OVER THE years the NFL has had its share of fad offensive schemes, but few as promising as the Wildcat. Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee suggested adding the formation to the playbook heading into a Week 3 matchup against New England after an 0--2 start, but conventional wisdom said that the single-wing-based scheme wouldn't work as well against the speed of pro defenses as it does at the college level. Miami proved otherwise.
The Dolphins used the formation effectively and often enough to help them tick off 11 victories in the next 14 games and win their first AFC East title since 2000. "We were just looking for some type of spark to get a win and were open to anything," says 10th-year quarterback Chad Pennington, who was signed by Miami last August after being cut by the Jets and ended up winning his second NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. "Once we started to see some success, it created all kinds of momentum."
Last year's Wildcat, which featured a backfield of two tailbacks—from among Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs—with the quarterback either lined up as a receiver or on the bench, accounted for just 8.4% of the Dolphins' snaps, but it was remarkably effective: 580 yards (10.5% of the team total) and eight touchdowns (20%) on 81 plays. Meanwhile, Pennington expertly directed the regular offense, throwing for career highs in completions (321) and passing yards (3,653), and leading the league in completion percentage (67.4).
Not surprisingly, other teams scrambled to adopt their own version of the triple option. By season's end 17 teams had run at least one Wildcat play that featured a direct snap to a player other than the quarterback, and even more are expected to run some form of the package in 2009.
In a bid to stay ahead of the pack, the Dolphins drafted West Virginia's Pat White in the second round. The NCAA's alltime rushing leader among quarterbacks, with 4,480 yards, White was thought by some to be a reach with the No. 44 pick, but Miami was enamored of his speed and elusiveness as a runner and impressed with his playmaking ability as a passer outside the pocket. Had he come out a year earlier, he almost certainly would have been shifted to wide receiver in the NFL. Instead, he'll get a shot at being the third quarterback and maybe much more as the triggerman in Wildcat 2.0. Last year all but 72 of the 580 yards gained in the Wildcat came on the ground, in part because the Dolphins did not have a skilled passer in the backfield to exploit the one-on-one matchups the formation created. And ultimately that hampered Miami's ability to score. After the Wildcat produced two touchdowns against Seattle in Week 10, the Dolphins didn't score another point with it for the rest of the year.
Miami hopes that White can stretch the field with his arm from the Wildcat, opening up opportunities for receivers such as Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Camarillo, who says he's all the way back from the season-ending left ACL tear he suffered in Week 11. "Now defenses aren't going to know if we're in the Wildcat or in one of our regular formations," says Brown, who went to his first Pro Bowl last year. "If one way isn't working, we have other things that we can do to get the ball in different guys' hands in different situations."
The Dolphins have put together a Pat Package in hopes of capitalizing on White's talents, but it's unlikely they'll stray much from last year's formula, given how well it worked—and how little of it they actually revealed. "For a long time we were going into games with three plays, and we'd run them over and over again," coach Tony Sparano says. "We left an awful lot of meat on the bone that we're eventually going to get to."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: TONY SPARANO
11--5 in NFL, second season with Dolphins
Ted GINN Jr.
RB Ricky Williams (160 att., 659 yards, 5 TTDs) will again spell Brown; 2008 second-round QB Chad Henne looms behind the brittle Pennington.
Sean SMITH (R)
With Taylor's return to Miami and switch to OLB, Matt Roth (53 tackles, 5 sacks) goes from 14-game starter to backup.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 11--5
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 11 > 10 > 12
DEFENSE 10 > 25 > 15
13 at Atlanta
21 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
27 at San Diego
12 N.Y. JETS (M)
25 NEW ORLEANS
1 at N.Y. Jets
8 at New England
15 TAMPA BAY
19 at Carolina (T)
29 at Buffalo
6 NEW ENGLAND
13 at Jacksonville
20 at Tennessee
NFL Rank: 1
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .594
Games against playoff teams: 6
Miami's remarkable '08 turnaround was aided by a schedule that included eight games against the weak AFC and NFC West divisions. This year the Dolphins get the much tougher AFC and NFC South. Their AFC East competition stiffened as well with the Jets' hiring of Rex Ryan, whose Ravens defense gave Chad Pennington fits in the regular season and playoffs last year.
Gibril Wilson, Free safety
SAY THIS for Wilson's brief stint in Oakland: It seemed like a good idea at the time. After helping the Giants win Super Bowl XLII two seasons ago, Wilson signed a six-year, $39 million deal with the Raiders, who hoped his work ethic and winning attitude would rub off on their dispirited locker room. And while his productivity didn't drop—he led all safeties in tackles last year, with 133—his enthusiasm eventually did. The more the Raiders lost, the more he realized he was stuck in a scheme that wasn't capitalizing on his coverage instincts. (He had only two interceptions after getting four in 2007.) Wilson's deliverance finally came on Feb. 20, when he was due a $4.9 million roster bonus. Rather than pay it, Oakland released him. "That was the best thing that happened to me in a long time," says the 27-year-old Wilson, who signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with Miami six days later.
A measure of toughness was missing from Miami's pass defense, which yielded 227.8 yards a game, eighth worst in the league last year. The Dolphins' hope is that their premier pass rush will free up Wilson to challenge receivers and make more plays. "I'm looking forward to not being an in-the-box safety," says the sixth-year veteran. "In this defense I'll actually get to use the skills I learned in my years with the Giants."
MULTITOOL White, the NCAA's alltime rushing leader among QBs, is ideal for the new attack.