The wildcat is a formation in American football that has recently become extremely popular in both the college and NFL games. Essentially a variation of the single-wing formation utilizing a zone blocking scheme, it is designed to present the defense with a terrifying array of potential plays to defend against, as well as to equalize the normal 10-on-11 offense-to-defense disadvantage by removing the quarterback from the play and making it a straight up 11-on-11.

The wildcat is particularly exciting for fans because it is so unpredictable, and also because often features odd alignments such as a running back or receiver lining up behind center with the team's usual quarterback split out as a wide receiver or sometimes off of the field entirely.

How it works

The standard wildcat formation looks like this:

      WR1        LT  LG  C  RG  RT  TE        WR2      WR3


As you can see, it is an unbalanced single-wing formation featuring a blocking wingback lined up behind a single tight end with an empty backfield other than a halfback who receives the snap out of the shotgun. The signature feature of the wildcat that makes it the wildcat and not some other type of play is that wide receiver 1 goes in motion before the play, running what appears to be a jet sweep, so when the ball is snapped, the offense looks something like this...

                                              WR2      WR3
                                               |        |
                                               |        |
                                               |        |
                       LG  C  RG  RT TE        |        |
                    LT /  /   /   /  /   WB    |        |
        \           /                ----/

In a standard jet sweep, the halfback would simply hand the ball off to the sweeper and watch the play unfold, acting like a normal quarterback. But what makes the wildcat different is that the player inserted at halfback is a legitimate threat to run the ball himself, typically a running back or a speedy receiver. Thus he has the option to hand the ball off to the sweeper, but he may also opt to fake the handoff and run the ball himself. He could either run to the right, following the blockers to the strong side, or he could run the ball left, attempting to catch the defense off guard by running to a place where nobody is. Lastly, the halfback can also simply pass the ball to wide receivers 2 or 3, who will necessarily be in single man-to-man coverage or possibly even uncovered if the defense bites on the run fake.

The wildcat can be devastating because the the halfback can literally do anything he wants. He can hand it off, run in any direction, or pass the ball. The only reason the wildcat is not run all the time is that to be most successful, it requires the halfback to be an extremely rare double threat player who can both run well and pass well. If the halfback is not a true passing threat, the defense can simply key in on stopping the run and the wildcat will not work out too well.


Although the formation has any number of possible antecedents dating back to the earliest days of football, the wildcat as we know it today first began to appear in high school games in the 1990s. The name "wildcat" comes from an article by longtime high school football coach Hugh Wyatt, published in Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director magazine in 1998, in which he described a version of this formation he used while coaching the La Center (WA) High School Wildcats. Following the publication of this article, the formation was widely adopted by high school coaches across the nation.

The wildcat was first popularized at the collegiate level in the mid-2000s by the Arkansas Razorbacks, particularly under offensive coordinator David Lee, who used it extensively in 2006 and 2007 to take advantage of the varied talents of running back Darren McFadden. Other schools quickly began featuring the formation in their own offenses thereafter.

Meanwhile, in a December 24, 2006 NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons the Panthers, due to injuries to their quarterbacks, used a wildcat formation for the entire game, playing without a quarterback and snapping the ball directly to running back DeAngelo Williams. This scheme was devised by the Panther's offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

As chance would have it, the 2008 Miami Dolphins' coaching staff brought together both quarterbacks coach David Lee, who had run the wildcat scheme at Arkansas, and Dan Henning, who had used it with the Panthers. In the third game of the season, on September 21, 2008, the Dolphins stunned the mighty New England Patriots by suddenly unveiling the wildcat and using it to score 5 touchdowns, producing a shocking 38-13 upset victory that ended the Patriots' 21-game regular season winning streak and demonstrated that the wildcat is virtually impossible to stop if a defense has not prepared extensively beforehand on how to beat it.

For the next season and a half, wildcat plays ran roughshod over NFL defenses, becoming a wildly popular set across the league, and even producing a rule change in Canadian football to allow the play starting in 2009. However, defenses soon caught on, incorporating anti-wildcat drills into their practices, and by the 2010-11 NFL season the wildcat had become markedly less effective in NFL games.

The main problem was that true double threat players are just as rare in the NFL as they are in college or high school, and defenses quickly learned to bite hard on the run and dare the ball handler to pass. While the wildcat is definitely here to stay, it is increasingly reserved for unusual players such as Tim Tebow who can both run and throw.

Video of the wildcat:
A video game afficcionado demonstrates wildcat variations on Madden '10
The Miami Dolphins first unveil the wildcat against the Patriots in 2008
A more detailed breakdown of the plays in the 2008 Dolphins-Patriots game