Football: Please explain the wildcat formation

I know football pretty well, and there are a bunch of different, and sometimes odd offensive sets. But what constitutes the “wildcat”?

addendum: I know it’s been an old shotgun formation where the defense doesn’t know if if the center snaps it to the quarterback or the tailback, but is that all it is now?

“Wildcat” has become something of a catchall term lately; it has a specific meaning but it’s now used as a sort of generic term for an offense where a skill position player takes a snap out of the shotgun. The idea is that out of the same basic formation there will be a handful of different options, and the offense can get the ball directly into the hands of its most dynamic player or players.

The University of Arkansas used it all the time when Darren McFadden was there – since McFadden could actually throw the ball, it put the defense in a bind because they’d put him out there at QB with Felix Jones at tailback. You still have to honor the fact that they might throw on you, but then there are also two really dangerous running threats in the backfield. So in a typical game for that offense, for instance, you might have had McFadden handing off to Jones five times out of the shotgun, running a kind of sweep himself five times, faking a handoff and keeping it himself out of a kind of spread option three or four more times, throwing twice, and running some other kind of gadget play a couple of other times.

So, basically, when you hear Wildcat, think somebody else other than the starting quarterback is in at quarterback, and they’re trying to set up a bunch of different options and trick plays. Like maybe one play you have the quarterback in at wide receiver, and a running back in at quarterback, and then what does the defense do? And so on. Fun stuff.

Jimmy is close, but he overstates the possibility of the throw. McFadden threw the ball 22 times in his college career, and they were in that formation all the time. In reality, the wildcat formation is where there is no semblance of a quarterback on the field. Instead it is simply a direct snap to the running back in a shotgun. There is typically a lead blocker and/or another RB in the backfield, as well as a WR motioning through the backfield. It works based on misdirection and replacing the QB with another blocker. Essentially it is a modern take on the old single-wing and read option offensive systems.

It originated back with Kansas State in the late 90s. Arkansas, as Jimmy notes, brought it to wide spread attention as the “Wild Hog” formation with Jones/McFadden. The current popularity stems from the Miami Dolphins using it with Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. They surprised the Patriots with it last year, and beat the crap out of em with it. That is why everyone started doing it this year.

As an aside, am I the only one that thinks the answer to the Wildcat is to bring in another defensive lineman and remove a safety? By running a 5-3 or 4-4 you eliminate the advantage of the extra blocker.

Well, that’s why just the possibility of the throw is a problem, though. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it; as long as you have the credible threat of a touchdown pass, like Ronnie Brown threw against the Pats in the game that made the Wildcat an NFL “thing,” it’s tough to convince a defensive coordinator to give up somebody in the backfield, I imagine. Nobody likes looking stupid. I note that, since I brought up Arkansas, 7 of McFadden’s 22 pass attempts went for touchdowns. That’s a hell of a scary percentage if you’re worried one play could change the game.

I would say it’s main effect is the speed it can execute. Most of Miami’s success with it is just a straight ahead blast through a gap. Normally hand-off running takes an extra quarter second or so, which gives linebackers more of a chance to read the developing blocking pattern, and fill a gap. The other stuff is just enough to keep the D honest. But a good run stuffing line that doesn’t get moved, and doesn’t leave gaps in the first place(ie. Baltimore) has no problem stutting it down, and all you are really doing is throwing 75% of your passing game away.

You took the words right out of my mouth. Indy would have given up huge yardage on the ground in that game to any team with a decent running game regardless of the wildcat. I think it will expose a team with poor gap control and poorly disciplined LBs more than others.

“Wildcat” is getting thrown around a lot these days to mean any offensive set that involves a direct snap to a non-QB player, but it really means a specific set of looks and formations.

The traditional Wildcat formation consists of:

  1. An unbalanced line (both offensive tackles are on the same side of the ball)
  2. A running back lined up in the shotgun QB position, with the usual QB split out wide. Contrary to what others have said, the QB usually stays in to prevent the defense from just subbing in an extra lineman.
  3. Consistent pre-snap movement that seeks to decoy the actual play. The idea is that you have the same pre-snap movement for a variety of plays so they all look the same. Usually this motion starts with a jet sweep from a WR or RB lined up on the weak side.

Most of the plays are runs either by the Wildcat QB (Power and Counter) or a handoff to the jet sweep who runs behind the zone blocking on the strong side.

Out of these base looks, you can do all kinds of creative things, like a “reverse” QB pass, just when the defense thinks all you will do is run.

This is a pretty good overview of how Arkansas ran the Wildcat with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

What’s the difference between the Wildcat and the Wing T?

The Wildcat is just an evolution of the Wing-T, a lot of the ideas are the same they are just executed differently. The Wing-T is more of a base formation (used in high school everywhere), while the Wildcat is more of a variant-look formation used more sparingly.

  1. Wing-T uses a standard OL formation, not an unbalanced line.
  2. With the Wing-T, the sweep motion is executed by the tailback who lines up behind the tackle, parallel to the fullback who is behind the QB. In the Wildcat, this position is a fullback who zone blocks to the strong side.
  3. The Wing-T snaps to the standard QB.

Aside from these differences, the formations look really similar. You always have sweep motion through the backfield pre-snap, and you can run a wide variety of different plays out of this look.

So what you’re saying is, is that McFadden is still in the Wildcat all the time.

Here’s a good explanation of the wildcat in Sports Illustrated last fall. Old Is New New Is Old Back To The Future With The Single Wing
Never has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—the way it has this fall

I see what you did there :stuck_out_tongue:

That sounds fine … except that you don’t always know when they’re gonna line up in that formation. When Miami (and most other teams) run it, the QB is usually still on the field, split out wide. So until they’ve broken the huddle and are lining up, you don’t know it’s coming.

Good article about the Wildcat and how to defend it: