Time to Forget the Wildcat

I know it seems like I am really trying to rain on Josh Cribbs’ parade lately, what with my talk about kickoffs, etc.  I still love Josh Cribbs as a player and certainly as a Cleveland Brown off the field.  Unfortunately, I need to say that the wildcat formation is over.  You never want to be the last person sporting your “Where’s the beef?” t-shirt.  At least the wildcat fad will be able to say that it lasted longer than Charlie Sheen’s “winning” catch-phrase, right?  It was a gimmick that worked in Miami for the Dolphins and showed a bit of promise on occasion for the Browns with Josh Cribbs.  That being said, it is a gimmick for teams that have trouble moving the ball in a traditional fashion.

Look at the place where it was most successful.  The Dolphins employed the wildcat in the third game of the 2008 NFL season to provide a spark to the offense with a different look.  In this case, the Dolphins were having trouble generating offense in the passing game between Chad Pennington and receivers Ted Ginn, Greg Camarillo, Davone Bess, and Anthony Fasano.  It helped the Dolphins get to the playoffs where they lost in the wildcard round to the Baltimore Ravens.

The NFL being a copycat league, it was only a matter of time before a struggling 2008 Browns squad with Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn tried it out.  After the bye week the Browns were 1-3 and Cribbs carried the ball once for 12 yards in a 35-14 win over the Giants.  Fast forward a few weeks to Denver after Derek Anderson’s benching, Josh Cribbs got three carries for 48 yards including a 27 yard scamper.  The Browns still lost 34-30, but the wildcat was officially cemented as an offensive option.  For the season, Josh Cribbs wildcat’d his way to 167 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries as the Browns stunk.

Then something strange happened.  

Eric Mangini was hired for the 2009 season in Cleveland.  With a whole new coaching staff, the wildcat eventually found life.  Maybe it was a tip of the cap to the fans because Josh Cribbs was so popular.  Maybe it was indicative of just how horrible the offense was as the QB debate raged between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.  This isn’t even to mention the death of Jamal Lewis’ career as the Browns struggled to find Jerome Harrison on the bench.  The wildcat seemed to reappear out of absolute desperation.

After a 1-4 start with a barn burner victory over Buffalo 6-3, the Browns turned to Josh Cribbs and the wildcat again.  Including the Buffalo game, Josh Cribbs ran the ball 6 times for 56 yards.  After that Buffalo game that featured a 31 yard scamper from Josh Cribbs to set up a field goal, Cribbs ran the ball six times against Pittsburgh.  This doubled his attempts for the year in one game as the Browns lost 27-14.

The wildcat looked pretty successful in the box score for the rest of the year. Cribbs averaged over 4 carries a game, including the second Pittsburgh game where Cribbs rushed 8 times for 87 yards and almost single-handedly propelled the Browns to victory. (See video…)

 

 

That could have been the start of something, except that unlike the Dolphins the Browns never used it well enough to make the playoffs. They did it to make up for a sputtering offense in a couple seasons of offensive turmoil. Additionally, the league started to catch up with the gimmickry. Granted Cribbs was largely hurt in 2010, but the wildcat yielded almost nothing of note. The Browns found ways to run the ball with Peyton Hillis.

And now Pat Shurmur is the new Browns head coach. Cribbs is still here, but will the wildcat still be? Can it be the indestructible cockroach that survives nuclear winter? I argue that it is time to let it go.

The league was amazed to see the wildcat the first time it showed up in 2008. Like anything else, you can only see it for the first time once. When Josh Cribbs lined up behind center it panicked a lot of defensive players. Now, after three years defenses have adapted to the fact that the QB lined up outside is almost a non-factor. They have also figured out that it is guaranteed to be a run play or a run-fake. Defensive backs stay at home a bit on their secondary assignments. Linebackers play a bit of contain. It is now just another play for the defense.

And really, how strange would it be for a gimmick type play to last from Romeo Crennel to Eric Mangini to Pat Shurmur? I know Josh Cribbs is the obvious unifying factor, but still. Time will tell, but I hope the Browns develop an offense that will no longer need that kind of a crutch.

  • MrCleaveland

    “Maybe it was a tip of the cap to the fans because Josh Cribbs was so popular.”

    Come on, man!

  • mgbode

    hasn’t Shurmur already intimated that we shouldn’t expect to see much of the wildcat (if at all)

    it’s not bad to throw out there every now and then just to keep the defense honest (like once every few games). one more thing for them to prepare for during the week (as belicheck would say).

    but, overall, yeah I think it’s run its course.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    @MrCleaveland that was an attempt to be a bit tongue in cheek… I thought it would be funny to suggest that of Mangini…

  • Harv 21

    Remember Cribbs talking in camp about how explosive he and Wallace together would be. Thought what was supposed to make the wildcat difficult to defend was the multiple threats, either guy could run, throw, or catch it. But remember Cribbs throwing exactly once last season, a bad incompletion into the end zone close to season’s end. If the defense knows it’s Cribbs on a run every time he’s back there, what’s so difficult to defend?

    Whatever. Good riddance.

  • Josh Curtis

    Great article Craig,I agree that the wildcat formation has run its course. I am excited to see how Cribbs will be utilized this year. I hope that this new staff just keeps him solely as a reciever and returner. I believe this new offense will bring out Cribbs’ strength as a receiver, and less reps in the backfield and a returner mean fresher legs as an offensive weapon.

  • humboldt

    @Harv – I agree, but feel it’s a “don’t throw the baby out w/ the bathwater” situation. In other words, I still hope they preserve the concept of getting Cribbs the ball w/ a run/pass option, even if they eschew the fad of the Wildcat. Just running him straight ahead out of the shotgun 90% of the time was one of the mind-boggling idiosyncrasies of Daboll’s offense.

  • MrCleaveland

    @3

    I know, Craig. And I just thought it would be fun to tweak you on it.

    It seems like the Wildcat was good for 7 or 8 yards and a first down an awful lot of the time, even when the opponent knew it was coming. I hope they don’t throw away something that works just because it’s become unfashionable.

  • Garry Owen

    I’d rather see Cribbs become a Hines Ward type of every down receiver than to ever see him in a wildcat formation. I think he’s that type of player, and could become a real force in a West Coast offense.

  • Ryan C

    Whatever happened to that “cyclone flash” package that was supposed to involve Cribbs and Wallace? Did they ever use that look during the regular season?

  • NJ

    I think the problem with the wildcat league wide was that OCs were too timid to actually try something daring from the formation. Like others said, if you’re just going to line up a WR/RB to run off-tackle, don’t expect the defense to be confused. Now, if you’re willing to run real gadget, razzle-dazzle stuff then the wildcat wouldn’t be completely useless.

    Of course with this being the NFL, coaches are terrified of doing something unique since it opens them up to criticism. Better to lose with unimaginative playing calling (Mangini/Daboll) than try something daring that might backfire.

  • Jdenzi

    Here’s the deal “The Wildcat”. Is never going to die. It might go away for a few games, maybe a few seasons, but teams will always find a way to use it to exploit matchups with a defense. The fact that Cribbs is going to be used primarily as a receiver next year means we have the potential to use it even more. This ofcourse all depends on the duration of the lockout and how long they have to get the playbook down. But I can see the Brownies pulling this out as a change of pace formation after a big first down. Think about it. You already have your personnel on the field, which means you can line up in the formation without running dudes on and off the field – which would give the defense time to adjust. Run a quick play to get the defense off balance – worst comes to worst you end up with a 2 yd gain and you’re facing 2nd and 8. Best case scenario, the defense gets out of sorts and you’ve got a matchup you can work with.

  • Daredent

    I’m actually pretty confident Cribbs will be traded once a CBA is reached. If they can find a team to take him.

  • Joe

    What that video clip above shows is that a HEALTHY Josh Cribbs can be a difference maker. He is a WARRIOR for many reasons. He WILL be one of the lynch-pins for 2011. The Browns will have an easier scedule, a more seasoned Colt McCoy, a few more solid free agent signings and a few more healthy bodies – like Hardesty! Of course, another productive draft with a couple guys that can step right in and add value is KEY!

    GO BROWN’S! Can’t wait for the 2011 season to kick off!!!!!!!

  • BuckeyeDawg

    They just have to get the ball in Josh’s hands in open space. I don’t understand why this has been so difficult over the past couple years. I sit and watch other teams run WR screens (or any kind of screen, really) 2-3 times per game and wonder why we can’t do that with him…that would seem like the perfect play for his skill set. Make one guy miss or break a tackle and it’s a huge gainer. That’s Josh’s game…I just don’t get it.

    Here’s hoping that Holmgren and Shurmur have been drawing up some plays to get the ball in his hands…