Bringing the Wildcat to Titletown Will the “Wildpack” appear in 2010? by Tony Wilson
hen you think of the Green Bay Packers, you think of players like Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers taking the snap from behind center. You don’t think of a running back taking a snap, let alone throwing a pass. The Wildcat offense is sweeping the NFL, but do the Packers have the personnel necessary to unleash the Wildpack? One reason Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were first-round draft picks in 2008 is that they were the figureheads of the first successful attempt at the Wildcat, an offense that hadn’t been seen in years. The use of the offense by the Arkansas coaches completely revolutionized the game of football, not only for college teams but for the NFL as well. Coaches liked it, players liked it, and fans loved it. McFadden and Jones weren’t the first to succeed with the Wildcat, but they made the most noise. Bill Snyder’s Kansas State team with Michael Bishop at quarterback was one of the
best in the country during the late-1990s, and it was thanks to having the athletic Bishop running all over the place. But it was Jones and McFadden that gave the Wildcat, or Wild Hog if you’re a Razorback, its swagger. The use of the offense gave Arkansas a 2006 SEC championship appearance, its first since 2002. In the NFL, however, the Wildcat made one significant splash in 2008. Former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning left after 2007 for the Miami Dolphins. Along with former Arkansas coordinator David Lee, the two implemented the once-successful offensive scheme with a Dolphins team that was 1–15 the season before. Looking for any bit of success, the Dolphins made waves with Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and the recently-acquired Chad Pennington at the quarterback spot. It wasn’t until a September 21, 2008 match-up with the
Maple Street Press Packers Annual 2010 | 107
Mike McCarthy didn’t think any of last year’s perimeter players, including Jordy Nelson, had the ability to run the Wildcat. dominant New England Patriots that the NFL would witness the true potential of the Wildcat. The Dolphins went into the game as tremendous underdogs, but the Wildcat made them winners. The offense produced four Ronnie Brown rushing touchdowns out of the mere six times they ran the offense. The most shocking part? Brown added a touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano. The Dolphins left Foxborough 38–13 winners, leaving the NFL a different game. With the massive success the Dolphins had with the Wildcat, winning 11 games 2008 after going 1–15 the year before, other teams began to work with the offense. The Dallas Cowboys, who selected former Razorback Felix Jones in the 2008 NFL Draft, began working him in the Wildcat. While they haven’t had the level of success Miami has, they certainly have someone with great experience with the offense. The Wildcat really works on the premise of surprising the opponent. When the Dolphins faced the Patriots a second time in 2008, the offense was limited to only 27 yards and
108 | Maple Street Press Packers Annual 2010
New England won by 20. Once coaches have time to prepare for a certain offense, they’re able to stop it. That’s why teams don’t run it exclusively: It doesn’t work all the time. Then, there are teams like the Packers, who haven’t showed even a glimpse of a Wild-X offense. But if you really look at why they haven’t tried to run it, you’ll realize that they just don’t have the players. Head coach Mike McCarthy said at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine that he’s taken a look at some of the current guys, but they just haven’t fit the bill. Players like Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and Brett Swain have the speed, but can they throw it? The head coach has his doubts. “Right now I really don’t feel that we have that type of player,” McCarthy said in February. “I’ve had a number of our perimeter players outside of the quarterback throw the ball and I was not impressed, so we could put another running back back there just to run it.” McCarthy’s right—teams can’t run the Wildcat if the right players aren’t there. That’s where the NFL Draft can come in handy. Players like C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best, and Dexter McCluster were popular names dropped before the draft in terms of who could give the Packers the option of a Wildpack offense. None of those players made it to 1265 Lombardi, but there was one late-round pick that did: Buffalo running back James Starks. Starks, a former quarterback and cornerback in high school and college, is the player the Packers needed to make the Wildpack a reality. He has a combination of size and speed that helped him break Buffalo’s career records in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns despite missing the 2009 season due to a shoulder injury. The versatility that Starks brings to the table makes him the most Wildpack-ready player in terms of being able to multitask in the backfield. He was recruited by University at Buffalo to be a quarterback, but once he got involved in practice he was switched to corner and then to running back. It was his ability to grasp new positions that made him so successful. “I was a quarterback at first and I’ve been switched to many different things,” Starks said after the draft. “A lot of things were thrown at me. I learn fast. I catch on to a lot of things.” While Starks is versatile enough to play in the Wildcat for the Packers, there is one glaring reason that makes him the number-one candidate for Wildpack duties: He’s played in the offense before. “I’ve done Wildcat, and I can still throw,” Starks said. “I’m used to the Wildcat and I’ve run it a couple times, and I can definitely do that.” That’s good news. Starks’s experience, though limited, is
Photo on previous page: Scott Boehm/Getty Images Photo this page: Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Photo bottom: Gregor y Shamus/Getty Images Photo top: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Bringing The Wildcat To Titletown still a step in the right direction. It will take away some of the learning curve needed for a regular running back. Depending on how much he’s actually ran it, Starks could already know what keys to look for on an option play, know the decision-making process in terms of passing, running, or throwing the ball away, and have the confidence to be successful in a speed-driven offense. It’s possible the Packers will benefit from the Wildcat should they extensively run Starks. If he is able to stay healthy and prove to the coaching staff that he has fully recovered from his shoulder injury, he could prove to be very important to the success of the Packers offense. If he isn’t completely ready to be an impact at running back, The Dolphins used Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to run the most effective Wildcat in the NFL. using him in a Wildcat package could ease his transition, making him more comfortable in a NFL offense. The bottom line? Trying to get he needs to mentally and, more importantly, if the coaches Starks involved can only help his development. have enough confidence to actually run it. Don’t bet on seeing Since the Packers’ only skill-position pick was Starks, any of it in the preseason. If the Wildpack has indeed been the only realistic shot at running the Wildpack this year born, it’s going to be unveiled at the right time. rests solely on his shoulders based upon McCarthy’s earlier If you look at what made Miami so successful with the comments. If the coaches are able to successfully implement Wildcat, it helped that they struggled in the passing game. Starks, it will open a new realm into an already prolific Chad Pennington has never been more than an average offense. Starks has the experience to throw the football out of signal caller and, until their April acquisition of Brandon the Wildcat, it’s just a matter of if he can pick up everything Marshall, the Dolphins had a below-average receiving corps. With their strength and versatility at running back, it made sense that the team ran the Wildcat and ran it so well. If the Packers never enable the Wildpack, it’s because they don’t need to. The combination of Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Grant, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, and Donald Driver is enough to keep opposing defenses on their heels. Don’t forget, the team was third in the NFL with 461 points in 2009, so it’s not like the offense is broken. But an arsenal can’t have too many weapons, can it? MSP
Tony Wilson has been following the Green Bay Packers since 1992, and began writing for
James Starks may be celebrating with his new teammates in Green Bay if he has the ability to pull off the Wildcat.
Railbird Central in 2009. He resides in the suburbs of Detroit.
Maple Street Press Packers Annual 2010 | 109