Defenses will need new manual to stop Fins

September, 23, 2008
9/23/08
3:01
PM ET
AP Photo/Winslow Townson
Ronnie Brown ran for four TDs and passed for another against the Patriots on Sunday.

Bill Belichick's library is believed to contain the world's third-largest collection of football books behind only the Library of Congress and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His collection of more than 500 titles is housed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where Belichick's father coached 33 years.

While his New England Patriots use their bye week to regroup from Sunday's incredible 38-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins, this might be the perfect occasion for Belichick to get away and center himself.

On a shelf somewhere in Ricketts Hall he likely will find "Winning Single Wing Football: A Simplified Guide for the Football Coach," written by Dr. Ken Keuffel, who played for Princeton in the 1940s.

At the top of the book's cover is a testimonial:

The principles of single-wing football are enduring, and they're all covered by Ken Keuffel. Every coach in football can profit by reading this book. -- Bill Belichick


Had he reacquainted himself with Keuffel's book while preparing for the Dolphins, Belichick might've gleaned a tip or two on how to neutralize an unusual offense that gave the Patriots fits.

At least by NFL standards, there was nothing by-the-book about Miami's fascinating victory Sunday in Gillette Stadium.

The Dolphins revealed what they call their Wildcat offense, a version of the deceptive single-wing that has been used since the leather-helmet era, but with a couple of exceptions, forgotten beyond the high-school level.

Behind an unbalanced line that puts two tackles on the same side, the tailback takes a direct shotgun snap and then runs, hands off or throws. A wingback adds to the confusion by coming in motion and arriving near the tailback at the time of the snap for a possible full-speed handoff.

Belichick, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Dom Capers (a respected former defensive coordinator) had no answers. New England's fearsome front seven were flummoxed.

Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns and threw for another to end the Patriots' regular-season winning streak at 21 games.

"Everybody knows how smart Belichick is," said Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, who used the Wildcat to maximize first-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at the University of Arkansas. "Belichick is one of the best defensive coordinators that's ever been.

"What this tells you, though, is when there's no preparation for that formation and that type of offense, it can gut you."

Desperation was the mother of implementation for the Dolphins. On the flight back from a humiliating Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, quarterbacks coach David Lee huddled with head coach Tony Sparano to brainstorm. Wildcat, an offense they toyed with and shelved like one of those dusty books in the Belichick library, was broached.

Lee became familiar with Wildcat last year as Nutt's offensive coordinator. Arkansas used the formation in 1998 with Clint Stoerner at quarterback. They reprised it in 2004 with quarterback Matt Jones.

"It doesn't get interesting until -- whoa! -- you have a real threat back there," Nutt said.

Lee's predecessor at Arkansas, Gus Malzahn, and running backs coach Danny Nutt installed the Wildcat package again in 2006 to get the three best Razorbacks -- McFadden, Jones and Peyton Hillis -- on the field in addition to quarterback Mitch Mustain. They loaded up an unbalanced line with gargantuan tackles Tony Ugoh and Zac Tubbs next to each other.

"It didn't take a genius to figure out," said Malzahn, now the offensive coordinator at Tulsa. He'd dabbled in the single-wing while coaching Springdale High in Arkansas. "We were looking for ways to get the ball in our best players' hands with a little bit of deception at the same time."

And the unbalanced line "really messes with the defensive structure," Malzahn said.

Houston Nutt called it "a knuckleball formation."

The Dolphins used the ruse only six times, but they were critical plays. Five of them went for touchdowns or first downs. Brown took all of the direct snaps with Ricky Williams as the wingback:
  • Brown run for 2-yard touchdown.
  • Brown handoff to Williams for 3-yard gain. Williams said he slipped at the edge because he had built up too much speed.
  • Brown handoff to Williams for 28-yard run.
  • Brown run for 5-yard touchdown.
  • Brown pass to Anthony Fasano for 19-yard touchdown.
  • Brown run for 62-yard touchdown -- after the Patriots had seen the play five times.

Now the question will be: Can the Dolphins keep making it work?

"We've just scratched the surface of really what we were trying to do," Sparano said. "We didn't go in there with 30 plays' worth of what we're trying to do out of this package.

"This is not something that just came up and we scribbled on the board a couple days ago. It's something that, quite honestly, we had even some other people in mind for down the road."

Nutt warned the Wildcat offense would provide diminishing returns if it's used too much. He said the Razorbacks went into games prepared to rely on it only 10 to 12 times.

"It will be a little more difficult the next time they run it," Nutt said. "That's the thing about it. As people prepare for it, that's tough. You're going to end up having to punt more than you'd like.

"I don't know if you can major in it and say 'This is going to be 60 percent of our offense.' That's hard. They're eventually are going to come down and overpopulate the line of scrimmage and make Ronnie Brown throw it, throw it, throw it."

The Dolphins were careful in picking their spots. After their first Wildcat play, they called their other five after long stoppages (Patriots kickoff, 2-minute warning, injury timeout, Dolphins timeout, first play of the fourth quarter).

Williams suggested the Wildcat wouldn't work unless it's used sporadically.

"We knew in the midst of a game you can't watch film, so [the Patriots] wouldn't know what we were actually doing until Monday morning," Williams said. "They'll start to get an idea. Everyone else will start to have a strategy to try to stop it.

"But, worst-case scenario, teams are going to have to spend more time preparing for it, and that's less time they have to prepare for our regular stuff."

The last NFL team to regularly deploy the single-wing offense was the 1947 Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Keuffel's 2006 obituary in the New York Times. Tailback Johnny Clement led the 8-4 Steelers to the playoffs with 1,004 passing yards and 670 rushing yards.

Why has it taken so long for the NFL to rediscover the single-wing?

"That's a good question," Malzahn said. "I'm not in the NFL scene, but I would assume you may see more of it."

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