Setting the ancillary aspects of Tim Tebow in New York aside, there are a great many people wondering exactly how a quarterback rotation featuring Mark Sanche as the starter and Tebow as a specialized "Wildcat" backup will work. What we do know is that in their Week 13 34-19 win over the Washington Redskins, Rex Ryan was the one who went to the coaches and asked for more Wildcat.
"I think it's tough to defend if you're not really focused on it," Ryan said the day after the game. "Sometimes it's tough to defend. We thought this is a good football team [Redskins]. They're really good against the run. So we thought we could challenge them by putting in some of those things… That was my feeling on it. When Schotty [former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] and I talked about, he said, 'That sounds like a great idea. Let's go for it.'"
On the Wednesday night conference call announcing the trade, Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said this: "I think what we've become is a diverse, more dynamic offense that's going to make it more difficult for opposing teams to defend. We have a vision for the player, we have a role for the player."
The Jets ran seven Wildcat plays for 26 yards and a touchdown against the Redskins, and that appeared to be the seed for the Tebow trade. So, before we discuss how Tebow could work in the Wildcat after a history as an option quarterback (yes, the Wildcat and the basic option are different things, despite what you hear on TV all the time), let's break down what the Wildcat is, and why other option concepts have actually supplanted as the preferred strategy -- including the option strategies that worked for the Broncos against the Jets.
When the Miami Dolphins looked to change their offensive structure in 2008 after a Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, they unwittingly opened the door for different formations, ideas, and players in the NFL. Head coach Tony Sparano (now the Jets' offensive coordinator) and quarterbacks coach David Lee (now the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks coach) started talking about something Lee had run with running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones as Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2007, and the "Wild Hog" made its debut against the New England Patriots the following week. The subsequent 38-13 win turned the 'Hog into the 'Cat, got the Dolphins going on their improbable division championship run, and inspired a spawn of imitators.
The Wildcat is basically a derivation of the old single-wing, and the player receiving the ball from center in a shotgun set has multiple options. As Lee explained it on CSTV in 2007 (and as I detailed for Football Outsiders after the Miami win over New England), there are three primary plays:
"Steeler," in which the running back moves from left to right after the snap and takes the ball from the quarterback. The running back then blasts off to the right behind a pulling left guard, an unbalanced right offensive line, and an H-back either between and behind the two right tackles or just outside the right tackle to block. One Steeler option is a handoff to quarterback Chad Pennington from wide right -- the Fins completely fooled the Texans with this one in 2008 -- when Pennington threw to halfback Patrick Cobbs from the slot, there was no Houston defender within 10 yards of him.
"Power," in which the fake to the running back in the "Steeler" formation leaves the quarterback to (hopefully) blow through any one of four different holes to the right. The H-back will stay in to block, and the pulling guard is the key. Left guard Justin Smiley was money for the Dolphins on this play until a leg injury ended his season early (the red arrows indicate secondary options for the back; dashed arrows indicate fakes or players running dummy routes).
"Counter" (70 Weak), in which the running back fake leaves the defense biting on "Power," only to watch helplessly as the back runs left through a huge open cutback lane. The line uses slide protection instead of a pulling guard. There's a passing option out of the Counter, as Miami running back Ronnie Brown showed against the Pats when he hit tight end Tony Fasano for a touchdown.
In 2008, the Dolphins ran a total of 965 plays for 5,529 yards, a 5.7 yards-per-play average and 38 offensive (rushing and passing) touchdowns. Of those plays, 91 were run out of the Wildcat formation -- the actual Wildcat, not a read-option or shotgun draw misclassified as such -- for 580 yards, a 6.7 yards-per-play average and eight touchdowns. It didn't work all the time (it REALLY didn't work against the Baltimore Ravens' malevolent defense), but imitators sprouted up everywhere. The Falcons started running "Dirty Bird" formations with direct snaps to running back Jerious Norwood, and the Browns found success with their "flash" packages, using receiver/return maven Josh Cribbs, a former quarterback at Kent State, as the main man.
But over time, and especially by the time Tebow and Cam Newton hit the NFL in 2011, the trend had moved away from what is classified as "Wildcat" to more speed- and read-option plays. The option game in the NFL now more closely resembles an advanced version of what Michael Vick was doing with the Atlanta Falcons from 2004 through 2006, and it's Newton who might be able to weld the game Vick played then with the pocket presence Vick has now.
For all the easy and obvious comparisons to other strictly mobile quarterbacks who threatened defenses with their legs and couldn't do much with their arms, Newton was digesting chapters of the Panthers' playbook at an accelerated rate through the 2011 season. And Tebow, for all his roll-right stuff, didn't have one play last year that Football Outsiders' game charting would classify as a Wildcat play.
Most of what Tebow did in 2011 was a series of simple run-reads in which the imperative was to get the first-read receiver open, and cut Tebow loose as a runner if not. The overtime touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in Denver's wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was a good example of Tebow's nebulous ability to process multiple reads on the run. In the Broncos' 17-13 Week 11 win over the Jets -- the game Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum referred to when speaking of Tebow as an ideal Wildcat quarterback -- the Broncos ran all kinds of traditional and spread plays, with far more diversity than the Steeler/Power/Counter package.
On the first play of the game, Tebow hit Thomas for a 28-yard gain from an empty-backfield formation in which four receivers were lined up on the right side. That's less Wildcat, and more the wide-open spread stuff you'd see at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, or what Blaine Gabbert ran at Missouri. And of the 20-yard fourth-quarter Tebow touchdown run that was the game was a designed shotgun run play, Tebow certainly faked the pass well -- he took the ball in a single-back set, clearly looked downfield, and decided to run to his left after the Jets' run containment completely broke down. The Jets were playing Cover-0 (man coverage with no deep safety), but they played pass on Denver's three receivers, and they didn't play straight run up the middle -- they sent two defenders on a dual A-gap blitz.
So, the question remains -- what exactly did the Jets acquire Tebow to do? Is this Wildcat talk just a tactic to hold the line until Tebow becomes the starter, or do the Jets really see Tebow as a way back to the future? While Tebow doesn't resemble anyone's version of an ideal traditional quarterback, tying him to a series of wildcat schemes limits his options at a time when his talents have exceeded those limitations. If you want the full Tebow package ... well, you have to do what the Broncos did so well last season. Make him the starter, meet him halfway schematically, and see how far you go. Marginalizing Tebow at the Brad Smith level and basically making him the playbook version of a circus freak does the player no good after how he developed in 2011, and it does the player's team no good because the NFL has already sorted that strategy out to a large degree.
The Jets have to go full-bore with Tebow. They can't sit on the fence and expect this to work.
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