Wildcat Has Been on Wane in N.F.L., Despite Tebow

That may come as a surprise to fans who have penciled Tebow into a Wildcat role in the Jets’ offense. Tebow’s 660 rushing yards last year came on scrambles, draw plays, zone-read options and goal-line plunges, but not on Wildcat plays.

The Wildcat refers to a very specific package of plays, with roots in the single-wing tactics of the 1920s, that were popularized in part by David Lee in 2007 when he was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. In 2008, Lee joined the staff of the , then coached by Tony Sparano, now the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Lee, Sparano and Dan Henning, the team’s offensive coordinator, adapted the scheme to the N.F.L. Early that season, the Dolphins used the Wildcat to surprise the New England Patriots and generate several big rushing plays in a 38-13 upset, sparking a brief leaguewide fad.

In the traditional Wildcat, a player who is not the quarterback takes a direct snap from center, while another player goes in motion into the backfield. The player who receives the snap can hand off or keep the ball, and often bases the decision on how the defense reacts. A handful of misdirection plays and passes add variety to the scheme. Typically, the regular quarterback lines up at wide receiver, far from the flow of the play.

Now, however, the term Wildcat is often applied to any play in which a nonquarterback takes a direct shotgun snap. The only time the Broncos did that last year was in their playoff victory over the Steelers, when Willis McGahee ran for four yards in the third quarter while Tebow pretended to be a wide receiver.

Of course, with Tebow in the shotgun, the threat of an option-style running play is ever-present, even without the Wildcat label. Of Tebow’s 122 rushes last season, 86 were designed runs, not scrambles. Tebow gained 420 yards on those runs, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

Despite Sparano’s presence and the team’s affinity for unusual offensive tactics, the Jets are not referring to Tebow as a Wildcat quarterback, but as a playmaker. Whatever the terminology, direct-snap plays bring modest rewards that are not always worth the risks.

An option-style quarterback opens up rushing opportunities for himself and his running backs: defenders are forced to account for the threat of an inside handoff, which can open up wide running lanes. The Broncos used what is called a zone-read option play with some success last year. Tebow would read the defensive front, then either hand off to a running back or keep the ball. The zone read gave McGahee and other running backs room, allowing them to carry 108 times for 627 yards (5.8 yards per carry) on plays in which Tebow was in shotgun.

The zone read and Wildcat are similar enough that Tebow could adjust to the Wildcat, or Sparano could install something similar to the zone read. The Wildcat requires the direct-snap recipient to run into the middle of the defense, which Tebow can do. He had 57 designed carries between the tackles last year for 241 yards, or 4.2 yards per carry. The average offensive play in the N.F.L. netted 5.5 yards last season.

Direct-snap plays provide an element of surprise and can be very effective in certain situations — near the goal line, for instance — but even under optimal conditions they are no more effective than standard offensive strategies on a per-play basis. That is one reason Wildcat-style plays have nearly disappeared from the N.F.L.

In 2008, the Dolphins used the Wildcat 84 times, averaging 5.7 yards per play. Other teams developed their own versions of the scheme and drafted or acquired Wildcat-style quarterbacks, but the trend abated quickly.

Twenty teams used direct-snap plays in 2010, but just 12 did last season. The Bills, who signed the former Jets receiver Brad Smith, a college quarterback, specifically for direct-snap plays, used the tactic 21 times, the most in the N.F.L. The Jets were second, with 19 direct-snap plays netting 115 yards, including a 41-yard . Kerley was technically lined up in a formation called the pistol, with a running back behind him in the shotgun, further illustrating the confusion that often surrounds the various terms.

Sparano’s Dolphins ran just three direct-snap plays last season. Their commitment to the Wildcat began to wane after they drafted the speedy West Virginia quarterback Pat White in the second round in 2009 to fill a direct-snap role. White flopped, carrying 21 times for 81 yards and going 0 for 5 as a passer. The original Dolphins Wildcat fooled defenses at the line of scrimmage because they kept their regular personnel on the field. White’s arrival in the huddle telegraphed the Dolphins’ intentions, and the shift in personnel appeared to disrupt offensive rhythm.

Direct-snap plays are so different from standard N.F.L. strategies that mastering them requires extra practice. They place the starting quarterback at wide receiver, where he is susceptible to hard hits, or on the bench. The player receiving the snap is often not used to it. That can cause other blunders: Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson kicked the ball out of his hands when he started to run a Wildcat play last season. Tebow has far more experience than Peterson, but coming off the bench during a game to execute a complex play that is tangential to the overall offensive philosophy is not easy.

Tebow ran a somewhat different scheme with the Broncos, Sparano all but abandoned the Wildcat and most N.F.L. teams have determined that direct-snap tactics are more trouble than they are worth. But not all the indicators are negative. One team acquired a high-profile scrambling left-hander to take Wildcat snaps behind an embattled starter in 2009. The results were hardly impressive: he rushed 27 times for 97 yards and completed just 6 of 13 passes, making him an afterthought in the offense.

That quarterback was Michael Vick, and the next season he reached the Pro Bowl.

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