NFL Coaches still fussing about the wildcat

ronniebrownJon Gruden will one day run the spread in the NFL. Either that, or he will die trying. People may not realize it, but Gruden coached the run and shoot under Walt Harris at Pacific, and gave some thought to committing to that offense full time. Instead he made a career choice to focus on the west coast offense. From that perspective (two NFL coaching gigs and a Super Bowl), it worked out. But he is not averse to being wide open, and he clearly is enamored with the wildcat and what the spread guys are doing in college. (Keep in mind that his brother Jay was an Arena league player and coach for a long time.) Gruden has spent the whole offseason focusing on the spread, including attending Urban Meyer’s coaching clinic at Florida this past spring (with Bill Belichick, who raved about Gruden’s clinic lecture). Anyway Gruden is back at it now that Vick has been signed:

Gruden is bullish on the limitless NFL possibilities of the spread offense and its baby brother, the Wildcat formation. It’s become all the rage in college football, and Gruden thinks the time is ripe to bring it in a big way to the pros. . . .

“I wanted to use it last year, but we had some injuries and shied away from it a little bit,” Gruden said. “But it’s been something I’ve been studying.

“When you pick up a college tape, 90 percent of those guys, you never see them under center. Ever. All you’re seeing is spread-read options. There are guys like Tim Tebow, who is going to be coming out next year, somebody is going to take him, and somebody is going to have a plan for him. Vince Young has struggled the last couple of years. But he was wicked in that Rose Bowl game against USC. He ran for 200 and threw for 200.

“Then there’s Vick. He’s certainly a candidate to run the spread. Everybody’s got a guy [who can run it]. Brad Smith with the Jets. Michael Robinson in San Francisco. Isaiah Stanback in Dallas. Everybody’s got a guy that can throw a little bit. I think there’s a wave coming.”

I’m inclined to agree.

The article goes on to note further reactions from around the NFL. If one thing is clear, there will be, at least early in the season, plenty of experimentation with this stuff. Whether it is that good remains to be seen.

“What the league hasn’t seen yet is the Wildcat with a true passing threat there,” said Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who spent 7 years as the head coach at William Tennent and North Penn high schools. “Because if you have both, whether it’s a Vick or a Pat White, the key is whether he can withstand the punishment of basically playing tailback as well [as quarterback]. How long will they be able to withstand the pounding of it?”

While Pettine acknowledges that Vick certainly will pose problems for opposing defenses in the Wildcat, he thinks the Dolphins’ White, who was taken in the second round of April’s draft, actually might be better fit for the role.

“A lot of [Vick’s] runs [with the Falcons] were scrambles,” he said. “I don’t think they had a lot of designed runs for him. Plus, it remains to be seen whether he can withstand the type of punishment you’re going to take playing almost a tailback-type position. “Pat White, to me, would be a [ideal Wildcat] guy. He had a lot of called quarterback runs at West Virginia. He was basically a tailback who had good enough passer skills.”

Even before the Eagles signed Vick, they already had expanded their Wildcat package this summer. They figure to expand it even more now with the arrival of Vick.

“The package has grown a little bit,” coach Andy Reid said. “Can Michael eventually do that? Sure, he can do that. Are there other things we can do [with Vick]? Yeah, he can do other things. We’ll see how all this works out. He’s got to get back into the swing first. But at the same time, I can’t tell you that things wouldn’t be added to a package here and there.

“With Michael and Donovan [McNabb] and DeSean, we have a couple of guys that can run pretty fast and run the ball pretty good. So you add all those things up and you can have some fun.”

. . . . Opinions of the Wildcat are mixed around the league. Some coaches think it could be The Next Big Thing. Others view it as a gimmick that will die out as soon as defenses prove they can consistently stop it.

“The single wing’s been around a long time,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “[The Wildcat] is just revitalizing something that was very successful at one time. It certainly was an innovative move [to bring it back]. We’ll see how that goes. We’ll have to wait until the season to see how much it gets used and whether anybody really has an answer for it.”

Said the Jets’ Ryan: “I think it’s a good weapon, I do. And you’re talking to the guy that stopped it not once, but twice last year. It’s more of a weapon if you have a guy like Vick that can throw the ball.” [Rex Ryan might be the most entertaining coaches in the NFL right now.] . . . .

“Defenses, when they see Ronnie Brown taking that direct snap, when see [Falcons running back] Jerious Norwood taking that direct snap, defenses take the safety out of the middle of the field and get into zero coverage, knowing that the guy isn’t going to throw it,” said Gruden. “When that guy back there can be a threat to throw it, it’ll be real interesting to see what defensive coordinators do.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he’s not going to lose any sleep over the Wildcat.

“I hope we see it every week,” he said. “Because our defense is set up to defend it. If you’ve got a good front seven, you don’t have to commit a safety to run or the option. That’s the way it worked for us last year against Miami. We didn’t have to [bring up a safety].”

“Our approach against the Wildcat was we had to be sound in what we did and make sure the edges were set, and we needed to beat blocks,” said Pettine, who was the Ravens’ linebackers coach last year. “The one thing the Wildcat allows you to do, it’s like playing with an extra guy. It’s the single-wing mentality. They now have an extra blocker. They can remove one more defender by splitting the quarterback out. Now you’re getting two-back runs out of one-back spacing on the defense’s part.”

I will have a more detailed wildcat post up in the future, but there are three factors that the wildcat brings together that work great together, though is also somewhat limiting, but can also be disaggregated.


  1. The quarterback is now an athletic ballcarrying threat, which indeed “is like an extra blocker,” and also provides for great faking opportunities in the backfield.
  2. The base wildcat uses a “jet sweeper” in motion across the formation who can either take the handoff at full speed for a speed sweep, or just fake the handoff, thus getting the linebackers flowing and allowing the quarterback/wildcat back — i.e. Ronnie Brown — with plenty of space for up the middle and cutback runs.
  3. The unbalanced line. I am surprised more teams don’t use this in both college and pro ball, but this too adds to the confusion on defense and can creates extra gaps or holes to run through.

The “wildcat” uses all three, but the spread/single-wing stuff, more generally, can use only the athletic quarterback, while other plays can integrate the unbalanced line or speed sweeper. Indeed, Miami did a nice job with the speed sweeper even with Pennington at quarterback. And especially late in the season, including their last game where they beat the Jets, they won they used that look for play-action quite a bit, and Pennington hit several completions. Again, I will have more to say on the details here, but to me, “wildcat” should only refer to the base package that uses all three of those ideas together. Yet there is plenty of room for experimentation in the future.

(Ht for the article.)

  • The Single Wing is alive and well again after a long hibernation. There were a core group of High School and youth coaches that never stopped running it. It is 11 on 11 football at its finest and something I never tire of watching.

  • mike

    I might be confused, but I think the Dolphins lost the only playoff game they played last year.

    None the less, great article and I like the new diggs 🙂

  • mike: I fixed it. I had been thinking about their last game against the Jets, which was effectively a playoff game.

  • Kalon

    I think Gruden is exactly right in that the spread is eventually going to appear in the NFL. The arguements against it have typically been that 1) NFL defenses would naturally defend it better, and 2) the quarterback would be too vulnerable. The first arguement never made sense to me, and I think that the single wing has shown that the spread is just like any offense, in that execution and personell will always prevail. The second arguement is becoming less valid, as, if we can look to a host of college teams for examples, you can run a spread offense without having to have a mobile quarterback (or even one that passes a lot), and they wouldn’t be any more vulnerable than any pro-style quarterback would be, unless it was part of your scheme.

    I’ve seen a lot of games where a team that was struggling offensively decided to start spreading it out, and suddenly they could move the ball. It clearly happened with Miami in ’07, which inspired this whole wildcat wave, and it happened in the Super Bowl between the Pats and Giants. The Patriots lost the game, but it wasn’t their offense’s fault, who, when they decided to run 3-5 wide out of the shotgun, had two long drives in the fourth quarter.

    As more players end up in the NFL who have been running a spread offense since high school and will be increasingly mystified by conventional NFL schemes, and more struggling teams look to college coaches who can hang 45 points on their opponents every week, eventually what are now more or less gimmick formations will turn into complete offensive philosophies. I can’t wait.

  • Neily

    Chris, you wrote an article about the proliferation of the bad spread offense in college football – I wonder if you anticipate a similar proliferation of bad wildcat offense in the pro game? It seems to be the flavour of the month, but I wonder if some coaches will try it simply because of the clamour about it, without really considering if it’s the best thing for their team.

  • Brad


    I would add misdirection to your list of things that the wildcat adds that is tough to deal with. You don’t see too much true misdirection in the pros.

    And motioning the sweeper seems to be an obvious andvantage that the offense has over the defense. If the rules let one of your guys get a running start why not exploit that. If you don’t you seem to be choosing to play without exploiting all your advantages.

    By the way, an interesting future arcticle might be on the less heralded series run by Paul Johnson the “rocket sweep”. That allows the wings to get a full speed running start on an outside pitch play and really sets up counters and bootlegs.

  • Mike

    I wonder if you can run the spread and win a Super Bowl. Or if it’s just tool for less talented teams to compete with teams that have a Brady/Manning.

    Chris, yea that Jets game really was a playoff game. I am a Dolphins fans and it was pure bliss :).

    I love the wildcat play where they snapped to Ronnie Brown, and Ronnie gets low to look like he is running and then he pops up and makes a horrible pass to a wide open TE. A decent throw would have been a touchdown. Oh well :).

  • James

    Last night, Gruden profiled what he would do on MNF football if he had Vick. He said he’d base the entire offense off of the zone read, and then build the passing game based on Vick’s strength of throwing on the run. Nothing technical but that really wasn’t the point. He seemed very determined to incorporate the decide option into his repertoire.

  • CoachingHopeful

    To me, a spread offense could have more potential in the NFL than in college because of the roster limitations, salary cap, and salary structure. In fact, nearly every NFL team already bases out of a 3 WR package.

    The salary and 53 man roster limits make it possible to essentially put an offense on the field that’s too expensive to defend. Remember that the highest paid defensive players in the league are DL and CBs, while on offense it’s QBs, with only a handful of elite RBs and WRs getting the truly big salaries. Get a QB (or two), pay for a couple of big time WRs, and then fill out your offensive roster with servicable journeymen. This approach worked for the Cardinals last year.

    There might be some issues running a spread option offense on a pro field against pro athletes, bu, something like an Air Raid looks to have potential at the pro level in terms of both marketability and on field success simply because no team would have the nickle and dime backs to match up with it across the board. Nickle backs get more attention now, but dime backs are still usually guys who barely make the team and are frequently there for special teams duties more than defensive prowess.

    Now, if a team did start running a spread passing attack with some “college” stuff like Jet or Rocket sweeps and counters mixed in, and they had the playmakers at WR and QB, it would be extremely hard for an NFL defense to match up. If they want to load up on DBs for that week, they have to release other players and risk losing depth elsewhere at key positions. With the NFL schemes being so complex that it takes weeks for professional players just to learn the playbooks and verbiage, this is a real bind you’re putting the front office and coaching staff in when they have to defend, say, the punishing running game of the Giants or Panthers the next week.

    Of course, some aspects of the spread WILL be negated, at least somewhat. The formations, for example, won’t simplify the reads for the QB nearly as much in the NFL as they do in HS or even college. But someday some coach somewhere is going to take someone like Tim Tebow and keep him on the field for most of his team’s snaps instead of trying to make him into a pocket passer, position switcher, or situational player. It only makes sense.

  • TigerEyez13

    All the naysayers about Tebow’s future in the NFL may have to change their tune. The day of the simple pocket passer might be waning.

  • Co-ach

    Neily says:
    August 18, 2009 at 6:42 am
    “Chris, you wrote an article about the proliferation of the bad spread offense in college football – I wonder if you anticipate a similar proliferation of bad wildcat offense in the pro game? It seems to be the flavour of the month, but I wonder if some coaches will try it simply because of the clamour about it, without really considering if it’s the best thing for their team.”

    I think we have already began to see poor efforts at wildcat installation at the high school and college level. Too many people think that it is simply putting an athletic QB into play. I know I have seen it time and time again as a high school coach. Elements are always left out. Either there is no motion or action off the jet/fly sweep or a lack of an unbalanced line. Too many teams are just trying to run QB lead, power, and counter and are either getting stuffed or getting lucky because they simply out athlete the competition.

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