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.

Jets at Dolphins

Matchup to Watch

Jets’ defense

vs. Dolphins’ run game

According to the defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Jets wasted the best game of the noted run-stopper Mike DeVito’s career in a loss Oct. 9 in New England. Another wasted game would be demoralizing. The Jets fully expect the Dolphins, with Matt Moore making his first start at quarterback for Miami, to run and run and run, with Reggie Bush, Lex Hilliard and, if healthy, Daniel Thomas. The Jets yield 134.8 rushing yards per game. For a unit aiming to regain respectability, nothing more than domination Monday will suffice.

Number to Watch

45.6

That is how many yards Joe McKnight has averaged on his nine kickoff returns, best in the N.F.L. McKnight has produced two long returns — a 107-yarder for a touchdown against Baltimore and an 88-yarder against New England that led to a third-quarter touchdown — and his explosiveness could pose problems for Miami. The Dolphins have allowed 27.4 yards per kickoff return, putting them in the bottom third of the league. The Jets, though, will surely welcome fewer returns by McKnight if that means that their defense is playing well.

Quotation of the Week

‘They’re still the team to beat in our division.’

Dolphins Coach TONY SPARANO, whose team lost by 14 points to first-place New England (5-1) in the season opener, on the 2-3 Jets.

BEN SHPIGEL

GRAPHICS

Patriots Exploit Turnovers and Special Teams to Top Dolphins

But Henne also matched a career high with three interceptions, and the suffered through a disaster-filled second half in a 41-14 loss to the visiting on Monday night.

Henne finished 29 of 39 for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns, only to get pulled midway through the fourth quarter in a fast-emptying stadium.

Brady threw for only 153 yards, and was held without a catch for the first time since 2006, but the Patriots, the league’s highest-scoring team at 33 points per game, still put up their biggest point total this season.

The Patriots trailed by 7-6 at halftime, but when Brandon Tate returned the second half kickoff 103 yards for a score, the deluge began. Patrick Chung blocked a punt to set up a touchdown, then blocked a field goal that Kyle Arrington returned 35 yards for a score. Chung returned an interception 51 yards for New England’s final score.

Another unexpected contribution came from linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who had the first two interceptions of his five-year career. The touchdowns for Chung and Arrington were their first career scores, as was an 11-yard touchdown pass caught by the Patriots reserve fullback Danny Woodhead.

New England (3-1) moved into a tie with for first place in the A.F.C. East, while the Dolphins (2-2) lost their second divisional game at home in eight days.

FIND ROOM TO RUN In their 17-3 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, the Giants started drives in Chicago territory three times in the first half — including twice inside the 30 — because of a ravenous defense that produced nine sacks by halftime. But they did not score.

Yet the Giants did not back away from their plan and they eventually wore down the Bears, rushing for 189 rushing yards.

“You just keep working at it, working at it, working at it, and eventually, you establish something,” Giants Coach said.

Following back-to-back losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee, the matchup against the Bears’ top-ranked rush defense proved to be motivation.

“We just kept pounding it at them,” left guard Rich Seubert said. “Coach kept going with the same calls, and that’s what we did.” MARK VIERA

BEARS’ CUTLER ‘FEELING O.K.’ Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith said quarterback Jay Cutler was at the club’s practice facility and was “feeling O.K.” after sitting out the second half of Sunday night’s 17-3 loss to the Giants with concussion symptoms.(AP)

CUSHING WILL PLAY AGAINST GIANTS Brian Cushing, last year’s defensive rookie of the year, has rejoined the , ending his four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, and Coach Gary Kubiak said he will play in Sunday’s game against the Giants. … strong safety Steve Gregory was suspended four games for violating the league’s drug policy.(AP)

’ SMITH TO MISS GAME Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith was wearing a protective boot because of a high ankle sprain. Smith’s agent, Derrick Fox, said Smith, a four-time Pro Bowl pick, will probably sit out Sunday’s game against Chicago. (AP)