The Miami Dolphins led by main ‘Wildcat’ threat RB Ronnie Brown lead the NFL in rushing this season
After the Miami Dolphins success using the Wildcat formation in 2008, naturally everyone thought that the 2009 NFL season would be one where crafty defensive coordinators figured out how to “bust” the Wildcat. But so far the Dolphins have continued their mastery of the Wildcat offense to a point where some defenders would rather “bad mouth” the offense than find a legitimate way of stopping it. New York Jets linebacker Calvin Pace said after his team couldn’t stop the formation in the Dolphins 31-27 win over NY Jets, “I can’t respect that stuff, all that Wildcat. We’re in the NFL. Don’t come here with that nonsense.”
Well Mr. Pace there is one thing that almost everyone I talk to around the NFL respects, and that is winning. Whether you want to call the Wildcat – really the Single Wing where there is an unbalanced line and someone other than the regular quarterback takes a shotgun snap while looking to pass, pitch, handoff, or run the ball – a “gimmick” or “nonsense”, the formation works for the Miami Dolphins. To their credit, the Dolphins have been and still are committed to the offense more than any of the NFL’s 31 other teams. Don’t call it a “fad” to Dolphins as their star Wildcat Ronnie Brown said, “It’s a part of our offense, it isn’t so much about stopping the Wildcat. It’s about stopping our offense.”
During the 2008 regular season, the Dolphins ran 90 Wildcat plays that accounted for 580 yards and eight touchdowns with of 6.4 yards per play. The formation gave defensive coordinators fits in preparing for it. Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox in try to explain the difficulties for defenses with the Wildcat said, “In the Wildcat, the quarterback position can now be a runner. If the back is not the runner, he’s a blocker, so you get that overload in the running game.” To explain it more succinctly it is old school 11 on 11 football.
Brown has been the ultimate Wildcat QB the past two seasons, going from a guy coming back from a tough knee injury to be a very good runner and more surprisingly a formidable passer. Chargers safety Eric Weddle said of the formation and Brown’s ability in it, “When they go from a regular formation and come into ‘Wildcat,’ he (Brown) is so patient with it, you can’t just shoot a gap, and you have to all be assignment-sound. He just sits there and picks his way and finds a gap and hits it. He’s a good runner, a smart runner and patient.”
In 2008, the Dolphins rode the Wildcat all the way to the AFC East division title and one of the most miraculous turnarounds in NFL history. The Dolphins going from 1-15 to 11-5 matched the 1999 Indianapolis as the only teams in history to make 10-game improvement from one season to the next. Some thought the Wildcat would wane in popularity after the Baltimore Ravens stuffed the formation in the two team’s 2008 playoff game. The Ravens held the Dolphins to only 52 total rushing yards and a modest 7 yards on two Wildcat plays in a dominating 27-9 win. But to many people that saw the game, the real reason behind the Ravens dominance was in forcing five turnovers including 4 interceptions by Dolphins starter Chad Pennington.
Despite a solid campaign in 2008, this past offseason some veteran NFL people, like ESPN Monday Night Football Analyst Ron Jaworksi, still had mixed feelings toward the Wildcat and kept up the “fad” talk. Jaws said, “I love the Wildcat. It’s great. I’m glad Dolphins QB Coach (David) Lee is up there working all the plays. Maybe he can give them to the college coaches, because that’s where they work. At the NFL level you must have a quarterback that plays from the pocket.” Also the number of teams running Wildcat direct snaps to others than their regular quarterbacks has fallen from 18 teams in 2008 to 7 teams through the first three weeks of this season.
Undaunted the Dolphins have stayed committed to the Wildcat. In Week 2, the Dolphins rode the Wildcat to 239 rushing yards and possessing the ball for 45+ minutes in a 27-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The loss to the quick-strike Colts led by QB Peyton Manning was tough, but the Wildcat was back on full display this past Monday Night. The Dolphins showed mouthy New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan – Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in ’08 – that in Miami, the Wildcat offense is here to stay…well at least until someone can totally stop it.
The Dolphins piled-up 151 rushing yards and converted nine of 14 third-down chances. And when it mattered most they went to the Wildcat formation over and over, running out of the formation 4 times for 25 yards on their game-winning, 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive. Overall the Dolphins ran 16 Wildcat plays for 110 yards (6.9 yards average) with RB’s Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams plus designated dual-threat rookie quarterback Pat White taking direct snaps in the formation. Brown and Williams were nearly unstoppable in the physical win – the two veteran runners are on a pace for both to gain 1,000 rushing yards this season. Brown scored a pair of touchdowns, including the 2-yard game-winner out of the Wildcat, while rushing for 74 yards and completing one pass for 21 yards to TE Anthony Fassano. Williams had 138 scrimmage yards with his biggest gain coming on a 59-yard screen pass reception. We even go to see White come in and move the chains on a third down run.
After the game, Ryan was a little more humble about the Wildcat. “I used to see all those gimmicks back when I was coaching college, and one thing we could always do is stop the run,” said the charismatic Jets head coach. Ryan added, “It was a complete embarrassment by our defense and by me. I’ve never been involved in a game like that in my life.” The Dolphins’ commitment to their rushing attack, including the Wildcat, has paid-off as they are averaging177 rushing yards per game, which by the way leads the NFL. The Wildcat formation is also a huge hit in this year’s version of Madden Football and Brown has been known to give gamers tips on running the ‘Wildcat’.
Dolphins’ running backs, gamers, and fans are not the only ones going gaga about the Wildcat and running the football. Both the Dolphins’ quarterback (2nd year QB Chad Henne who is 2-0 as a starter) and well-rested defense (allowing only 76 rushing yards per game) are also singing the Wildcat’s praises. Going into their Week 6 bye, despite losing former starting quarterback Chad Pennington for the season with a shoulder injury, the Dolphins now have a record of 2-3 and are 2-0 in AFC East games.
We will have to see if the Wildcat will continue to grow roots around the rest of the NFL, but in Miami the ‘Cat has found a home.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)