The New York Jets intend to take it back to the future in 2012, and forgive them if they have their share of doubters.
The critics say the Wildcat is dead, but don’t tell that to Jets coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
Ryan and Sparano have always believed that the Wildcat can succeed in the NFL with the right personnel, which so few teams have.
The Jets have every right to believe that they’re one of those teams. The proof is in the pudding.
From 2009 to 2011, the Jets averaged 6.1 yards per carry out of Wildcat formations, best in the league. Before Brad Smith signed a free agent deal with the Buffalo Bills in 2011, the numbers were even better.
In 2009 and 2010, with Smith taking direct snaps in the Wildcat, the Jets averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and nearly 8 yards per snap, by far the best in the league over that period.
The Jets are a “ground-and-pound” football team at heart, something that always seemed to clash with former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer‘s style, and that friction led to his eventual ouster.
“I told the team there’s only one coordinator that can stop the Wildcat with Brad Smith back there, and it’s Brian Schottenheimer,” Ryan said. “I used to kid Brian all the time about it.”
Ryan and the Jets hired Sparano because they believe he’s the perfect coach to revitalize the Wildcat plays that worked so well for them back when Smith was on the team.
The Jets believe that newly acquired Tim Tebow can be the perfect player to replace Brad Smith in the Wildcat subpackages that they got away from a little bit in 2011.
“We feel Tim is going to bring something to the team that’s a benefit to us,” said Ryan. “He’s a good football player.”
Notably, he did not refer to Tebow as a good quarterback. The 24-year-old still has a lot of work to do before he can seriously challenge Mark Sanchez as a passer.
But despite all of the reasons to avoid a guy like Tebow, who comes with a circus in tow, the Jets believe the potential benefit of Tebow running the Wildcat is well worth the risk.
“It’s 11-on-11 football,” Ryan said of the Wildcat formation. “You’re going to have to defend the quarterback in the running game, which you really don’t have to defend in any other run.”
“I don’t think it really fizzled out,” he said. “If you have a guy back there who can throw the football it makes it tough.”
“Look at [Tebow’s] playoff game against Pittsburgh: [Steelers] went cover-zero [on the first play of overtime] … You’ve got ‘man’ coverage, so if you miss a tackle, it goes for a touchdown, and that’s exactly what happened.”
“You might be able to stop the run … but that’s going to leave you vulnerable on the outside,” Ryan explained. “When we had Brad Smith he averaged 8 yards [per play] back there. Was it really stopped? I don’t know.”
Rex Ryan knows how difficult it is for defenses to stop the Wildcat. He’s had to deal with it himself as a defensive coach for years. It’s no coincidence he believes in something he himself has had trouble stopping.
“Now,” said Ryan, “when you put in Tim Tebow, he’s a guy who’s actually a better inside runner than Brad. Brad was outstanding outside, but he wasn’t necessarily the inside runner that Tim is.”
“Tim runs the inside running game like a fullback. He can run the option. He can throw the football. He can throw on the perimeter. And, trust me, I don’t think DB’s want to tackle him,” Ryan said.
“It’s really a unique skill set that I thought we were fortunate to get. In that system, the Wildcat, he’s the perfect guy for it… Not to mention that he’s a guy I think will be ascending as a passer.”
Tebow is coming off a 2011 season in which he posted a paltry 46.5 completion percentage and 6.4 yards per pass attempt on just 271 attempts. It would be hard for him not to be ascending as a passer.
However, despite his struggles as a passer, Tebow rushed for a superb 5.4 yards per carry, which was tied for 4th in the NFL, behind fellow quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, among others.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a defensive guy himself, certainly thinks Tebow can be effective. He saw it first-hand after all.
“Obviously [Tebow] has a skill set that levels the playing field in short-yardage and goal-line situations,” Tomlin said. [He] can run the ball between the tackles and is capable of moving piles but, at the same time, is a legitimate quarterback. Situationally, that creates issues and problems.”
It’s no surprise Tomlin would be so complimentary of Tebow’s talents. As raw and unfinished of a product he is, he still tore apart the Steelers’ number-1 ranked defense last January. They didn’t respect his arm enough.
“Trust me,” Rex Ryan said, “the difficulty lies with the defense because with the defense you have only one week to prepare for it.”
“Every game we’ll run it, but you have no idea how much we’ll run it, when we can run it, what formation, all those types of things,” he explained. “It’s going to be way tougher on the defense than it is on us.”
It may be an unconventional tactic, and one that the so-called experts think is a dying fad, but the Jets believe they have the coaches and the personnel to make the Wildcat roar once again.
“This is kind of a unique opportunity to make our team better,” Ryan said. “We’re a team that’s totally committed to finding a way to get better.”
The goal is still the Super Bowl, even if Ryan is wise enough not to put that target on his back anymore.
The Jets are attempting to get ahead of the curve to keep defenses off-balance on offense. You know Ryan’s defense will one of the best units in the game, like always.
Mark Sanchez is still the guy, and I still expect him to be taking snaps at a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio compared to Tebow and his Wildcat plays. But it’s a compliment that they think will make both quarterbacks better.
Only time will tell if the Jets are making the right move. Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano will have to strike that perfect balance. The margin for error is small and getting smaller.