The Patriots were the original victims of the Dolphins’ variation of the old single-wing offense. In Week 3 of the 2008 season, the Dolphins (1-20 in their previous 21 games) came into Foxborough, unfurled the set and snapped a 12-game home winning streak by gashing the Patriots for 216 yards and blowing them away.
Later that year, New England went to Miami and held the Dolphins to 66 rushing yards in a 48-28 win. The difference? Well, the Patriots had a lot of tape on the Wildcat by then, to be sure. But they also had a silent adviser to help them out — Alabama coach and Bill Belichick confidant Nick Saban. When I was in Tuscaloosa to work on a pre-draft take-out story on Belichick’s coaching network, Saban shared the story of a phone call he fielded the day after Miami unveiled the Wildcat.
“He called and said, ‘What did you guys do against this?'” said Saban. “We talked about it, and philosophically, I told him a couple
things we did and how to adjust it. Because we talk the same language,
it’s not like we had to have a meeting about it.”
Saban suggested subtle technique and scheme changes, and there’s a reason why he knew. The Wildcat was used originally, in its current form, by a high school coach in Arkansas named Gus Malzahn. Malzahn went on to become offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas, where he used the set and introduced it to quarterbacks coach David Lee. Lee returned to the NFL in 2008 with, yup, the Dolphins, and suggested that it would help the Dolphins create space in the running game and the big plays Miami lacked early that year.
Now, back up a step … Malzahn’s innovation first gained national acclaim at Arkansas, with Darren McFadden as the Wildcat triggerman and Felix Jones as the motion guy on the speed sweep. It was a headache for SEC coaches in 2007, which happened to be Saban’s first year at Alabama.
So having gone through that, Saban could relay his experiences to Belichick. And they turned out to be invaluable.
“I’ve talked to Nick and other college coaches about those type of things, Xs and Os and scheme stuff, preparation things, how to work on it in practice, things like that,” Belichick said yesterday, when I asked about it. “Yeah, Nick is real good at handling offenses and making defensive adjustments and all of that. We talk about a lot of things. …
“It’s always good. It’s always good to talk to people. The biggest thing with us was that the second time, we had at least seen it the first time, so we did a little better job preparing for it.”