Talk of NFL: How long will wildcat last?

Wine writes for the Associated Press.

Practice had just ended at the Miami Dolphins' training camp, and beads of sweat fell from Ronnie Brown's chin as he scrunched his face and considered a question.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: How many times was he asked about the wildcat during the off-season?

"I never really thought I'd have to count that high," Brown finally said. "I don't know; I lost count a while back."

Even after last season, the Dolphins' variation of the century-old single wing continued to generate impressive numbers. The wildcat's now a frequent topic of conversation, not just for Brown but throughout the NFL.

The Dolphins plan to expand their use of the formation this season. The Eagles signed Michael Vick in part with the wildcat in mind. Jerry Jones said his Cowboys are eager to try it. And the college coach often credited as the source of the league's latest fad said interest keeps spreading.

"We had a lot of NFL coaches talk to us," said Houston Nutt, coach of the Mississippi Rebels. "We had about six or seven coaches call us this summer talking about the Wild Rebel. I call it the Wild Rebel now."

Nutt was at Arkansas when the package made a big splash there with Darren McFadden taking direct snaps in 2006-07. The concept found its way last season to Miami, where new coach Tony Sparano was desperate to rejuvenate his offense.

The Dolphins had lost 20 of their past 21 games when they unveiled the wildcat in Week 3 at New England. Miami's version transformed quarterback Chad Pennington into a flanker and put three running backs on the field, with the snap going to one of them, Brown.

The result: Four touchdowns in six plays from the formation and a 38-13 upset that marked an abrupt turnaround in the franchise's fortunes. The Dolphins went on to their first playoff berth since 2001.

The rest of the league took note, and by the end of the year, 20 teams had run at least one wildcat play. Eight teams used it more than 10 times, with Miami's 90 snaps by far the most, according to STATS. The Steelers even ran it once in their Super Bowl victory.

Coaches are divided as to how long wildcat mania will last.

"I don't think any of us know the answer to that question," said Bill Belichick, whose Patriots were ambushed by Miami last September. "It's a little bit of defending the unknown. Defenses are going to have to work against it and have some plan for how to deal with it. But there are so many different versions of how to run it. It will be interesting to see how all that develops."

The latest wrinkle puts the ball back in the hands of a quarterback -- but one who can run, such as Vick or Dolphins rookie Pat White.

Brown scored five touchdowns taking snaps for Miami last year, but because he posed little threat as a passer, defenses clamped down late in the season. The Dolphins drafted White in the second round and have kept their plans for him under wraps, but Sparano said the wildcat chapter of his playbook is thick.

"We really didn't scratch the surface last year," Sparano said.

The Eagles feel the same way now that they have Vick, who holds several rushing records for quarterbacks, including most yards in a season (1,039) when he played for Atlanta.

"He is that ultimate guy that every wildcat offense should have," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Think about it -- you have an option to throw it. Why not get a quarterback who is just as good as any running back is in this league and still can throw it?"

The Eagles' wildcat package could get Vick and Donovan McNabb on the field at the same time.

"There are some things you can do with it," Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said. "It's a good wrinkle. You can have some fun."

Other teams want in on the fun. McFadden, who hobbled through his rookie season in Oakland, may yet duplicate his college success in the wildcat. The Jaguars installed it this spring, with Maurice Jones-Drew taking most of the snaps. The Jets use it with Leon Washington and quarterback-turned-receiver Brad Smith. The Vikings worked on a package during training camp revolving around their top draft pick, receiver Percy Harvin, which means Brett Favre might find himself playing flanker.

Cowboys owner Jones is excited about the wildcat because of its Arkansas roots. He was co-captain of the Razorbacks' undefeated 1964 team, and the Cowboys have a tantalizing threat in former first-round pick Felix Jones, who was McFadden's wingman in the wildcat at Arkansas. Running back Tashard Choice is a potential triggerman.

With a laugh, Jerry Jones calls the package "the Razorback."

"It's going to be an important part of what we do," he said. "Just think about having Felix and Tashard back there, and not knowing which way they're going or which one has the ball. That could be real good."

Skeptics question the wildcat's longevity, especially without a passing threat. They note the Dolphins' success tapered off as the 2008 season progressed. They say the injury risk to the triggerman is high. They say defensive coordinators usually find an answer to any offensive innovation.

"Wrinkles come, wrinkles go," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "That's the ebb and flow of the game."

Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning predicts teams can get a lot more mileage -- or yardage, at least -- out of the wildcat. He said it's a natural fit for running quarterbacks emerging these days from top college programs, such as West Virginia's White or Florida's Tim Tebow.

"We're a function personnel-wise of what's going on in college," Henning said. "We can't fund 32 teams with top quarterbacks if you're not training them in college. And in college they're going to the spread offense now, where the quarterback is half runner and half passer."

Still, this is the NFL, where quarterbacks rarely run and the single wing vanished more than 50 years ago in favor of the T-formation.

Nutt received word early last season that his former assistant, David Lee, was helping the Dolphins install the wildcat. That was just before they sprung it on the Patriots.

"I said, 'There's no way that's going to happen in the NFL,' " Nutt said. "But then, lo and behold, David texted me one day and he said, 'Watch the highlights tonight if you get a chance.' And sure enough, I couldn't believe it."

Ah, the element of surprise. That's the charm of the wildcat -- and one reason it might stay around awhile.


AP writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., Dan Gelston in Philadelphia and Mark Long in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.

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