The Wildcat Offense

Elevated view of a football game played by the Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys takes the snap from the Wildcat formation.

Scott Cunningham / Getty Images

The wildcat offense is a formation often used in football to capitalize on mismatches created by the shifting of skill players. The formation is a variation of the single-wing offense—the precursor of the shotgun, where the quarterback stands back a few feet from the center who tosses, rather than hands, him the ball. In the wildcat offense, by contrast, the quarterback is generally replaced in the backfield by a running back or receiver who takes a direct snap from the center.

Shotgun Formation

Operating out of the shotgun, and generally utilizing a man in motion to force the defense to respect the outside threat, a wildcat "quarterback," after having a moment to examine the defense, has the option of handing the ball to the man in motion as he passes, running the ball himself or throwing a pass. All this action and the variety of potential weapons make it tough on a defense to defend.

Along with confusing opponents, the rotation of personnel creates an 11-on-11 attack in the running game instead of the 10-on-11 situation usually presented when a quarterback becomes uninvolved in the play once he hands the ball to the running back.

In the rotation of players, the quarterback sometimes is split out to a wide receiver position while a running back lines up behind center. At other times, the quarterback is taken out of the game completely and replaced by a player who specializes as a wildcat quarterback. Some teams like to add an extra offensive lineman to create an unbalanced line as well.

NFL Variations

Some NFL teams use variations of the wildcat offense. For example, during the 2008 season, the Miami Dolphins used the wildcat formation six times in one game to defeat the heavily favored New England Patriots, who were riding a 21-game winning streak, according to Havey Greene.

Miami coach Tony Sparano had running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams line up in the backfield as receivers. "After taking a direct snap, Brown ran almost untouched through the confused Patriot defense into the end zone to give the Dolphins a 14-3 lead" at one point in the game, Greene writes. Williams also thrived under the wildcat system as it was used during the game—and throughout the Dolphins' season that year.

Death of the Wildcat?

But, not everyone is a fan of the wildcat. Bleacherreport, a sporting news website, calls for the "death of the wildcat," urging that the formation be put to rest. "The only teams that use the wildcat often are teams who don’t have a quarterback. The Dolphins are the example that jumps to everyone’s minds," the website notes in referring to Miami in 2008. "They have two good running backs and zero good quarterbacks."

Whatever your thoughts on this particular football strategy, the wildcat formation can lead to some exciting plays and confuse even the best defenses, as the Miami-New England game illustrated.