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From Gimmick to Mainstream

2009 September 22
by Brian Goff

During the Colts-Dolphins Monday night telecast, the TV crew’s conversation turned to Miami’s “Wildcat” formation — the direct snap to a running back playing QB. The production team put up 2008 data (Dolphin data, I think, maybe NFL) showing a 2% yardage advantage of the Wildcat versus more typical formations. The booth personnel wondered whether this was enough to justify its use. Ron Jaworski went a step further, making clear that he doesn’t much like the formation and finishing with

“gimmicks, gadgets, and tricks just don’t work in the NFL, at least not over the long run.”

I’ve heard similar criticisms by other analysts — former Ravens Coach Brian Billick the week before offered similar comments during the Vikings-Browns game.

While I generally like Jaworksi and the find the current MNF crew generally informative, the negative views suffer from a couple of problems:

1. The small yardage advantage of the Wildcat is evidence of effective management, not, as the booth supposed, scant evidence of a positive effect for the Wildcat formation. Basic economics recognizes that efficient management implies using an alternative input or technology up to the point that it’s expected benefit matches the alternatives. If the Wildcat had a 10% yardage advantage, then Miami should use it more. The 2% figure suggests that they are using it in about the right measure.

2. Evaluating the difference in “gimmick” and successful innovation requires tests and time. Most “standard practices” of today started as a what could be described as a “gimmick, gadget, or trick (GGT)” that proved successful over the long term. The GGT designation has more to do with the stage of dispersion and acceptance of the practice. When Tom Landry re-deployed the “shotgun” formation in the 1970s, it might have been described as a gimmick or trick. Within two decades, most every team used it some. The same is true of 3 or 4 wide receivers, one running back, motion, no-huddle, not to mention defensive innovation.

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