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.