Two weeks after the New York Jets allowed ESPN to set up shop and broadcast live from their training camp in Cortland for five straight days, all cameras were asked to temporarily leave the premises on Monday. The beat writers on hand were politely asked to not write about what they were about to witness and the local TV crews were advised to shut their lenses for a few minutes.
The team that had long ago committed itself to owning New York City’s back pages was now pulling a double reverse on its media game plan. The team so open to media coverage that their backup quarterback was given an introductory press conference with over 200 credentialed reporters back in March was now going Belichick-style and shutting the press corps out, cold turkey. Sal Paolantonio had covered the latest Jeff Otah news on ‘SportsCenter’ like it was Watergate for a week and Hannah Storm looked so comfortable schmoozing with Mark Sanchez up in her perch out in Cortland that it appeared as though ESPN would have to relocate its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to central New York.
But now the media was being told to drop their pens and turn off their handheld devices. What could cause such a drastic change in direction? Such a significant switch in strategy?
Well, only the hottest offensive formation from the first half of the 2008 season, of course.
The wildcat was unveiled, practiced and potentially mastered up in Cortland this week, and like any highly controversial internal operation, it was shrouded in secrecy. As part of the rules for attending practice, media members were not permitted to report any details of the wildcat package. This led to many eye rolls and jokes by a pessimistic media contingent, but perhaps was for the best.
"I think some things are going really well," backup quarterback Tim Tebow told reporters on Wednesday. "I feel like we’re executing some things pretty good. Obviously the more reps you get, the more comfortable you are with all the backs, the line, all the different checks and such, but I feel like it’s going pretty well."
The wildcat took the league by storm back in September 2008. Brought over from the college ranks by former Arkansas offensive assistant David Lee, Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano rolled out the package with great success in a Week 3 38-13 victory over the New England Patriots. In what was the team’s first win of the season, the Miami offense used three direct snaps to running back Ronnie Brown en route to the upset victory. Trick plays led to four of the team’s five offensive touchdowns that afternoon and the package became an overnight sensation as hot as slap bracelets or ‘Call Me Maybe.’
The wildcat worked for a bit. There’s no denying that it certainly had its moment in the sun. Several teams, including the Jets, adopted it and inserted variations of what the Dolphins were doing into their playbooks. Miami was so high on the package that they used a second-round pick the following April on Pat White, a mobile college quarterback out of West Virginia, who they viewed as the prototype for the formation.
But like any pop sensation, the wildcat’s time came and went. The experiment was a fleeting one and once the subtle surprise of the package wore off, it was just another offensive formation that could be neutralized. Defensive coordinators caught on rather quickly, Pat White got injured and never developed into the player the Dolphins hoped he’d be, and the package was all but obsolete by the start of the 2011 season. It’d become a typewriter in a MacBook world; a pair of bellbottoms amidst a sea of Brooklyn hipsters in skinny jeans.
But the Jets haven’t given up on it yet. They’re hoping to defy the odds, defy the sea of critics and really, to defy the times by bringing the wildcat back in 2012. And if there’s one player — one person on this Earth, really — who could possibly resuscitate the near-extinct offensive package, it’s Tim Tebow.
"Guys, the wildcat is tough to defend," Jets coach Rex Ryan said earlier this week. "Are we going to do it? Of course. At some point, we’re going to do it. Some people think the wildcat has come and gone. No it hasn’t. If anything, it’s just the opposite."
It’s easy to get sucked into Ryan’s enthusiasm. He’s very convincing. You hear the excitement and confidence in his voice and you want to buy whatever he’s selling. Then again, this is the same guy who predicted a Super Bowl; the same guy who talked smack to Brandon Jacobs and Justin Tuck a season ago; the same guy who had faith in an Adam Sandler film that starred both him and Dan Patrick in leading roles. Enthusiasm must be tempered — especially with all the juice around the Tebow-operated wildcat package this week.
The Jets play the crosstown Giants in a much anticipated preseason game Saturday night and there’s already been a lot of talk about last year’s Christmas Eve showdown, the New York City media’s obsession with the Jets rather than the defending Super Bowl champions, and the two different worlds these two teams live in.
But the wildcat is the real story. Ryan and Sparano, now the offensive coordinator in New York, have been treating the package like it’s some sort of Manhattan Project this week, fine-tuning it in a secure bunker up in the nether regions of central New York. Unless Tebow comes out with a jetpack and flies over the Giants defensive line, I’m not sure why this formation was handled with such delicacy compared to the countless others that were practiced and perfected in Cortland the past three weeks.
Either way, it’s a double-edged sword with a fascinating output for Gang Green.
If the Jets, who gave Mark Sanchez a $20 million extension this offseason to be their starting quarterback, have great success with Tebow in the wildcat formation this weekend, watch out. Fans are going to want to see it and they’re going to want to see it often. Deservedly so. That means more Tim Tebow and less Mark Sanchez on the football field. That means more Tebow touchdowns and less Sanchez red zone opportunities. That means quarterback controversy, potential locker room problems, and a three ring circus before Week 1.
And if it fails? Well, then the coaching staff is going to have to go back into its underground bunker and put even more bells and whistles on the package. They’ll find a way to make it work, and if Tebow’s history in this league is any indication, it eventually will. But reinventing the wildcat into something fresh, something that hasn’t run its course, will come at the expense of polishing and perfectly other offensive formations and plays.
Hey, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.
Billy Joel, a Jets fan himself, once sang, "the King and the Queen went back to the green, but you can never go back there again." Sparano’s going back to the wildcat and he finally has the guy he’s always dreamed of running it. But has its day come and gone? Can he break out yesterday’s fashion with today’s prize?
As is the case with the rest of the many storylines surrounding the Jets’ 2012 season, we shall see.