Wildcat Review: The Running Game

| June 26, 2011

In Week 3 of the 2008 season, the Miami Dolphins ended the New England Patriots’ regular season win streak with a 38-13 road victory. The game was memorable not only because it was an upset that few people saw coming, but because it marked the re-birth of the wildcat offense. Miami’s Ronnie Brown threw for a touchdown, and ran for four more, and the league took notice.

The wildcat captivated fans everywhere, because it was something new and allowed for a number of trick plays. With a primary purpose of the formation being to confuse defenses, it commonly employed end arounds, halfbacks and wide receivers as passers, and quarterbacks run blocking. It added new elements to the game which the average fans could enjoy.

Over the course of the 2010 season, 20 different teams ran at least one wildcat-like play, so even though it was used less in 2010 than in 2009, it was still significant enough that it’s worth examining. Over the course of these next few articles, we’ll take a look at run plays in the wildcat, pass plays, and then we’ll rank the wildcat “quarterbacks”.

Defining the Wildcat

If you were to look at a typical play-by-play of a game where it has the time, down and distance, and what happened on each play, you would see that at times a play is defined as a wildcat play, but more times than not it will just be listed as a play done in the shotgun.

At Pro Football Focus, in every game we track every player that is on the field and where they line-up. With that data, I was able to dig up every play in which someone other than a quarterback lined up in the quarterback position, and this is what I used to define a wildcat play for this series.

Some teams use names for this kind of package other than the wildcat, but for the purpose of these articles, each of them will be referred to as wildcat plays. It also means we won’t be counting plays where Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, or other similar “running quarterbacks” were lined-up as the QB. Although some of their plays might have been run similar to those we’re considering, defenses needed to expect them as always being possible rather than being alerted by an odd personnel alignment.

The Various Rushing Plays

In the 2010 season, 212 plays came from the wildcat. 16 of those were pass plays, six were runs that were called back on penalties, and two were plays where there was a problem with the snap. This leaves 188 run plays to examine.

The simplest of wildcat plays is when the “quarterback” takes the snap and runs with the ball. This happened 121 times for 485 yards and a touchdown. This equates to an average of 4.0 yards per run, which is just under the 4.2 yards per run average in the league. At least partially because of the lack of complexity, it rarely produces a big play with only seven plays going for 10 or more yards. However only 12 times did the run result in a loss.

The next slightly more complex play is when the player who is lined up at quarterback hands the ball off to someone who is lined up with him in the backfield, typically one of the teams top running backs. Although this is done less often, happening just 56 times in 2010, it is a bit more successful with 319 yards and two touchdowns generated; an average of 5.7 yards per run.

The most successful of these plays came in Week 2 when the Chargers faced the Jaguars. Over the season, the Chargers only used a wildcat play twice, both with Legedu Naane lining up at quarterback. Just two minutes into the game, Naane immediately handed the ball off to Darren Sproles who ran up the middle, getting past the linemen and linebackers before being chased down. He gained 34 yards, and the Chargers scored two plays later to take the lead.

Finally, for run plays, various types of end arounds are an option, with a player lined up either out wide or in the slot can run with the ball. Typically, it was a wide receiver making the run, although the Dolphins at times put Ricky Williams in the slot and had him carry the ball. An end around to Mike Wallace in Week 14 against the Bengals was the only play with any real success: a 12 yard gain. Overall, there were 11 runs for 6 yards and no touchdowns.

An Argument for the Wildcat

To total up all of the wildcat runs, there were 188 rushes for 810 yards and three touchdowns. On the surface, wildcat plays are slightly more successful than other runs; the average wildcat run went for 4.3 yards while the league average run was 4.2.

Something that is also in favor of the wildcat runs is that they are more consistent, that is, there are fewer long runs as well as fewer short/negative runs. A run from the wildcat results in a three or more yard gain 60% of the time, while a normal play only 55%. However, when looking at plays of 10 or more yards, wildcat plays achieve this only 9% of the time, where other runs do 11%. For those math people out there, the standard deviation of wildcat runs is 5.9, while for other runs it is 6.3.

From what I can tell, the general perception is that the wildcat has recently been less successful. This is probably due to just not seeing as many highlights of it anymore – it’s no longer “new” and there’s been a lack of big plays and touchdowns. However it does produce more yards more consistently than standard runs, though the differences aren’t all that significant.

One more argument in favor of the wildcat is that opponents have to game plan for it. Teams that have faced the Dolphins, Jets or Browns needed to prepare for wildcat plays because these teams typically run a handful of them each game. The more time opponents have to spend preparing for the wildcat, the less time they have to prepare for the rest of the offense, which, in theory, would be an advantage for the offense.

Next up, we’ll look at what happens when a wildcat becomes a pass play.

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  • dangmalzone

    The Wildcat has definitely worn out it’s welcome with many Dolphin fans. I’m not sure how much of it is the Wildcat itself, or how much was Dan Henning’s 2010 implementation of the formation, but many of us would groan every time we saw it. It always seemed to clog up momentum and kill drives. I distinctly remember wanting to hurl something at my television when Miami ran a Wildcat play last year on like, a 3rd and 11 nearing the redzone.

    • CCarano

      True… but this site demonstrates how awful Miami’s guards were, which dictate running lanes

      • dangmalzone

        Oh, I won’t argue that Miami got very little in terms of interior line play. The drafting of Pouncey speaks volumes to that point. Throw in ineffective pulling guards, added film for defenses to study, an older Ronnie, and just a wee bit of that ol’ Dan Henning charm and you have the makings of a deteriorated Wildcat.

    • Nathan Jahnke

      I’m not surprised that Dolphins fans feel that way. I would say CCarano is right in that the guards had something to do with it, as well as Ronnie Brown not running as well as he did in 2008 or 2009. In the third piece on the wildcat, there will be a bit more on the Dolphins in specific.

  • tim tellean

    As the novelty has worn off, I would presume the value has also fallen. It would be interesting to look at the data since 2008 league-wide.
    The Dolphins used it effectively for a couple seasons, heck it gave Pat White a job and made Ricky and Ronnie much more valuable. But with the release of White I would hazard a guess that the number of times run and effectiveness have waned.