Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wildcat Formation: Prisco is Right. And Wrong.

Pete Prisco over at CBSSportsline goes off on a rant about the Wildcat formation, why it is getting so prevalent in the league, and generally, how much he hates it.

The reality is it is nothing more than a gimmick. I hate gimmicks.


My official definition of the Wildcat offense goes like this: Team that doesn't have a quarterback.

If you did, why would you take the ball out of his hands?

Can you imagine the look on Peyton Manning's face if the Colts told him on install day that the Wildcat was coming?

How about Tom Brady?

Brees, thanks to a coach wise enough to realize his value, need not worry about it.

Prisco spends much of the remaining article continuing to emphasize the same points.

A) The Wildcat is a formation used when you don't have a good quarterback.

B) The Wildcat is a bush league gimmick that has no place in the NFL.

I get it. He hates it. He likely looks at the Wildcat and sees it as some Arena league level of play. Kind of like why you no longer see the wishbone offense or ten guys on the defensive line of scrimmage. We've supposedly evolved beyond these types of strategies when you get to the NFL.

And, I agree with him in that you utilize the Wildcat when you don't have a decent quarterback, and more likely, when you have a particularly gifted running back or wide receiver who can pose a threat from the backfield in a direct snap situation. As he says, why would you take the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands?

The answer is, you don't. Duh. He's the strength of your team, and you play to your strengths. Having Manning sitting on the sideline while a running back attempts to juke his way out of a direct snap is idiotic.

But, it's not idiotic for the Dolphins, who have _____ as their quarterback. (Fill in the name of this season's quarterback once we find out who it is) And this is where I disagree with Prisco, as he just doesn't like it because he believes that it is a cheap gadget play for teams that don't have a quarterback.

Sorry, Pete, but last I checked there is only one player named Peyton Manning in the NFL. Only one Tom Brady, too. The Packers have been awfully fortunate since 1992 to have a solid quarterback behind center, including our current starter, Aaron Rodgers. When you have a solid starting quarterback, you don't mess with it.

But don't be hating on the Wildcat just because you think teams that don't have one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the league should just continue to plug away at the offenses that you approve of. This is the way of the NFL nowadays.

* The West Coast Offense was devised in the early 1980's in response to the prevalence of 3-4 defenses and massive defensive linemen of the time. It allowed players that normally would have little chance of defeating those kinds of defenders to use short passes and misdirection to get around them. "Nickel and diming" is what it was derisively called in those days, and it took a couple of 49er Super Bowls before it gained any respect as anything but a gimmicky offense.

* The "Run and Gun" (or "Chuck and Duck") offenses of Detroit and Atlanta in the 90's also played to the personnel that was available. As teams looked more and more to get tall wide receivers who could go up over taller cornerbacks, the Run and Gun teams utilized pure speed to force defenses into zone coverages, allowing shorter wide receivers to be productive.

* The smaller defensive linemen of the Broncos back in the 90's heralded a new approach to how everyone "thought" defense should be played. Instead of lining up with the most beef, they brought speedy, agile players along the line who were able to counter the misdirections of the WCO.

* The Zone Blocking Scheme is nothing less than an offensive line version of the Wildcat. The Broncos, devoid of the traditional beefy talent expected of most NFL offensive linemen, used a simple angular technique (coupled with a questionable chop block) to try and open up one hole for a one-cut running back. If a team has the talent of, say, the Packers' offensive line in the early 2000's, why would they utilize a "gimmicky" scheme like the ZBS? But, when the Packers lost much of their interior linemen, they surmised that the ZBS would be a way to get the line productive without having to bring in Wahle/Rivera/Flanagan-caliber talent.

Am I fan of the Wildcat? No, not particularly, nor would I be that excited to see it brought to Green Bay (though with Mike McCarthy and his penchant for adopting new schemes, it wouldn't surprise me). But for the teams that use the formation, it is a way for them to try and bring themselves to an even keel with their opponents, using whatever talent they have.

It's nothing different than what most other innovative teams try to do...maximize the talent that they have by adjusting the schemes and formations around it. The teams that continue to try and play traditional football with less-than-stellar talent at the key positions will continually struggle. But if you have a crappy passing game and a great running back (like, say, the Vikings), why wouldn't you play to those strengths? Why wouldn't you choose to sit down Sage and Tarvaris and allow Peterson to command the backfield? It makes sense.

Yes, it's overhyped, but what isn't today in the NFL? The Wildcat will live and thrive until the day someone innovates a defensive scheme that will stop it. It's the eternal chess game that you see played out over decades in the NFL, and the Wildcat is far from the last move we'll see made for check.

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