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Posted: Wednesday October 21, 2009 10:59AM; Updated: Friday October 23, 2009 1:55AM
Dave Hyde Dave Hyde >
INSIDE THE NFL

Uncovering the many myths and truths of the Wildcat offense

Story Highlights

The Wildcat is all the rage in NFL, but nobody's figured it out like Dolphins

Many old-school NFL guys don't like it, but when run correctly it works

Teams don't throw much out of the Wildcat, but passing is the next phase

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ronnie-brown-ricky-williams.jpg
In the second season of running the Wildcat, the Dolphins continue to have success with Ronnie Brown (23) and Ricky Williams.
Getty Images

Ricky Williams visited a video store recently and gave Madden '10 the ultimate test ride: He took the control and ran the Wildcat in the Dolphins' offense. It was like Woody Allen stepping inside the screen.

Williams was impressed enough to buy the game and now plays on the Internet in complete anonymity, except for one signature tendency: On any third-and-short play, he always runs the Wildcat.

"Works every time,'' the Dolphins running back said. "Pretty much like in our games."

Yet the fallout won't stop falling around the Wildcat. Just this week, Dolphins legend Dan Marino said on his radio show how he, "wouldn't like running it," and ESPN's Ron Jaworski called it a, "gimmick and a gadget," as if Bob the Builder designed it.

Question: Were people so grumpy about the forward pass in 1906?

"We're all afraid of what we don't understand,'' says Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, who, just so you know, isn't in the Wildcat position when he takes snap from center.

That's just one of the misconceptions about the formation. There are others. And they're often loud ones. Here are five simple myths people have about the Wildcat:

Myth No. 1: Defenses have caught on.

Well, that depends on who's running it. Philadelphia is a study in Wildcat frustration with Michael Vick. The Jets tried to throw the formation in Dr. Frankenstein's face when playing the Dolphins recently, lost three yards on the play and didn't try again.

As for the Dolphins, let's not rely on expert commentary. Let's talk cold, dry statistics. They've run 48 Wildcat plays in five games and average 6.6 yards per play. They average 4.7 yards a play out of their base offense.

That's 40 percent more yards per play out of the Wildcat.

Is that a formation that's not working?

"We've seen defenses do everything against it,'' Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We have seen pressure, we have seen people making a conscience effort to set the edges of the defense and we have seen people stack the box. We have seen people leaving a safety in the middle of the field, thinking that's the answer is to us not throwing the football. And we've seen even fronts, odd fronts, over-shifted fronts -- everything."

Truth No. 1: The Wildcat has its place when coached well and run properly.

Myth No. 2: It's based all trick-eration, as Don King might say.

Or, as Warren Sapp actually said on Showtime, "It's disrespectful to all defenses."

Why? "How the hell you going to throw the ball?" Sapp said. "I'm not even thinking about (defending the throw). I'm going to get everybody in the gap. It's just the "Power O" (play).' You have the running back with the ball already in his hand."

Hmm. It disrespectful, because it's overpowering? Wasn't the "Power O" play what made Larry Csonka a legend and John Riggins a Super Bowl hero? Didn't it help Pittsburgh to six Super Bowls rings?

Last year, the Dolphins ran an unbalanced line, shifting both tackles to one side. This year the Wildcat has evolved to a conventionally balanced line, though often with two tight ends and fullback Lousaka Polite blocking like punches to the gut.

"It's just Power formation upfront,'' Dolphins guard Justin Smiley said.

It's more than that in the backfield. Williams, who is the Wildcat, typically comes in motion on an end run that defenses have to honor. As the Jets found out on the third play of the game, Williams can take a handoff and run for 18 yards around end.

Truth No. 2: Misdirection and muscle are the twin foundations of the Wildcat, just like they are in most conventional attacks.

Myth No. 3: This is as far as the Wildcat goes.

Uh, no. Or, as Sparano says, "There's more meat on the bone."

Namely, there's a passing component to be mined. Sapp was right about that. The Dolphins can throw an occasional changeup to defenses, as they did to the Jets on the second play of their game when Brown threw 21 yards to tight end Anthony Fasano.

"It is purely going against everything out there on their computers,'' Sparano said. "On film right now is, 'no pass,' in the Wildcat."

But to throw open the throttle on the Wildcat they need to come up with a sustainable passing feature. That's why Vick seemed the perfect match. It's also why the Dolphins expended a precious second-round pick on Pat White, who thus far has been used sparingly in the formation.

Truth No. 3: Tim Tebow has a place in the NFL.

Myth No. 4: The Dolphins won't use it if they find a Peyton Manning.

Look, the Dolphins are all in on the Wildcat. The drafting of White made that statement.

He hasn't shown much yet. Maybe he never will. But the use of the 44th pick overall on a Wildcat specialist underlined their belief in the formation.

"This has nothing to do with our quarterbacks,'' Sparano said of the Wildcat. "We have a pretty quarterback now (Chad Henne). We had a pretty good quarterback (a few) weeks ago (Chad Pennington). This started with making space for our offensive line; giving our offensive line blocking angles and creating space."

Truth No. 4: This formation is a staple of the Dolphins offense and will remain so regardless of the quarterback as long as it's effective.

Myth No. 5: The critics have too much football intelligence to go against.

True, Marino and Jaworski are off the charts in football IQ. But you know what else they have in common?

They're quarterbacks.

So is Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who labeled it a, "fad." You can understand why a quarterback wouldn't like coming off the field for the Wildcat. So does Sparano, which is why when it was introduced last year he told his quarterbacks to, "Check your egos at the door."

Then there's the other critical section, as vocalized by Jets linebacker Calvin Pace. He called the Wildcat," nonsense." That seemed a bit harsh considering he said it minutes after the Dolphins ran the Wildcat over him to score the winning touchdown.

Truth No. 5: The Wildcat remains a work in progress, and any critiques should evolve with it.

Remember the scene from Forrest Gump, after he took off running to the end of his driveway, and kept running to the end his town, then to the end of his county, his state and the country -- all the while gathering followers and imitators and people hanging on his every move?

Forrest didn't pay any attention to them. He just did what worked for him.

That's all the Dolphins are doing with the Wildcat. Some call it crazy. Some call it gimmicky. Others look how it's adding 40 percent more yards to each play and, so far, call it good football.

Dave Hyde is a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached at dhyde@sunsentinel.com

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