The Wildcat Has Been Shot by Matt Lombardo

Eagles running back Ronnie Brown became the face of a movement on offense in Miami in 2008. On Sunday though, Brown very well may have closed the book on that same movement; The Wildcat Offense. 

In September 2008, an offensive movement was launched in Miami. With the ever statuesque Chad Henne under center, Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano and his offensive coordinator Dan Henning brought to the league a formation where a dynamic running back and not the quarterback took a direct snap and went off to the races. The formation came to be known as the “Wildcat” and it spread like wildfire throughout the league.

The Wildcat’s success and popularity among coaches was thanks in large part to the success of former Dolphin and current Eagles running back Ronnie Brown and his duel threat to run and pass. Brown became a star, and for a brief moment in time, Sparano a genius.

Yes, it’s true that the Wildcat had been brought into existence by teams in 1934 — formerly known as the “Single Wing” — however it had never seen such a boom until that fateful season in Miami.

The Dolphins ran nearly 12 percent of their offensive plays from scrimmage out of the Wildcat formation and teams across the league followed suit. The Eagles ran eight plays out of the fledgling formation in 2008, typically with rookie receiver DeSean Jackson taking the snaps.

Fast forward three years, “The Wildcat has been shot”.

One trip inside the redzone in the season opener against the Rams the Eagles trotted Ronnie Brown onto the field and lined him up in the shotgun formation. Before the running back had a chance to gain any momentum he was met in the backfield by two Rams and crunched for no gain. To add insult to injury, Brown was slow to get up after the bone-rattling hit.

“It’s early still; I think there are things on offense we need to brush up on,” Brown said on Wednesday. “[The Rams] made a good play, they blitzed off the edges and they got there. Those guys made a really good play.”

The Eagles failure on that play typifies where the Wildcat is in the NFL circa 2011. It is distinctly possible that that one play may go down as the final bookend to the Wildcat’s tenure as a fad among coaches.

In the three full seasons since the Dolphins brought the Wildcat offense into vogue, the number of teams that employed the scheme has continued to dwindle. There were 18 teams in 2008 that ran the formation, down to just seven in 2009 and the number dwindled even further in 2010. Teams such as the Colts, Patriots, Saints, Chargers, Cardinals and Steelers never even really used the Wildcat as a staple in their offenses.

If the Wildcat has made any lasting legacy it is that the game has changed dramatically both from standpoint of the running game playing a much more ished role.  But also in the type of quarterback that is now favored by most  teams across the league.

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton ascending to the top pick in the league despite questions about his delivery and his completeness as a quarterback is astounding and says a lot about the future of the position. Then there’s the case in Oakland,  where the fact is Terrell Pryor was chosen by the Raiders in the supplemental draft with the thought of keeping him solely at the quarterback position.  Despite his flaws as a signal-caller and drop back passer illustrate that the value has never been higher for running, versatile and athletic quarterbacks.

Then there’s the case in Philadelphia, where Michael Vick poses a dual-threat to defenses. His arm is amongst the strongest in the league and in terms of raw speed, Vick rivals some of the top running backs. With a quarterback like Vick,  who’s propensity to run the ball has put him in earshot of Randall Cunningham’s record for all time rushing yards by a quarterback (4,928), the question “Is the Wildcat even necessary in most NFL offenses?”, begs to be asked.

Brown doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think it will be a big part of what we do,” Brown said. “Obviously when you have an athletic quarterback, that’s kind of a Wildcat in itself. You never know what to expect when you’re on defense[against him], and you can’t ever really account for a guy like Vick no matter how much you practice for it. You can’t ever account for the type of speed and athleticism that he has and you can never really tell what he’s going to do.”

With quarterbacks being asked more and more to run the ball and make athletic plays outside of the pocket, it is clear that the lasting legacy of the Wildcat formation is in fact that duel threat quarterback. However, teams would be wise to curtail the amount of designed runs and scrambles for their quarterback as even Vick has missed 35 games in his career due to injury.

It was Ronnie Brown who brought the Wildcat to life in 2008, but in 2011 it’s safe to say that the Wildcat indeed has been shot.

 

 

Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat  reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email at MDLombardo@yahoo.com

Editor Lloyd Vance provided some research for this article

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