This is the fourth in an occasional series called A Series of Short Takes, on topics of current interest. Unlike almost all of these posts, this one has nothing to do with religion or politics. Instead, it deals with an even more incendiary topic – professional football. You have been warned.
The hottest new trend in pro football is a really odd one, as it is essentially the re-introduction of the earliest offensive sets – the option attack out of the single or double wing. A bit of background, for the unaware: the “pro-set” offense is the quarterback under center, with two backs in the backfield, split either side (split backs) or lined up behind one another (power I). The wildcat formation, however, is almost always set up with a non-specialized quarterback (usually a running back or a wide receiver) in the shotgun, and running backs of various quantities scattered all over the backfield. The “quarterback” then takes the snap and executes the triple option: run with the ball himself, hand the ball (or pitch out) to another runner, or throw it.
Long a staple of college offenses (Tim Tebow his freshman year was essentially a wildcat runner), this attack has made its way onto the pros, though it is still being treated with some contempt by certain commentators as a “gimmick” that will fade. I don’t think so. Here is why.
2. Wildcat formations add one more offensive threat on running plays. Ordinarily, the QB is just a messenger – often for both teams – as his job is to hand the ball off, and that’s it. If he’s good, he can often maintain the illusion that he still has the ball, and draw a moment’s hesitation from the defense. If he’s not Peyton Manning, he can’t, and the defense knows that’s one player they don’t have to account for. Thus it’s 11-on-10 for the defense. The wildcat, however, eliminates this advantage. The “quarterback” now is a running threat, evening the numbers. He is almost ALWAYS good at this particular ball fake, which means that the defense has hesitation, period. This is a fractional advantage for the offense, but fractional advantages can produce large gains.
3. Option QB’s employed in this formation – Pat White of Miami comes to mind – are even harder to deal with. White is FAST. He has WR speed. He also has a potent (if inaccurate) arm. Thus with White in the formation at QB, ALL of the possibilities have to be accounted for, pass and run. Again, it’s an incremental advantage for the offense.
4. Against defenses that have learned how to react to the wildcat by stuffing the box, often the formation includes the starting QB in the slot. If the defense sets up 8 or 9 in the box, the starting QB slides over and takes the snap, and now you have Braylon Edwards in man coverage on the outside.
Short of it is, the wildcat is not a gimmick, in my opinion. I think it is a relatively permanent advantage to the offense. It will not win you championships all by itself, but it will give you small advantages in key situations. Small advantages are all you’re looking for. In the NFL, it’s all you can expect. If you can get the defense to cover one of your wideouts with a linebacker a couple times a game, then you can do some serious damage (see Collie, Austin, Colts vs. Titans, Oct. 11 2009). If you’re Miami, it can mean the difference between 6-10 and 8-8 and the playoffs.