Tim Tebow and the Jets: The Wildcat's latest incarnation



It's not so much that Byron Leftwich is rooting for Tim Tebow when he comes to Heinz Field today with the New York Jets.

And it wasn't as though he was pulling for him last season when Tebow surprised the Steelers, the city of Denver and the National Football League with a deep passing display that nobody thought was possible in a wild-card playoff game.

But Leftwich, a backup quarterback for the Steelers, is rooting for Tebow to succeed in his role with his new team, if for no other reason than the job opportunities his style of play creates for quarterbacks who might otherwise be shunned by the NFL.

"That's the great thing with what happened with the success Tebow had last year," Leftwich said. "I loved every bit of it. I didn't want him to beat us, but, as a quarterback, I remember those times when guys like Charlie Ward and them were still playing. These were good quarterbacks who didn't get a chance to do the types of things teams are doing now.

"But just think -- Charlie Ward! There are a lot of people I can name who didn't get the opportunity because maybe they weren't tall enough. That's not a prerequisite now. I'm happy for the whole thing because of the opportunity it gives to other quarterbacks who may not be a pure pocket passer."

Tim Tebow isn't the person who brought the Wildcat offense to the NFL. He is merely running the formation for the Jets as a wrinkle to the offense that is supposed to highlight quarterback Mark Sanchez, receivers Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller, and running back Shonn Green.

No, the man responsible for introducing the Wildcat to the NFL is the same person who now runs the Jets' offense -- Tony Sparano, the former Miami Dolphins coach who surprised the New England Patriots with the scheme four years ago. The Wildcat had so much instant success that other teams began copying the direct-snap offense.

Sparano was hired as the Jets offensive coordinator during the offseason after he was fired in Miami. Two months later, the Jets sent a fourth- and sixth-round draft choice to Denver to acquire Tebow, even though they had what they thought was a marquee quarterback in Sanchez.

Instant marriage.

Welcome back to the NFL, Wildcat offense.

"They got a good situation over there, two really different types of quarterbacks," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "One can run the multiple option and is a real running threat. Sanchez can run, but he's not the guy you want turning the option. You got two different offensive packages, depending on who's on the field. They present some problems. I'm sure that's why they got Tebow."

Tebow makes it tough

The Steelers discovered in their overtime playoff loss in January the problems Tebow can present. He not only tortured them with five passes of 35 yards or longer, including the winning 80-yarder 11 seconds into overtime, but he gave them fits running the option. Tebow ran 10 times for 50 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown, many to James Harrison's side.

With the Jets, though, his role is more limited. He was on the field for 12 plays in last week's resounding victory against the Buffalo Bills, though only eight when he lined behind center.

Of the eight, five were in the Wildcat formation. On two others, he lined under center. On the opening play, he was the H-back. On two of the five Wildcat formations with Tebow, Sanchez lined at wide receiver.

All told, the Jets gained 22 yards when Tebow was on the field. And he gained 11 yards on five carries.

"Tebow makes it a viable deal, maybe more so than some of the other Wildcats, because he's a little bit of a better passer and has experience running it all through college and pretty much last year," LeBeau said. "I feel good about our guys knowing what to do, but stopping it is something we'll have to see about."

When the Jets made the trade to obtain Tebow, even Sanchez was surprised -- "rattled," according to his teammate, Holmes, the former Steelers wide receiver.

But Sanchez was anything but rattled anytime Tebow entered the game in his Jets debut. In fact, he appeared to be motivated by the moment.

It could have merely been a coincidence, but the first six times Tebow was in the game, Sanchez came back on the next play and threw all six times, completing five. Two of those were touchdowns.

"It's got to be tough," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said about the system. "I feel bad for [Sanchez]. Obviously, they blew out Buffalo, so it wasn't as big of a deal. But I know it wasn't easy. It's got to be hard because, as a quarterback, you want to stay in a groove. But the Jets always do some unconventional things."

Too risky for some

Tim Tebow isn't the only player who had success running the Wildcat against the Steelers.

In 2009, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Joshua Cribbs, a college quarterback, ran eight times for 87 yards from the formation, including a 37-yard run. One year later, Cribbs ran three times for only 2 yards from the Wildcat against the Steelers before he was knocked unconscious on the final run by Harrison, his former teammate at Kent State.

"That ends the Wildcat," Harrison said, somewhat cryptically, after the game. "It's out the window."

Maybe for the Browns. Not for Tebow.

That, though, is part of the problem with the Wildcat: Starting quarterbacks can't run the formation because they are subject to vicious hits on the option. And some teams, like the Steelers, don't want to take a marquee quarterback such as Ben Roethlisberger out of the game, even for a play.

"It never fit us because I would never put Ben Roethlisberger, who we're paying $100 million, and line him at wide receiver," said former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, now with the Indianapolis Colts. "I've been fortunate to be around franchise quarterbacks and you don't take them out of the game and you sure as heck don't put them at wide receiver."

The Steelers experimented briefly with the package in summer 2009 after borrowing some of the nuances from the University of Arkansas, the original purveyors of the Wildcat. But they trotted out the package just once after the regular season started and scrapped it when they saw how quickly their defense adapted to the intricacies of the formation in practice.

"People would ask why didn't you do it with Dennis Dixon," Arians said, referring to the former Steelers quarterback who ran for 1,208 yards at the University of Oregon. "Because Dennis Dixon scrambled twice with us and got broken up twice."

Tebow, though, is not Dennis Dixon. Or Joshua Cribbs. He is 6-foot-3, 236 pounds and capable of absorbing hits ... and delivering them.

"Some of these quarterbacks are so big and strong, they can take the hits and they know how to take the hits," said Jets coach Rex Ryan. "Before, if you ran the option in NFL, you were crazy. I think we're really the dying breed."

Expanded opportunity

The Wildcat phenomenon has slowly faded since the Dolphins first introduced the formation in a 25-point rout of the New England Patriots on Sept. 22, 2008.

In seven plays with running back Ronnie Brown as the triggerman, the Dolphins gained 138 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 38-13 victory in Foxboro, Mass., that ended the Patriots' NFL-record regular-season winning streak at 21 games.

The night was significant for the Dolphins and the league because Sparano, Miami's rookie coach, was bold enough to try an offensive scheme that dated to 1907 when it was called the single-wing by Glenn "Pop" Warner.

The Wildcat's path to the NFL could be traced to the Dolphins' quarterback coach, David Lee, who ran the package when he was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Miami went on to finish 11-5 and win the AFC East -- its first winning season since 2005.

When the Dolphins first introduced the look, Brown was in the shotgun and running back Ricky Williams was in the slot. Williams would go in short motion before the snap and create a "mesh point" with Brown after he received the snap, allowing for several variations of a run or even a pass.

Teams attempt to initially disguise the scheme by keeping the quarterback in the game and lining him at split end. But the run rarely, if ever, goes to that side of the field because it put the quarterback at risk of trying to block a linebacker.

Most teams have used position players other than quarterback to run the Wildcat. That includes Cribbs and former Jets receiver Brad Smith, who runs the direct-snap offense with the Bills. Both, though, were quarterbacks in college.

Tebow is the exception.

"I'm just happy the opportunity it gives the next guy who may be a running quarterback who can still throw who would never get a look in the past," Leftwich said. "Now they have to give these guys a look."

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published September 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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