Cult Classics: Why the "Wildcat Game" isn't as wildcat-y as you remember
Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots
FOXBOROUGH, MA - SEPTEMBER 21: Ronnie Brown #23 of the Miami Dolphins fakes a handoff to Ricky Williams #34 and carries the ball for the 1st of 4 touchdowns against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 21, 2008 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Dolphins defeated the Patriots 38-13. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Life without sports got you down? Do you feel drowsy? Listless? Do you have less energy in the gym (and bedroom)? Well we have good news for you, fellow sufferers: Just because sports aren’t on, doesn’t mean you can’t watch sports. At least according to Cult Classics, a new weekly section where we will dive headlong into our favorite, forgotten sports moments of yesteryear, analyzing what makes them so great, why they still matter, and, most importantly, where we go from here. This week we’re watching...
The Wildcat Game RAWRRR!
The Date: September 21, 2008
What You Probably Remember: THE FREAKING WILDCAT, BABY.
What You Probably Don't: Everything that wasn’t the Wildcat, baby.
What Actually Happened: You mean besides the Seinfeld bizarro world equivalent of a professional football game? Besides the real-life remake of NFL Street? Besides the strangest game in NFL history full stop? Well, to fully grasp the absurdity and glory of the Wildcat Game, you actually have to go back to the season before, when the seed of the Wildcat was first planted.
In 2007, the Dolphins trotted out the worst team in franchise history. They were so bad they made 2019’s tuna phish look like Don Shula’s invincibles. Following Nick Saban’s shock resignation at the end of the 2006 season, Cam Cameron took the reel. In March, they traded away some special teams guy by the name of Wes Welker. In April, they selected Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth overall pick. They released Daunte Culpepper, who had been signed instead of Drew Brees at the start of 2006, and brought in a geriatric Trent Green, who barely beat out Cleo f’n Lemon for the starting job. Then the truly bad stuff began. The Dolphins hit free fall, starting the season 0-13—including a trio of player arrests—before finally, on December 16th, staring the first 0-16 season in NFL history right in its salivating maw, managed to squeak out their solitary win of the season against the Ravens...in overtime.
Cameron was kindly told where the door could hit him, and a month later the Dolphins had their (new) guy: Dallas Cowboys assistant coach and a man just crazy enough to give this Wildcat thing a shot, Tony Sparano. Sparano didn’t immediately hand the rock to Ronnie Brown and tell him to start taking lives, however. Instead, the Dolphins started the season with a predictable offense to predictable results. At 0-2, with a road trip to Foxborough to face a New England Patriots squad riding a NFL-record 21-game win streak looming, Sparano and co. were at a crossroads: Keep trying not lose or start trying to win. After a 31-10 blowout to the Cardinals the previous week, Sparano called quarterbacks coach David Lee—the architect of the NFL wildcat—on the flight home and said, in so many words, f—k it.
Well, almost. On their first possession against New England, Miami went three and out, unable to get into their planned offense. The Patriots, led by Matt Cassel after Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season opener against the Chiefs, drove down the field. On second and goal from the 12, Cassel walked into the end zone after breaking a tackle in the backfield, only to have the play whistled dead as a sack. Gillette Stadium broke into a chorus of boos and on the next snap, Cassel dropped back and threw it right into the waiting arms of the Dolphins’ Randy Starks. It was the break the Wildcat needed.
After two chunk plays to Anthony Fasano, the Dolphins broke the huddle on second and goal from the Patriots two and a half, but instead of lining up under center where he ordinarily would have, Chad Pennington casually jogged toward the left hash marks. Ricky Williams entered the game and lined up in the left slot, with Ronnie Brown in the shotgun. With the Patriots linebackers pointing this way and that, Williams motioned across the formation. Brown snapped the ball, faked the handoff to Williams, and kept it himself, slipping into the end zone virtually untouched. Sparano pumped his fists and slapped some asses. The play-by-play crew chuckled something about Darren McFadden at Arkansas, where Lee had run the Wildcat as a former OC. Wildcat - 7, Patriots - 0.
The part you don’t remember, however, is that Miami wasn’t cruising the field with their Wildcat top down from 20 to 20. They were ripping off long gains in the passing game, like a 33 yarder to Greg Camarillio to start their second drive, and chewing up four yards a whack on the ground, allowing them to set up the Wildcat in much the same way they would the play-action pass. In fact, Ronnie Brown’s second touchdown of the game wasn’t an RPO at all, but a simple halfback dive off the left side where he once again glided in without opposition. Midway through the second quarter with the Dolphins already up 11, the Patriots had faced exactly one Wildcat snap. Looking back, it’s easy to think the Wildcat killed the Patriots, but it was just the flowers at their wake.
With the Patriots defense struggling with basic concepts, Miami opened their following drive with Pennington spread out wide once again and Ronnie Brown under center. This time the handoff went to an in-motion Williams who rounded the corner and . . . tripped and fell flat on his face for a three-yard gain. That was the least effective Wildcat call all game. On the other side of the two-minute warning, with the Dolphins driving again, offensive coordinator Dan Henning dialed up the same exact play, but instead of tripping, this time Williams ripped off a 27 yard gain. Two plays later, Ronnie Brown took the direct snap up the middle from the five to put the Dolphins up 21-6. The floodgates—or should we say the cages—had officially opened.
But still, four Wildcat snaps in the entire first half is a far cry from the option-palooza most football fans remember. Both teams traded three and outs to start the second half with not a single RPO in sight. The next 60 yards of Dolphins offense came with Pennington under center, continuing to gash a wary Patriots D over the middle. Then, with 5:55 seconds left in the third quarter, Ronnie Brown, who volunteered to run the formation due to his baseball background, took another snap from the Patriots 15, rolled out to the left and lobbed one to a wide open Anthony Fasano for the touchdown. Five Wildcat snaps, 21 points. Not a bad ROI.
“We only had about five or six plays. We had a power, a counter, the sweep to me, a reverse, a reverse pass and Ronnie had a fake rollout counter pass.” Ricky Williams told ESPN in a 10 year retrospective of the game back in 2018.
By the end of third quarter, the Dolphins had pretty much used them all.
“We got to panicking and fussing amongst each other and arguing and overthinking things,” said Rodney Harrison. “It really did play mind games on me,” admitted Tedy Bruschi.
“Rodney was mad. Very mad. He was mad at me touching him, he was mad at getting the ball run down their throat, he was mad at every block,” recalled Dolphins running back Patrick Cobb to The Ringer. “He’s on top of me and I’m just laughing and laughing. He was getting more mad. I jumped up and just couldn’t stop laughing.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. Not quite.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Pennington lined up at receiver one last time, and Ronnie Brown, aided by a nice cut at the line of scrimmage and a broken tackle at the second level, ripped off 62 yard touchdown stroll—his fifth total TD of the day—putting the lowly Dolphins out of reach of the mighty Patriots once and for all.
As it turns out, a slingshot didn’t fell Goliath. It was a junior college play.
"It was one of those nights where I couldn’t sleep. I was always haunted by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams,” Harrison, one of the most terrifying hitters in NFL history, would later admit.
The Dolphins, who had lost 20 of 21 games coming into the afternoon, would go on to win 38-13. They finished the season 10-3, claiming just their second AFC East crown this century (they have not won the division again since and have made the playoffs just once in the 12 subsequent seasons). Despite the loss, the Patriots still wound up finishing 11-5, but missed the playoffs for the second and final time in the Brady era, becoming the only 11-win team to miss the playoffs since the 12-team postseason expansion in 1990. That, dear readers, is a thing you really hate to see.
But despite all of that, the so-called “Wildcat Game” actually featured a hell of a lot less Wildcat than advertised. Six Wildcat plays total, four of six for touchdowns. The CBS play-by-play crew never even mumbled the word “Wildcat.” Not once. Chad Pennington finished the day with 226 yards passing, while Ronnie Brown amassed just half that on the ground. So what really beat the Patriots that day? A gimmicky trick play that somehow still continues to impact the way plays are called and players drafted to this day or a pretty good Miami Dolphins team that, after over 12 months of upheaval and ineptitude, gelled at exactly the right moment? The answer is probably a bit of both, but perhaps we should ask these poor folks, who passed from this on earth on September 21st, 2008. May Ronnie Brown have mercy on your souls