The Cold, Hard Football Facts, if they had emotion, would love Miami’s Wildcat offense.
It’s the best thing to happen to the NFL since the advent of (take your pick) the 4-3 defense, the deep-fried turkey or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader — a titillating sensory marvel for hard-core pro football fans and bloodthirsty shut-ins.
The Wildcat brings a sense of college-style creativity to the cold, corporate, copycat No Fun League. In college ball, you might see on any given Saturday a team such as Air Force that uses the wishbone and considers the forward pass an affront to the gridiron Gods, or a team like Texas Tech that throws the ball on almost every play and acts as if the forward pass was banned with the leather helmet.
Hell, the Cold, Hard Football Facts still love the well-orchestrated staple of Marshfield High School football, the 1930s vintage wing-T.
In the NFL, sadly, virtually every offense looks the same and the only thing that changes is the level of execution. Sure, one team might pass 55 percent of the time and another might run 55 percent of the time.
But, generally speaking, offensive strategy in the NFL over the last 25 years has offered the same monotonous variety as a tube of Pringles.
Which brings us back to the Wildcat: Miami’s brilliant strategic effort to rebrand a franchise that’s been on the decline since 1973.
The Wildcat is a throwback to the multi-purpose offensive theory that defined pro and college football in their early days, before the advent of the T-formation in the 1930s, which created the modern QB (and, like the wildcat, was another innovation brought to the NFL from the college ranks).
Back then, any of the four backs might be called upon to run the ball or pass it on any given play. There was no quarterback as we know him today: the guy who calls all the plays, takes all the snaps and throws all the passes. The only difference with Miami’s Wildcat and the old-school style is that the Dolphins still have a modern-style quarterback on the roster who’s a passing specialist, calls the plays and is no threat to break a long run.
But, as it was in the old days, as many as four guys on the Miami roster will take snaps in a given game or even in a given drive:
• A QB named Chad (Pennington last year, Henne this year)
• Running back Ricky Williams
• Running back and Wildcat centerpiece Ronnie Brown
• Rookie QB/RB hybrid Pat White, whose selection in the second round of the 2009 draft proved Miami’s commitment to this new-to-the-NFL offensive strategy.
So, the Wildcat is a physical and logistical impossibility: it’s a stale breath of fresh air. The Cold, Hard Football Facts love the juxtaposition of old and new.
The Wildcat’s statistical window dressing
So that’s the history of the Wildcat and the insight into the black icy heart of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
But here’s the bottom line about the Wildcat: None of it matters. It’s all bells, whistles and BS.
The Wildcat is, at the end of the day, little more than window dressing that shades the eternal truth of pro football over the past 70 years: The team that wins the passing battle wins the game.
The Dolphins of the past two seasons aren’t the exception to this rule, as Wildcat advocates contend. They are the proof of this rule.
Miami unleashed the new offense upon the NFL last year in Week 3 at New England and romped, 38-13 — a score nobody saw coming. After all, it was New England’s first loss after a record 21 straight regular-season victories and it was one of the biggest margins of defeat the Patriots have suffered in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era (trailing only the 31-0 loss in Week 1 of the 2003 season).
Naturally, this newfangled formation generated — and deserved — much of the credit for the shocking Miami win. The Patriots weren’t prepared for the Wildcat and proved incapable of stopping it. Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns that day in what was and remains the best outing of his career.
It led to an immediate change of fortunes for the Dolphins: after a 1-15 season in 2007 and an 0-2 to start 2008, they went on a shocking 11-3 run the rest of the year and wrested the AFC East title from the Patriots to complete the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history.
Patriots fans, in general, gobbled up the Wildcat Kool-Aid, largely because the Patriots were the first and greatest victim of it.
But the performance against New England that day was really a one-time event: a first impression that set in motion the belief that the Dolphins won last year because they ran over and around teams with their innovative new offense.
But the 2008 Dolphins didn’t enjoy unexpected success because they ran the ball so well. The 2008 Dolphins enjoyed unexpected success because they suddenly passed the ball so well. Here’s the proof:
• The 1-15 Dolphins of 2007 averaged 4.0 YPA running the ball — 16th in the NFL.
• The 11-5 Dolphins of 2008 averaged 4.2 YPA running the ball — 15th in the NFL.
So, the much-improved Dolphins of 2008 barely improved over the awful Dolphins of 2007 in their ability to run the ball. They were mediocre running the ball each year.
But take a look at Miami’s passing game from 2007 to 2008:
• The 1-15 Dolphins of 2007 averaged 5.9 YPA passing the ball — 30th in the NFL
• The 11-5 Dolphins of 2008 averaged 7.4 YPA passing the ball — 7th in the NFL.
The much-improved Dolphins of 2008 showed a dramatic improvement in their ability to pass the ball. In fact, this improvement in Miami’s passing game was probably the greatest statistical story of 2008. But it was a story that barely got mentioned in the hype that surrounded the Wildcat.
Sure, the Wildcat might have aided the effort to improve the passing game. Teams suddenly had to “respect the run,” as they old football cliché goes.
But quarterback Chad Pennington took the vast majority of the snaps for the 2008 Dolphins. And he was no threat take off and run with the football. Likewise, the Dolphins are no threat to pass the ball when Brown is behind center — in the 21 games since the introduction of the Wildcat, he’s attempted a grand total of seven passes, completing three of them.
The underrated Pennington
But Pennington last year was a threat to pick apart defenses — and that’s what he did. Despite his reputation as a noodle-armed lightweight, Pennington has actually been one of the most effective passers in history.
He entered this 2009 season as the most accurate passer in NFL history (66.0 completion percentage) and as one of the most efficient in league history (his career passer rating of 90.1 is among the 10 best in history). When Pennington played for the Jets, meanwhile, his team consistently made the playoffs when he was healthy and failed to make the playoffs when he was injured.
Pennington, quite frankly, should have won the league MVP award last year for inspiring one of the great statistical turnarounds in the passing game and in the standings that the league has ever seen.
The healthy-Pennington-reaches-the-playoffs trend continued with Miami in 2008. But he’s injured this year and the Dolphins are just 3-4 and look unlikely to make the playoffs — even though the Wildcat offense is humming right along.
Miami’s downturn here in 2009 has coincided — as it always does for every team — with a downturn in its passing game.
• The Dolphins average 4.6 YPA on the ground this year — 9th in the NFL and even better than their performance in 2008.
• The Dolphins average 5.9 YPA through the air this year — 26th in the NFL and nearly as bad as their performance in the 1-15 season of 2007.
To put those numbers another way: The 2009 Dolphins are running the ball better than the franchise has in years and the Wildcat appears to be a bigger threat this year than it was last year. But the 2009 Dolphins aren’t as good as the 2008 Dolphins because their performance in the passing game has declined dramatically.
The pigskin “pundits” get it wrong again
The 2009 season has also provided us a classic, classic example of the futility of the Wildcat in and of itself and the preeminence of the passing game in pro football.
Back in Week 2, the Dolphins and the Wildcat statistically annihilated the Colts. Miami ran the ball 49 times for 239 yards and held the ball for more than three quarters of the game (45:07). The Colts ran the ball just 11 times (61 yards), snapped off just 35 offensive plays and held the ball for less than 15 minutes.
The pigskin “pundits” would lead you to believe that running the ball well and controlling the clock are the keys to victory in the passing game.
But the Colts won that night, 27-23, because they dominated the passing game. Peyton Manning ripped off huge chunks of yards with his aerial assault (23 attempts for 303 yards) while the still-healthy Pennington couldn’t get out of his own way (33 attempts for 183 yards). Teams that dominate the passing battle the way the Colts did that night almost always win, regardless of what happens on the ground or with the play clock.
The pigskin “pundits” would also lead you to believe that the Wildcat succeeded last year because it confused defenses, opening up lanes on the ground and through the air for the Miami offense.
But the defensive confusion created by the Wildcat is wildly overrated. There’s almost no chance the Dolphins are going to pass the ball when Brown, Williams or White get behind center (a combined eight pass attempts since 2008). There’s a very good chance they’re going to run a traditional NFL offense when their traditional quarterback (now Henne) is behind center.
So, the Dolphins, despite all the excitement and curiosity that the Wildcat brings to the game, are no different than any other NFL team: They live and die behind the performance of their passer.