Nonplussed, Malzahn says, "I'm sure I saw it somewhere, but I can't remember where."
After one season at Arkansas, Malzahn left for Tulsa and was replaced by David Lee, who subsequently joined the Dolphins as quarterbacks coach at the start of this season. He took the Wildcat with him, and after Miami opened the season with two losses, offensive coordinator Dan Henning put the formation into the game plan against the Patriots in Foxborough. "It had never come up before that week," says Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington. "The fact is, we needed some offensive energy, and that gave it to us."
It gave them something else: a simple mathematical edge that every offense seeks. Belichick, the closet single wing historian who was beaten that day, explains, "When you put a quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap. You basically play with 10 men on offense. When the quarterback is one of the runners, whether it's single wing or veer or wishbone, the defense runs out of people to defend you."
While the Dolphins' Wildcat has been hailed as the return of the single wing, it's more accurate to call it a culmination rather than a conception. NFL teams have been direct snapping for the better part of a decade, with the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Kevin Faulk. Belichick recalls that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger ran off-tackle from the shotgun five years ago in his rookie season. Hines Ward has also taken snaps for the Steelers.
Clearly the growth has ramped up this season. The Baltimore Ravens have put second-year quarterback and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the shotgun and run a version of the zone-read option. The Kansas City Chiefs scored on Nov. 2 when tailback Jamaal Charles took a direct snap and pitched on a reverse to wideout Mark Bradley, who then threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who was flanked wide right. "Pretty exciting," says Thigpen. "When I got deep, I looked back and I was thinking, Is he throwing the ball to me? As long as I'm out there and some sort of threat, the defense can't just all-out blitz every play."
NFL defenses were clearly caught flat-footed by the Wildcat. "We knew this stuff was out there," says Belichick. "But until somebody shows it, you're not going to spend practice time preparing for it. Now we will, absolutely." In the mongoose-snake game between offensive and defensive evolution, the first defensive response has been to load up the line of scrimmage because the Wildcat backs are run-first marginal passers. The offensive response is obvious: create a pass threat.
The Atlanta Falcons have run several direct-snap plays to running back Jerious Norwood, who played some high school quarterback in Mississippi. "You can hear the defenses just checking off like crazy, getting ready for the run," Norwood says. "But I can throw it." Imagine the threat if he could throw it like Falcons starter Matt Ryan.
BREAKING THE MOLD?
In the winter of 2001, 36-year-old Urban Meyer scored his first head coaching job, at Bowling Green University. He looked at his roster, looked at the increasingly stout competition in the Mid-American Conference and concluded that he would need an edge. He borrowed the rudiments of his passing game from Scott Linehan, who was then offensive coordinator at Louisville. But Meyer still needed a running game, and he wanted to make his quarterback a viable part of it.
It was not an entirely novel concept. Back in 1991 Rich Rodriguez, then a 28-year-old, second-year head coach at Glenville State (an NAIA college in Glenville, W.Va.), had already pushed in that direction. While trying to operate a run-and-shoot offense, he put battered transfer quarterback Jed Drenning in a protective shotgun for an October game against Wingate University, which had beaten Glenville 63--0 the previous year. This time the loss was only 17--15, and soon Rodriguez was tinkering with running plays from the shotgun (including the now ubiquitous shotgun option, which came about when Drenning dropped a snap and ran with the ball). "Whatever incarnation of Rich's offense exists today," says Drenning, "it was born that day when we played Wingate."