Wildcat revives another Dolphins season
The Miami Dolphins were threatening to score, and Chad Henne hesitated halfway between the huddle and the bench, waiting to see whether the coaches wanted him in the game for the next snap. Henne looked to the sideline, started for the huddle, then reversed direction and trotted off the field. The Dolphins' wildcat keeps everyone guessing, even their quarterback. Miami is using the throwback formation more than ever, to the consternation of the competition. And for the second year in a row, the wildcat has helped revive the Dolphins' season. They used the package 16 times Monday, including on their final play to score the winning touchdown with 6 seconds left in a pivotal game against the New York Jets. With the victory, the Dolphins climbed back into contention in the AFC East, reaching their bye week at 2-3 after an 0-3 start. Teams dislike losing to the single wing. Jets linebacker Calvin Pace complained the wildcat was nonsense, and coach Rex Ryan belittled it as a gimmick that reminded him of college. Triggerman Ronnie Brown's response: "It works for us." Skeptics question the staying power of a package that dates back a century and poses little passing threat. Many NFL teams have played copycat and tried the wildcat, with little success. But the Dolphins are using it 13 percent of the time, compared with 11 percent a year ago, when the wildcat launched an improbable run to the postseason. They've used it five plays in a row. They've deployed it even on third and long - and made the first down. In all, Miami has snapped directly to running backs Brown or Ricky Williams 45 times this season, throwing only twice but still averaging 7.1 yards per play. "You tell me what other offense is going around like that," offensive coordinator Dan Henning says. Against the Jets, the Dolphins established a new high with their 16 wildcat snaps, which gained 110 yards. They threw from the formation for the first time this year, and Brown's 21-yard completion started a touchdown drive. With the game on the line on third-and-goal and 10 seconds remaining, the Dolphins decided the wildcat was their best option. Brown scored on a 2-yard keeper up the middle for the victory. "In critical situations, why wouldn't you want the ball in Ronnie Brown's or Ricky Williams' hands?" coach Tony Sparano says. "I feel comfortable with those odds." The wildcat makes the Dolphins difficult to defend but fun to watch. On their late 13-play TD drive to beat the Jets, the ball was snapped to four players, which might be an NFL record. That included rookie quarterback Pat White, who entered the game for three plays as a change of pace. "If it works, I'm smart," Sparano says. "If it didn't, I'm dumb." The package with White isn't considered part of the wildcat, but it's similar, with shotgun snaps and an emphasis on misdirection. The broad scope of the playbook eases the burden on second-year pro Henne, who's 2-0 as an NFL starter since Chad Pennington was sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury. Henne's happy to let others take some snaps. "The wildcat is just a great tribute to our offense," he says. "You see how many yards we get out there when we run it." When Sparano unveiled it as a first-year NFL coach last season, the Dolphins had lost 20 of their previous 21 games. The package produced four touchdowns in six plays in its debut, an upset of the Patriots, and it became a permanent part of the game plan. Sparano and his staff have done some tweaking this season. They no longer use an unbalanced line much, and the quarterback sometimes leaves the game rather than lining up as a decoy flanker. "They've got one formation where they have four running backs out there at one time, which is crazy," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis says. Sparano likes the package because it creates space for the ball carrier, even between the tackles, where Brown often runs after taking the snap. Once he and Williams have momentum, they're hard to stop. "The reason it is good for us and may not be good for everyone else is the people," Sparano says. "I don't know if everybody has those kinds of pieces. Our runners are running through arm tackles, and that's turning the 3-yard deals into 5-yard deals." Adds guard Justin Smiley: "We have the best tandem. Nobody wants to tackle those guys one on one in the open field." Defenses have responded with all sorts of schemes. They focus on the flanks. They stack the middle. They try even fronts and odd fronts. They replace a defensive back with a linebacker. They blitz. "We have seen everything," Sparano says. "You don't ever know the looks you're going to get." The wildcat doesn't work every week, and it might not work next Sunday against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints. But no one has found a permanent solution for Miami's revival of the Pop Warner playbook. "We still have a few plays we haven't showed," Brown says. "We have things still to come." The Dolphins might be saving some new wrinkles for the postseason.