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Into the Wildcat

Coming off of a 1-15 season and following it up with two losses to start the next campaign, the Miami Dolphins had nothing to lose. So they put a running back at quarterback, shifted their quarterback to wide receiver, and pulled off the most shocking single-season turnaround in NFL history. Ten years later, the wildcat has come and gone, but its reverberations are felt across the league.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

In football years, one decade might as well be a century. Ten years ago, the wildcat ripped the league in half, Aaron Rodgers made his first start for the Packers, Brett Favre played 16 games for the Jets, the Patriots missed the playoffs, and most shocking of all, Jeff Fisher coached a team that won—you’re really not gonna believe this—13 whole games. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going. So, to better understand what’s ahead in 2018, we’re spending this week looking back on what happened 10 years before. Welcome to 2008 Week!

Of all the emotional reactions ever to occur on a football field, this, assuredly, was a first. Giggling. Loud, uncontrollable nonstop laughter. It was coming from Patrick Cobbs, a 25-year-old third-string running back for the Miami Dolphins. He was lined up across from New England’s Rodney Harrison, a star safety for the best team in the sport, in the second half of a September 2008 game in Foxborough that would go on to influence everything that happened in the NFL during the following decade.

A few yards behind Cobbs was Ronnie Brown, the Dolphins’ star running back, lined up at quarterback, running variations of the same six plays over and over again with stunning success. Running across the backfield on every play was Ricky Williams, another Dolphins star running back. Lined up as a receiver with Cobbs was Chad Pennington, a quarterback who was not known as much of a threat in the open field, averaging 5.2 rushing yards per game in his career. Brown could run up the middle, flip the ball to Williams, pass to a receiver himself, or flip it to Pennington who would then throw it to a receiver. Harrison told me that in his six years in New England, it was the only time the Patriots were unprepared for something. In fact, it may have been the only time they weren’t overprepared, he said. Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of his generation, had no answers for the wildcat offense. Various Dolphins could hear linebacker Mike Vrabel yelling “play real football!” at his opponents.

“Rodney was mad. Very mad. He was mad at me touching him, he was mad at getting the ball run down their throat, he was mad at every block,” Cobbs said. “I couldn’t do anything but laugh, every single play.” On the last of Brown’s four rushing touchdowns, a 62-yard sprint, Harrison flung Cobbs to the ground. “He’s on top of me and I’m just laughing and laughing. He was getting more mad. I jumped up and just couldn’t stop laughing.”

Such was the drubbing that in the fourth quarter, his team up more than 20, Miami quarterbacks coach David Lee hustled over to Pennington and said that the Patriots were so confused that if the Dolphins ran one of their trick pass plays, “cross country,” they would score an easy touchdown from anywhere on the field. Pennington begged off running the play, not wanting to run up the score. “That stuff comes back to bite you,” Pennington told Lee. “Of course,” Lee said, “I wanted to beat the dog out of them.”

Instead, the team ran “cross country” two weeks later against the Houston Texans for a 53-yard touchdown. Cobbs, as he put it, was “embarrassingly open,” and Pennington underthrew him, but Cobbs had so much room that he was able to stop, collect the pass, and keep going. Lee, confused, asked Pennington how he could underthrow such a pass to a wide-open target, and Pennington said that he had never seen a player that open, and it was as though his arm didn’t know what to do.

Coming into the game against New England, the Dolphins, losers of their first two games of the 2008 season and 20 of their previous 22 games overall, were perhaps the worst franchise in football. The Patriots, meanwhile, had won 21 straight regular-season games. The Dolphins won 38-13 and outgained the Patriots 461 to 215. This was not David and Goliath; there’s no way David could have run a jet sweep this well.

To so thoroughly dominate any Patriots team would be remarkable, as would a 10-win turnaround in one season. But a decade later, the enduring import of the 2008 Dolphins comes from how they did it.

“They’d just come off an undefeated season, three-quarters of their defense could be Hall of Famers, and we’ve got this college trick offense—so you had Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork each of them are saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’” said tackle Jake Long, whom the Dolphins drafted first overall the previous spring.

The 2008 Dolphins did not invent the modern offense; they invented a new way to think about offense. When offensive coaches unveiled the idea of the wildcat to head coach Tony Sparano, he was deeply skeptical and said, “This play is not pro football,” according to those in the room. That, of course, was the whole point.

The scheme worked its way into then out of the sport, but the kernel of an idea behind it has remained: Good ideas come from anywhere, and that there is no such thing as a pro offense. The Dolphins popped a coaching bubble that an entire league existed within, one that said everything that happens in the future must have already happened in the past. It is a team that proved that one smart idea can take you a long way.

“The NFL was vanilla ball then. No one was used to seeing this,” said tight end David Martin. “I never said it was a pro offense,” Lee told Sparano the first day they discussed the play. “I didn’t say it was anything but an offense that worked and that confused defenses.” Nobody, Chad Henne said, was stealing from college back then. Ten years later, the NFL now limitlessly borrows from other levels of football, and along with that borrowing has come near-constant innovation.

Sparano, who died last month, eventually turned his skepticism into a full-on embrace of one of the most interesting schemes in the history of football. The Dolphins, in turn, orchestrated one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in the history of the NFL.

A few hours after the New England game, Houston Nutt, the head coach who’d famously run the “wild hog” wildcat the year before with Arkansas against LSU when Lee was his offensive coordinator, wandered into a cafeteria in Oxford, Mississippi, where he’d recently taken the job as Ole Miss coach. In college, Sunday is for reviewing film of a loss to Vanderbilt and analyzing special teams, so he’d missed the live games. But as he walked out, he saw the highlights. He was stunned. He punched assistant Mike Markuson on the arm and called across the room to his brother Danny, who helped install the package the year before. “Oh my God, Danny,” he yelled across the room. “Look at this, you’re not going to believe it. That play is in the NFL, and the New England Patriots can’t stop it.”

This was the moment, he knew, everything had changed.

The meetings and practice in the weeks before the Dolphins unveiled the wildcat have taken on an almost mythical quality among those who were there.

“The feeling I got was, ‘This was either going to be awesome or a total disaster,’ and no one really knew which one it would be until the moment we ran the play against New England,” said wide receiver Greg Camarillo. “We are either going to get laughed at or lead SportsCenter.”

In spring 2008, offensive coordinator Dan Henning asked Lee for a presentation on the play. Henning had run a different version of the wildcat while he was a coordinator with the Carolina Panthers, so he was open to the idea. That meeting elicited Sparano’s skepticism about whether it was, in fact, a pro play. “He basically said, ‘Put it in the back of the playbook, but we’re not using it,’” Lee said. But Sparano got more intrigued as time went on. There were a few developments within the Dolphins that dovetailed to lead him toward the conclusion that the wildcat could be viable. The first is that Dolphins executive Bill Parcells had, toward the end of training camp, noticed there weren’t any plays in which Williams and Brown were on the field at the same time. The second is that the Dolphins were not very good.

Lee, with Sparano’s and Henning’s blessings, talked to the running backs with an idea for the wildcat as an occasional trick play: Williams would play quarterback and Brown would be in constant motion as a threat to run horizontally across the field on any play. Brown raised his hands and said he would be playing quarterback. He hadn’t played quarterback since peewee and he wasn’t a particularly good thrower. But, as he said, “I just wanted to be able to say I did it.”

Lee said this change in plans helped because Brown has significantly bigger hands than Williams and thus could handle the ball better. Shortly after, Lee took the main players into an indoor practice facility to work on the ball-handling portion in secret. Come the beginning of the season, the team was practicing it in full for a period each day.

“I can only tell you this. In all my years of coaching—43 years—I can never remember a bunch of offensive pros who were so captivated by something,” Lee said. “There was a look of, ‘This is going to work.’”

Coaches showed the entire offense tape of the 2007 Arkansas-LSU game where, with Lee as offensive coordinator, Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis, and Felix Jones stunned an LSU team that was considered the best in the country. The Arkansas wildcat had many fathers—former coordinator Gus Malzahn ran it in 2006, so did Lee, and Danny Nutt was the one that realized McFadden could throw the ball. Cobbs, thinking back to this, remembered being shocked at an NFL team studying college: “Teams would always steal plays one level up. We were taking a step backwards.”

Of the meeting where he was told about the play, tight end David Martin said, “We were all kind of like, ‘Uhhhh.’ I thought we’d never actually run it.”

They had roaring success in practice but everyone assumed that even if the wildcat was used, it would be once or twice over the entire season. “We didn’t know it would become who we were, become our identity, and we didn’t know it would change football,” said cornerback Andre’ Goodman.

The skepticism was dropped entirely in September, in the middle of a sleepy flight back after a shellacking by the Arizona Cardinals which dropped the Dolphins to 0-2. Sparano asked to speak to Lee. “Can you promise me—if we put that wildcat stuff in—that we won’t fumble? If the ball goes on the ground one time in practice, we are never doing it,” Sparano said.

Lee remembered clearing his throat. “Yeah, I promise,” he said.

“Of course,” Lee says now, “I couldn’t promise him that.”

In order to understand the type of desperation that led the Dolphins to this point, you have to understand the mood surrounding the franchise in September 2008. About 18 months earlier, head coach Nick Saban ditched the franchise for Alabama. Drew Brees, who was the Dolphins’ target in 2006 until team doctors grew concerned about his shoulder, signed with New Orleans instead and became one of the best quarterbacks in modern history. Cam Cameron, the coach for the 2007 season, tried to calm a hoard of booing fans, upset about the first-round selection of Ted Ginn Jr., by giving a thumbs up and saying, “We need that thumb to go in this direction.” His motto for the season was “fail forward fast.” The team listened and went 1-15. Miami then hired Parcells to run football operations and Sparano to coach the team. The team’s most famous player, Jason Taylor, was traded to Washington after a Dancing With the Stars controversy. The hype surrounding the new regime ran aground quickly—they lost their first two games in uninspiring affairs. “We had absolutely nothing to lose,” said Camarillo, who was a kind of folk hero in Miami for scoring the overtime touchdown that prevented the Dolphins from going 0-16 the previous year.

And so, based on that hopelessness and Lee’s promise to Sparano, the wildcat was a go. “Tony was very skeptical because he was worried about turnovers—but we ran the damn thing 210 times and we never had a turnover,” said Henning. “Zero. Not a fumble, not an interception.”

Beyond the sheer absurdity of seeing a quarterback in the slot and a running back under center, the most remarkable thing about the scheme, especially early on, was its sheer simplicity. It was the same personnel on every play: two tight ends, three running backs. There were six plays. Power up the middle with Brown, sweep on the end with Williams, a counter on the backside of the play, and three passes tacked onto each one. “It was power running, but dressing it up a little bit,” said Dolphins guard Ikechuku Ndukwe. “It wasn’t reinventing the wheel.”

“I was nervous to ever run it,” Brown said. “But I wanted to give it a shot.” The first time the Dolphins ran it, Brown noticed that the Patriots had no idea where to line up. “They didn’t know how to shift the front, they didn’t know how to line up. They didn’t know how to communicate. I thought, ‘OK, we have a chance, we’re gonna use this again.’” He couldn’t believe it was working.

Goodman said that when the team noticed the Patriots had absolutely no idea what to do, there was a buzz on the sideline like he’d never experienced. He paused to find the right phrase. “You know what it was? It was knowing there was blood in the water and knowing that it was time to sniff it out.”

One of the best things about the wildcat, according to Harrison, was that the more you tried to stop it, the less likely you were to accomplish that goal. It’s a finger trap of an offense, where trying really hard just makes things worse. “The problem is, if you do too much, you’ll fail,” he said. “You can’t try to shoot a gap you weren’t supposed to. You can’t run around a block, you can’t guess on a blitz. Frustration won’t help you. You have to be disciplined defense against the wildcat.”

The play can be traced back, on the surface, to the very start of football. It’s often compared to a version of the single wing, developed by Pop Warner over 100 years ago. In October, when the play was rolling, Parcells came into Lee’s office and joked, “This is nothing but the single wing!” Lee said. “I believe you,” but said he’d never studied the play.

The wildcat is, in essence, a math problem. If you remove a pure passer from the equation, you have an extra blocker and you will always have an advantage when trying to move the ball down the field. If the defense wants to stack the line of scrimmage, Brown—or anyone with a functional arm—could just throw. Harrison went out of his way to praise the Dolphins’ blocking schemes. The offensive coaches explained that the wildcat solved a long-standing issue: How do you develop a quarterback run game without threatening the health of the quarterback? Don’t use the quarterback. “With the trigger man, if you ran that in the NFL [all the time], you’d run out of quarterbacks,” said James Saxon, then the Dolphins’ running backs coach, now with the Steelers.

In practice, the wildcat was deadly but the idea of the wildcat was even more valuable.

After Sparano’s death, Camarillo talked with Shaun Phillips, the former Chargers linebacker, about facing the 2008 Dolphins that October. Phillips explained to him that the Chargers spent a whole day of practice on defending the wildcat. “We had five plays—we would practice it for 30 minutes, and other teams were spending the whole day on it,” Camarillo said. “That was part of its effectiveness—forcing teams to spend time on it.” The Dolphins, hilariously, barely used the wildcat against the Chargers in Miami’s 17-10 win.

“Our regular offense—which didn’t need any help because Chad Pennington is great—would work even better because everyone was so concerned with the wildcat and we could just run our normal offense,” said Cobbs. He estimates that in most games, the team was in wildcat 20 percent of the time. “And teams would practice wildcat 100 percent of the time. We got very basic defensive looks.” This, he said, led to a season-long phenomenon in which the vast majority of teams showed exactly the looks they’d put on tape in their three previous games, adding nothing to the library of defensive schemes because they were so worried about Brown and Williams. “They wouldn’t have any wrinkles,” Cobbs said. “None.”

This influence spread to other areas. Sparano wanted to install an unbalanced line, where one side has an extra tackle. Since defenses were simpler to read because of the fear of the wildcat, blockers could wreck defensive lines more easily.

But nothing was as automatic as the wildcat package against a predictable defense—mostly basic man coverage. “When teams gave us the looks we thought they would, it was basically stealing,” Cobbs said. Lee said that Williams running across the field was the key to the whole play. “That’s what froze linebackers, that’s what made all the blocks softer,” he said, comparing him to Jones’s role in the Arkansas version.

Camarillo, who came off the field during the wildcat package, remembers seeing safeties get excited that they’d figured out the running play—only to see the Dolphins pass out of it. “You’d always see the defenses get sucked in,” he said. “On the pass to Patrick in Houston, you see the safety, he’s saying, ‘I got this, wildcat, no problem,’ and you just see him totally flip out when Patrick gets the ball.”

It is the perfect play, Goodman said, because no one has enough eye discipline to keep up. “There always looks like there’s a lot more going on than there really is,” he said.

The offense built on itself until Brown was comfortable enough to read plays and run what is effectively a zone read. Cobbs said that against Seattle in Week 10, Brown was running an advanced form—over two years before the so-called zone-read revolution with quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson. “That’s where the QB-zone-read stuff comes from. Ronnie got to a point where he was reading whether to give it to Ricky, and Ricky broke a huge run with the zone read against Seattle,” Cobbs said. “It got to a point where everyone would have a little smile when the plays were called. Everyone wanted to hear what plays would come out of Pennington’s mouth.”

For all of its schematic shock, the wildcat would never exist without Brown and Williams, two of the most talented runners of the 2000s. Their smarts made the package go. The wildcat was a confidence game: Everyone—teammates, coaches, or opponents—praised Brown’s ability to pass except, well, Brown himself. He and Williams would play catch but wouldn’t do much else out of the ordinary to develop as a passer. He learned to throw from baseball, an unorthodox lefty pass. “I wasn’t comfortable dropping back,” Brown said. “But I understood the game.” The mere threat of Brown throwing paralyzed defenses and made the field more wide open for the running game. He threw the ball three times the entire season.

Brown had a teammate to match his wits in Williams. Parcells told coaches long before the wildcat launched that he envisioned both running backs playing simultaneously, similar to when he was an assistant at Florida State in the early 1970s and the team employed the split-back offense. This, of course, was split backs to the extreme. Cobbs said there was a type of panic in defenses when the Dolphins would come out in a weird alignment with Brown ready to take the snap and Williams in motion. “Here comes the wildcat!” they’d yell. “Or some guys would just throw up their hands.”

Fullback Lousaka Polite remembers film sessions with Williams as a sort of revelation. He was, Polite remembers, right about everything. In fact, Polite said Williams was one of the smartest running backs in history and a player who simplified the sport more than any player he’s been around.

“He’d just sort of say, ‘Hey, if they align this way, we’re going to score,’ and then we’d line up Sunday, and it’d be that look and I’d go, ‘Holy crap, this thing might pop,’ and then it did.” Polite said Williams may have been the most misunderstood player in the league. During their tenure as teammates, one moment against the New Orleans Saints sticks out: a toss play, which Polite explains, is among a running back’s least favorite plays because the toss is usually so wide that it leaves him with little room to operate. Williams told Polite in the film session that he wouldn’t have to hit the player in front of him, just a little nudge. Polite, ever interested in destroying players, didn’t believe Williams or even understand how he knew this since that sort of thing never happened. Sure enough, “I just sorta had to push him out of the way,” Polite remembers, on the way to Williams’s 68-yard score. “There were so many times he’d yell, ‘Just go! I’ve got this.’”

“I never thought we’d run it, and I knew we wouldn’t run it against New England,” Martin said.

When I mentioned to Henning that the wildcat worked well against New England, he cut me off. “It didn’t work well,” he said. “It worked perfectly.”

One thing players remember fondly is Sparano saying casually before the game: “Don’t be surprised if we’re winning this game at the half.” Of course, they were up 21-6 at the half.

“[The Patriots] were lost,” said Ndukwe. “I mean, absolutely lost.”

After any big play in an NFL game, Camarillo explained, you’ll see the position group that gave it up huddling to figure out who blew what assignments and how to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. “The Patriots had their whole defense huddling up around a whiteboard, using all of their energy to try to stop this thing,” Camarillo said. “It makes sense—how are you going to prepare for something a college team did once, randomly? It was total confusion. It was amazing. I’d never seen the Patriots look like that and I’ve never seen them look like that since.” Harrison said those sideline huddles were … not fun. They were heated, frustrated affairs. “You could see—we’d run power, power then a bootleg and the entire Patriots’ defense would go, ‘Wait a minute,’” Martin said. “They were playing slower, they were trying to read stuff and we were just playing so fast.”

In some ways, the wildcat was the last mark Parcells left on the league. He arrived in Miami as a 67-year-old recovering from a strange Dallas tenure that ended in January 2007. Everyone has a Parcells story—wandering onto the field and delivering a phrase that cut right to the players’ competitive spirit, that kind of thing. After a game against Kansas City in which Goodman thought he’d played well, Parcells showed up at practice and asked him, “At what point in time did you feel you’d want to try to make that tackle on Larry Johnson when he turned the corner?,” referencing the one mistake he’d made all game. Brown was recovering from a blown knee the year before the wildcat season. For training camp, “the doctor told me to take it easy, limit the plays,” Brown remembered. “So the trainer tells Bill, ‘He can’t practice,’ and Bill’s response was ‘Well, he can run, let’s just make him run.’ So he makes me do these timed, 50-yard sprints and I was like, ‘Well, if I’m going to do this I’ll just go practice.’”

The Dolphins went on to win the AFC East and make the playoffs—the only non-Patriots team to win the division since 2002. They clinched the division in a now-famous Week 17 game in New York against Brett Favre and the Jets. As the seconds ticked down and the Dolphins were starting to celebrate their victory, security came up to Jake Long. “They told us to put on our helmets and get close to the field because Jets fans were about to throw beer bottles at us.”

Eleven wins turned out to be the ceiling for this team, and it remains the pinnacle of the wildcat offense, which is survived by countless offensive innovations in the following years. Players and coaches generally agree that the wildcat’s run as an unstoppable force was finished by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round of the playoffs, when they gave the league a blueprint to stopping it by playing zone, giving the offense unorthodox looks, and blitzing their corners. The Ravens dismantled the Dolphins, 27-9.

Nutt said that during the fall and winter of 2008, he started to get more visits from scouts. “They’d call and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an assignment. How do you stop this thing?’” The answer, Nutt said, is fairly simple. Most wildcat offenses are not looking to throw, and pressure off the edge can wreck the play.

“If I had to do it again, I’d call Tim Tebow,” said Henning, thinking about how the era of the wildcat could have been extended. “He could certainly throw the ball as well as Ronnie Brown, and you know he could run. If you really wanted to take advantage of that, you call him. We could have made Tim Tebow effective.”

The Dolphins did not call Tebow, but they spent a second-round pick the following year on Pat White, the versatile West Virginia quarterback, with the wildcat in mind. White had his moments, Henning said. Against the Jets his rookie year, the team rushed the ball well with White and Brown in the backfield together. However, White suffered a severe concussion in a game against the Steelers that season, an injury that he never recovered from. Brown was also hurt that season, and, without the two of them, the wildcat worked its way out of heavy rotation. Henning still thinks the wildcat could work if an ex-quarterback who now played another position could run it with an athletic quarterback who could play receiver.

“The wildcat opened it up for guys labeled ‘athletes,’ who are versatile but don’t fit into positions, to get a shot in the NFL,” Brown said. “Everyone was looking for Tom Brady, not the versatile guys.”

The 2008 Dolphins were as shocking as they were fleeting. Brown and Williams were gone after 2010. Pennington started four career games after that season. “Within a few years, all the receivers were gone,” Henning said. So, too, was Henning, who retired after the 2010 season. Lee is an assistant in the newly formed Alliance of American Football, after stops in Cleveland and Buffalo. Parcells left the Dolphins full-time in 2010. The Dolphins have made the playoffs only once in the following decade. The wildcat was used sparingly by a handful of franchises—the Rex Ryan Jets used it with Tebow and Jeremy Kerley, for instance. But it was mostly wiped out by the read option with actual quarterbacks. The legacy remains; the play does not.

A few weeks ago, I’d asked someone connected to the Patriots organization what the legacy of the wildcat was. He mentioned jokingly that the last NFL game we all saw, Super Bowl LII, featured skill position players on both teams running complicated trick plays with their quarterbacks as receivers, including the now-infamous Philly Special. It lives on.

“To be able to pull something like that off at the pro level, that’s a legacy of its own,” Martin said. “To take something from a college perspective back then, that’s a legacy.”

“That Sunday in Foxborough,” Cobbs said, “changed the game.”

I asked Henning whether he thinks the football world ever turned its nose to the play. “We ran 12 plays, got four touchdowns and 300 yards,” Henning said. “Anyone that would sneer at that is an idiot.”

No one is laughing now. Well, except Cobbs.


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