansas tape in preparation for the draft.

I don’t follow college football, but I am guessing this is hardly the first college wrinkle that the N.F.L. has imported lately. I’d appreciate it if you college fans could tell us about some other notables. (One possibility, though slim: Penn State head coach Joe Paterno is coaching from a skybox because of an injury, and just yesterday opined: “I’m not sure that’s not the best place for a head coach. … I have a better view of the game from up there than I ever do on the sidelines.”

I am traveling this weekend to Pittsburgh for my annual father-son Steelers game. They play the Giants; both teams are 5-1; it should be a good game.

The biggest question about the Steelers is whether Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, or Ben Roethlisberger has the hardest head.


Sam F.

The Wildcat as a standard offensive formation may be new, but these plays have been run before just for their 'surprise factor'. This will not become a standard, but it works for a team without a ton of skill in every position. Ronnie Brown is the reason this works, but he would get similar stats in an I formation, Ace back, or even the pistol. Once there are more fast quarterbacks in the NFL, the pistol might show up for a season or two. These formations play to the players strengths, just like the A-11 formation in high school football. Offensive formation will keep changing, but wildcat will never be a standard.

Our champions will beat any other team in the world, thats why we are the world champs.

Phil

@ #1:

If you don't care about something then don't post. There are plenty of posts about topics that I couldn't care less about. Instead of criticizing their use of wording that implies that someone outside of the US may care about the NFL, maybe you should just find a blog that deals with the concept of "Angry Britains who feel that antagonizing American (US) blogs will stop the propogation of the idea that Americans are superior to Britains". Maybe said blog doesn't exist. If not then start it. Either way, if you don't have something relevant to say then save the key strokes and complain to the bloke at the pub instead of a group full of people who want an interesting and otherwise unimportant conversation.

lobosolo

its a fad, much like the run&shoot offense was. after this year defense's will review tapes and figure out how to stop it and we wont see it again for another 15 years. 15 years ago, Randall Cunningham was used in these types of plays. i don't think it was called wildcat though.

JC

The Panthers employed a QB-less formation two seasons ago. They used it to collect 5-6 first downs in a row against the Falcons.

Tom

#1 - I do live in the USA and don't care about football. I just read "world" as "world of people who care about US style football" and was satisfied.

bill

In 99% of NFL offensive running plays, the quarterback just hands off the ball and stands around looking disinterested. Thus, the offense is using 10 players to the defense's 11.

The wildcat makes the 11 defenders account for 11 offensive players, and this extra blocker combined with the surprise factor (which will disappear soon) has resulted in many points scored and yards gained. This is true even when the quarterback splits out wide, as the defense usually assigns a back (in man defense) to keep an eye on him. In Miami's week three game, they used the wildcat eight times, resulting in three touchdowns from everywhere on the field (two rushing one passing).

Imagine a team offense that regularly employed the quarterback to run block. I realize that they are valuable and supposedly fragile, but I think anyone would get a morale boost anytime QB gets out and actively participates by blocking, e.g. on a broken play. Since QBs get hurt even when they're supposedly being "protected" (Tom Brady out for the year), why not use each player to their full advantage?

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kcw

>I am guessing this is hardly the first college >wrinkle that the N.F.L. has imported lately

Coin toss deferral

John Campbell

#1 - the Americans are hardly the only guilty parties here. I'm in Australia, which recently hosted "World Youth Day". That's a Roman Catholic shindig for Roman Catholic youth held every few years and attended by the Pope. It's not even for all Christians let alone for the whole world but it's "World Youth Day", not "Roman Catholic Youth Day".

Scott

Justin Stringfellow: That's not true, a Canadian team (Toronto) has a chance at the world series also!

(not to be taken seriously)

Stephen

#1 (and others from other countries replying on here)

If you're not familiar with or dont care about the world of "American Football", then dont go saying your corner of the world doesn't care. I don't follow physics, so if someone says "Everyone thought that was a brilliant new concept", I don't go posting on their blogs going "I'm part of everyone, and I don't care".

"The world" = "the collection of people whom care about a topic of interest being referenced". Its a common "expression", not "literal meaning". I know it strikes a nerve to most non-US residents when an American (whom those from South America don't like us calling ourselves either) says "the world", but please, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

DJH

For Justin Stringfellow (#1), if you are correct and no on outside the US cares about the NFL, may I take this to mean that no one attended the "NFL in London 2007" game (between the Dallas Cowoboys and Miami Dolphins? And if, in fact, no one attended that, is there any particular reason there will be an "NFL in London 2008" this coming Sunday between the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints?

I suspect these games have been/will be attended by folks from the UK, meaning that there ARE some folks in your country who are interested in American Football -- despite your claim otherwise.

James

This reminds me of the A-11 formation that's getting some play in the high school leagues of late -- an innovative play style that can really change the balance of the game. I think we are so used to each player performing an expected role on the field (even down to running the same routes or matching up with the same opposing position) that we are really surprised when something like wildcat or A-11 makes a surprise (re-)appearance. Perhaps if the NFL relaxed some of the position and play rules, we would see more of this kind of innovation which in turn would really make football an interesting game to watch (moreso).

Katie

It's clear he meant "shocked the football world," affecting only those who play and closely follow football. I live in the US- TX even- but it didn't shock me either, yet I'm not getting huffy about it.

BSK

DJH- The Giants played the Dolphins last year, not the Cowboys.

And the Wildcat is a common formation found in high school that has trickled up. I do not think it is directly attributable in anyway to what Arkansas did.

As someone else pointed out, a lot of high school and college tactics don't translate in the NFL. Take the option, for instance.

Sean Samis

Umm. Because it's "new" and they're all trying it out? I.E.; it's a fad?

hal

When I was in high school our team used a variant of the single wing formation from the 1920s that had, in the 1930s, morphed into the short punt formation. That we were running it in the 1960s created significant problems for defenses that were set up to face the ubiquitous variations of the T-formation in which the quarterback receives the ball directly from the center while squatting behind him. Then came the shotgun formation for obvious passing situations or when the defensive line was overwhelmingly strong against the passing game.

The point is, there is only a certain amount of real estate behind the offensive line. At the beginning of the play, there are only four players able to occupy that real estate. Just as baseball has contrived an enormous variety of ways to move the ball around the four bases, so has football derived the same. And the limits are the same now as they were 100 years ago. So for all the new terminology ("wildcat", veer, power-I, and dozens of others,) they all just amount to the same thing-moving the ball as fast as possible to the weakest point in the defense in the hands of the fastest possible player. All the discussion about fancy formations just proves there is nothing new under the sun.

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Colonel Frank

Hey Justin! When Stephen used the phrase "the world" I believe he was referring to to "world" of people who pay attention to professional American football. I forgive you though, as (being married to one) I know that Brits have a tendency to focus on the literal, just as us Yanks have a tendency to think of ourselves as the center of the world. And by world I mean the planet Earth.

Michael Casp

#22 - Justin (#1) can't help it that America is awesome.

Victor Cavazos

Over here in Mexico we have one, maybe two NFL games, a year. People crowd the game but I don't think they would attend a full season, being soccer a more popular sport (same case for UK, surely).

Wildcat formation needs to fight is way into playbooks like an old new idea. It's there for a reason, and it wasn't there also for a reason. Anyone has seen indoor football? How come it's not popular even if it has faster action?

Steve

As to the comment above that the NFL wildcat offense doesn't originate from Arkansas, that is incorrect. It was introduced to the Dolphins by David Lee who was a coach at Arkansas with Gus Malzahn.

It is a variation of a high school (and old NFL) offense, but the Malzahn twist that makes it effective is the speedy back in motion (at Arkansas it was Felix Jones).