An offensive wrinkle that had spread through the NFL over the past two seasons appears to be losing steam within the very team that introduced it to the league in 2008.
The Miami Dolphins kick-started the employment of the Wildcat, a formation that usually entailed a direct snap to running back Ronnie Brown and gave him the freedom to either run with the football or pass it to an open receiver.
After employing the tactic more than 170 times in the previous two years, the Dolphins have run the Wildcat just 20 times this season. That trend could continue this Sunday when Miami visits the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
One factor has been the evolution of the team's personnel. The offseason acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Denver Broncos and the development of quarterback Chad Henne and wide receivers Davone Bess and Brian Hartline has allowed the offense to adopt a more traditional alignment.
"These people all have kind of gotten a lot better right now from where they were a year ago," coach Tony Sparano said in a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday. "They've taken tremendous jumps. So I think a year ago when we started this thing or really two seasons ago when we started this thing, it was largely due to the fact that we needed to get our playmakers on the field at the same time. That was Ricky [Williams] and Ronnie and trying to get them involved together. Right now, we feel like there's other people that can make plays on this team rather than having to go to that package. We use it more right now as something that if we've seen it on film and it's really clear to us we'll do it. If not, there's really no need."
Another consideration is that as more offenses began absorbing the Wildcat into their playbooks, defenses started devising strategies to counteract that formation. NFL defenses catch up and create ways to limit new offensive schemes.
"The Wildcat hasn't had much success," Ravens coach John Harbaugh noted. "I haven't seen people do it with too much success this year. It's like anything else in this league — it kind of goes back and forth. We could see it on Sunday. We're planning on seeing it on Sunday. If we see it, we're going to have to defend it."
Brown has been most impacted by the declining use of the Wildcat. After rushing for 604 yards on 102 attempts for a 5.9-yard average, scoring seven rushing touchdowns, and tossing two more, Brown has gained just 25 yards on 13 carries (a 1.9-yard average) and has yet to reach the end zone.
But Brown agreed with Sparano that the offense has changed. That, however, doesn't mean that the offense has eliminated that possibility from its playbook.
"I don't think there's as much of a need for it," Brown said. "At the same time, it's just another one of those formations that is an opportunity for our football team, and we're able to jump into it like jumping into a no-huddle situation. Unfortunately, we haven't used it a lot, but at that same time, we still have it there every week."
That's why several Ravens players said they will be wary of Miami using the Wildcat this Sunday.
"They started it, so why wouldn't you see it? I think you've seen it in every game that they've played in," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You just have to stay in your gaps. Just play disciplined. Nobody try to do something that they shouldn't be doing because if you do, you never know if a pass is going to come out of it or if Ronnie Brown is throwing the ball out of it and things like that. So you have to be conscious of what's going on. Just hit your gaps and keep the ball funneled inside, and that's pretty much one way to kind of slow it down."