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Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: TCNJ’s Lions vs. Cortland State University’s Wildcat

October 27, 2009

One of the most common, though unfortunately most inapplicable, reader questions I’ve fielded this season has dealt with the professional and collegiate flave-of-the-past-two-years: the Wildcat offense.

Sure, I understand why you’d be open, dare I say excited, to read about it. But imagine how badly I’ve been waiting for a date on the Lions’ schedule to warrant any kind of writing about it.

Seems like this week, everybody wins.

Based on what I’ve been reading between the D3 football forums and what little I’ve heard about SUNY Cortland’s offensive attack, there’s reason to believe that, in fact, TCNJ will be encountering its first opponent that implements a Wildcat formation. Similarly to how I broke down the spread in a 4M segment earlier in the year, I’ll do my best to help everyone understand what makes the package so exotic, and further, extremely difficult to defend against.

Now before we partake in some mutual enjoyment at opposite terminals of this World Wide Web, let’s not get carried away. I’m not suggesting that the package is a staple in the reigning champs’ playbook, nor is it among any of the teams that implement it. But, hell, even if it’s buried at the bottom next to the hook-and-laterals (or as we used to call it 87 Circus) why not have some fun?

  • What is the “Wildcat” and how did it come about?

Ironically, just about the same place every fad offense has–the Wing T.

Much like the spread, the Wildcat was based off a book written by fabled Delware Blue Hens’ head coach Harold “Tubby” Raymond, in high demand following its three decades of success with the D-IA program (inclusive of three national titles) up until he retired in the 70s. Also like its precursors, the formation has several different adaptations and variations. All of these accentuate the personnel and philosophy most preferred by any particular offensive coordinator.

There was a surge in the 1980s, during which a number of NFL teams implemented a skills position player receiving a direct snap from center. But none of those enjoyed the same success as this most recent generation of Wildcats. Back when he was ravaging SEC defenses, the most effective was without question the package put together by then-coordinator Gus Malzahn (not current Miami Dolphins’ QB coach David Lee–though there still seems to be some misappropriated accreditation) and executed by the 2008 first-round draft selection by the Oakland Raiders, Darren McFadden.

A maddening Ronnie Brown-esque performance characterized his 2006-08 seasons. During the span, McFadden finished second in the 2006 Heisman Trophy voting, earning 1,662 points (sandwiched between a pair of quarterbacks at the No. 1 and No. 3 spots Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn; 1750, 1622 points, respectively). He also won the Doak Walker award for two consecutive seasons (NCAA’s top RB) and was named Sporting News magazine’s national player of the year.

Probably didn’t hurt too, too much that his “Ricky Williams,” to use the same analogy, was played by fellow 2008 first-rounder Felix Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.

It worked, and it worked well. So much so, in spite of the preconceived notions regarding other “gimmick” offense’s impracticality in the NFL, a number of professional organizations have allowed the package temporary membership in a club of resounding exclusivity.

  • So, how exactly does it work? I get the whole direct-snap thing, but how do teams try to attack defenses with it?

Believe it or not, it’s brilliance is in its simplicity and astounding similarity between each of the plays executed out of the look.

Considering the vast diversity of its adaptations across all platforms of competitive football, we’ll highlight specifically how its used within the Miami Dolphins’ attack–the most effective approach at the highest level. Again, there’s more to it than what we’ll delve into. But for the intents and purposes of this article, this is the gist of it.

Picture your quintessential “Ace” formation–a one-running back set with two tight ends next to each offensive tackle, with two wide receivers split wide (off the line-of-scrimmage). Now, swap the quarterback and the wide receiver on the left (assuming we’re talking about a right-handed QB). Slide that player (likely, now a running back) to a wing position on the left side, and you’re looking at the most rudimentary of Wildcat formations.

The four basic plays integral to the scheme are a “quarterback” power, a jet sweep, a play-action seam pass, and a play-action boot. Immediately preceding the snap and for the initial moments that follow, all of these plays look exactly the same.

The wing on the left will sprint (or “jet”) across the field, bubbling back toward the tips of the quarterback’s toes, synchronous with the snap. He’ll then “bracket” (put hands up to receive a hand-off) and continue on semi-circular arc taking him up the right “alley” (space between last man on the line-of-scrimmage and the wide receiver).

The left guard (offensive lineman next to the center) will take a bucket step (exaggerated swing of hips to throw his body parallel to line-of-scrimmage) after the snap, allowing him a better bodily alignment to pull across the formation. The rest of the line zone-blocks (takes successive steps to the point-of-attack, responsible for an area rather than any predetermined defender).

The right tight end attacks the seam (about a two-yard wide strip on either side of a TE that extends vertically down the field), while the left tight end will run about a 10-yard out route. Both wide receivers streak down the field.

The first play, quarterback power, starts with a fake hand-off to the wingback streaking across the formation. The running back receiving the direct snap five yards down the field will then attack the A or B gap (between center and guard, and guard and tackle, respectively). The backside guard will pull and lead through the hole, blocking either the playside defensive tackle (vs. a 4-3) or a middle linebacker (vs. a 3-4).

The jet sweep starts exactly the same, only the wingback would receive the hand-off (rather than fake) and the backside guard would lead block up the alley, rather than cutting off his path and attacking a player in the box (area inclusive of the offensive line, tight ends, defensive line and linebackers).

There are, however, passing options. The Wildcat formation hinges upon the quarterback’s ability to force a defense to respect the threat of a passing play, so who ever is working out of it should have at least a respectable arm.

One such option dictates the same exact action as the quarterback power, up to and including a jab step by the Wildcat QB toward the line of scrimmage, to show that same running look. Hopefully successful in sucking in the linebackers, this should open a passing lane through which he can loft a pass to the right tight end, who should be absurdly wide open, for a number of different reasons.

The other would include all of the same player responsibilities, including the jab step, only instead of setting up in the pocket, the running back would then roll out to his left, hitting the tight end on the out route.

If there’s a Cover 2 corner in the flat (sitting within 6-8 yards of the line-of-scrimmage, responsible for any eligible receivers in that zone) the quarterback can opt to hit the left receiver in the soft spot in the zone (generally 12-15 yards downfield, in between the shallow cornerback and an over-the-top safety playing a deep half of the field). It’s highly unlikely for reasons you’ll see later, but I suppose it’s a possible reaction.

If he’s going for it all, though, he’d better make sure he’s got the cannon to pull it off. Coaches get mad when legitimate quarterbacks throw picks and when running backs fumble. Imagine how salty one would get over a running back turning forcing a throw he has no business or capability making.

  • So you’re telling me that the Miami Dolphins have rushed for multiple 200+ yard games this season using four plays? Why is that so difficult to defend against?

Remember how I emphasized how every play starts exactly the same? Well if every play looks alike within a few seconds before and after the snap, imagine how time consuming it becomes for linebackers and defensive backs to take reads and identify what’s going on. Those seconds are pivotal to a defense’s ability to stop any given play, let alone one so effective for reasons we’ll get to later. Any hesitation by one player incapacitates his ability to adhere to his assignment, creating gaping holes in a defense.

With regard to player reaction, the jet motion before the snap creates a delightful mess of the defense for any offense implementing the scheme. Should any one player over-pursue or overreact to that lateral movement, it can be just as detrimental than if he were to prematurely attack the line of scrimmage or do nothing–other two common and likely scenarios.

But, should he receive a hand-off, the running back creates an indelible advantage against his opponent, considering he’s off to a running start toward the outside of the line-of-scrimmage. If the tight ends on either side can seal off the defensive ends, there’s just no way that an outside linebacker can make a play without giving up several yards–assuming, of course, he’s not blocked first. Should he cheat to the outside, there’s a gaping hole left in the middle of the field for the quarterback power, or a play-action seam, considering how much he’d be giving up inside.

Yeah, I know. Imagine how Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan–reveled as one of the brightest defensive minds in the league–felt after 60 minutes of that.

Not sure if it spawned the name, but then kids run wild.

Even if they can anticipate what’s coming, it’s crucial that they maintain discipline and respect all of the other options. If not, as happens each and every time Ronnie Brown gets his fantasy owners points for a touchdown pass, you’ll get burned.

Paying more close attention to the Xes and Os, the defense simply can’t win the numbers game imposed by the formation.

Let’s assume that the defense stacks the box–the most hyperbolic reaction to the look–and loads eight defenders at the line-of-scrimmage. One safety plays over the top, while one corner lines up on each wide receiver. Even though one of them is a true quarterback, the opposition still must allocate a defender to prevent any trickeration or antics–say, for example, a quick screen or double-pass. Stuff like that.

What’s now happened is, rather than the 10-to-11 advantage that the defense used to enjoy, when there was a quarterback under center that would be distributing the football to one of his teammates, the playing field becomes evened. Now that a running back, a much more athletic body capable of running or throwing, is receiving a direct shotgun snap, there’s no longer the same necessity for the football to change hands.

There’s not, per se, a disadvantage, considering that a safety can step up and make the tackle. But any such play would likely take place five or six yards downfield. If I’m an offensive coordinator, I’ll take that any day.

  • So, if the Wildcat is so unstoppable, why isn’t it run every play?

It’s not that it’s impossible to defend against, but on paper, it just creates a favorable pre-snap scenario for the offense. Like any other play an offensive coordinator conjures up, there’s no compensating for blown assignments, mismatches in talent, and, especially, miscues and penalties.

The Wildcat also isn’t practical for certain down-and-distances. Imagine the multitude of household appliances that would be thrown at Philadelphia television sets if the Eagles trotted Westbrook out for a Wildcat play on 3rd and 16.

On the field, the Wildcat is a cancer to its opposition in the red-zone, where defensive players are much more apt to overreact and play undisciplined football. Play-calling also generally becomes more aggressive, allowing an offense to exploit vacated zones in a defensive front. It also can be used to chew up clock, or just as a change of pace that keeps a defense consistently on its toes, changing gears–whatever you want to call it.

But most of the damage, believe it or not, takes place during the week in practice before a defense even faces the Wildcat.

Because it’s such a nouveau offensive approach, there are so few players, let alone coordinators, that have any experience dealing with it. So, like anything else you’re unsure of, it gets practiced. Over, and over, and over, and over…

Even the most Wildcat-heavy game-plans will only roll it out, at most, 15 plays per game. Considering the average NJAC offense averages 67.25 offensive snaps, that’s no more than any other personnel package. But the amount of time needed to prepare for the formation’s various nooks and crannies (well, just nooks I guess) detracts precious minutes away from prepping for everything else–frankly a much more worthy cause. If you’re not going to get burned by the Wildcat itself, the off-the-field distraction created by it can certainly take its toll on any opposing defense.


I hope all of you enjoy reading that as much as I did writing it. And, as always, to see your questions answered, fill out the form below…

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