FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When the Falcons host the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in their season opener, they will face the team that is the father of the Wildcat offense, at least as far as the NFL is concerned.
With running back Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps from center in a single wing formation -- at times handing off, at times passing -- but most often keeping the ball himself and running, the Dolphins last season revolutionized offense, or traveled back in time to an earlier NFL era, depending on how you look at it. The offense was successful enough for Miami to help usher in an 11-win season and playoff berth after a one-win season in 2007, a turnaround that was as miraculous as the Falcons.'
Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said on Wednesday that the Wildcat is a small part of what his team does. Nonetheless, it is one that creates a considerable amount of buzz among fans and headaches for opposing defenses.
Sparano said the offense came to be almost out of desperation.
"We made a decision last year after starting poorly that our offense needed something to get their arms around and we also needed to get the best players that we can get on the field at the same time, getting [running back Ricky Williams] and Ronnie on the field with [quarterback] Chad Pennington on the field at the same time was positive for us. It just kind of took off, to be honest."
Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said the Wildcat presents numerous challenges to a defense.
"Well there's so much to that Wildcat and I'm sure they've not shown everything they're going to do," he said. "There's so many different things. It's a possible option offense. There's unbalanced stuff where it's single wing offense. You've got down blocking, leverage issues.
"So it creates a lot of issues, especially when you don't know what they're going to present. They can present it with a quarterback back there now with Pat White, so I think there's all kinds of issues that we have got to prepare for and have contingency plans."
With this being the first game of the season, Smith said the coaching staff has looked at more game film than usual -- all 16 of last season's games plus the four preseason ones.
The coaching staff also has researched University of Arkansas film from when former Razorbacks head coach Houston Nutt ran the "Wild Hog" offense with running back Darren McFadden taking direct snaps.
On the Arkansas staff at the time was David Lee, who now is the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach and helped install the Wildcat for the Dolphins.
"We've studied a number of areas," Smith said. "We've tried to study as much as we can."
Falcons defensive end John Abraham said that while the defense faced a number of teams that ran the Wildcat last season, no team perfected it quite like the Dolphins did. He thinks Miami could have a few new wrinkles for it this year and that to defend it the defense must stay disciplined.
"If you get out of position on the Wildcat, it's kind of tough because you have so many options they can put out there, especially with a running back line Brown out there," Abraham said. "He can throw it and run it and also hand it off pretty good. Like you said, being disciplined. If you do your job right nine out of 10 times you'll be able to handle it."
Linebacker Mike Peterson reinforced that thought.
"Especially like a guy like myself, coming out of the middle, usually, I can fly to the ball and make plays," he said. With the Wildcat "you've got to play within the defense and be real disciplined."
One of the new wrinkles the Dolphins could add this season comes in the personnel department. They drafted White in the second round out of West Virginia, where he ran the spread option -- an offense similar to the Wildcat.
In the preseason, White ran the ball 11 times for 38 yards and completed 6 of 16 passes for 31 yards with an interception and no touchdowns.
Last year Chad Henne was Pennington's back-up at quarterback. NFL rules make it difficult -- if not impossible -- to have three active quarterbacks on the roster on Sunday unless one gets hurt.
So if the Dolphins plan to use White in the Wildcat, they might have to designate him as the No. 2 quarterback or select to de-activate eight players (instead of seven plus an emergency quarterback). The decision must not reveal until 90 minutes before game time.
Sparano remained mum on his plans.
"We'll have to see," he said. "The bottom line there is the Wildcat package is Ronnie Brown and we'll have to see where we are this weekend."
INJURY REPORT:One of the surprises of the day came when the Falcons had to reveal their first injury report of the season and Abraham was listed under "limited participation" because of a knee injury. Smith did not reveal which knee was injured.
Rookie safety William Moore was the only other player whose practice was affected by an injury. Moore (hamstring) did not participate.
Center Todd McClure (calf), defensive end Chauncey Davis (foot), linebacker Tony Gilbert (hamstring) and running back Jerious Norwood (knee) were the only other players listed on the report. All reported under full participation.
Limited participation means a player participated in less than 100 percent of his normal repetitions.
Both McClure and Abraham have been excused from practices in recent weeks because of their veteran status.
The only player on the Dolphins' injury report was cornerback Vontae Davis (knee) who was listed under full participation.
UPSET FALCONS:In the opening weekend of the college football season last week, three Football Championship Series (formerly I-AA) teams upset their Football Bowl Series counterparts.
Falcons players were well represented on both sides of those games. Rookie defensive end Lawrence Sidbury's Richmond Spiders, the defending FCS champions, upset -- if you can call it that -- Duke 24-16 and wide receiver Brian Finneran's Villanova Wildcats knocked off Temple 27-24.
Conversely, running back Jason Snelling's Virginia Cavaliers were upset at home by William & Mary 26-14.
Sidbury said a former teammate was at the game and provided constant updates for his BlackBerry.
"They got it done," the usually modest Sidbury said matter-of-fact-ly. Sidbury said some of his former Richmond teammates had probably been passed over by Duke in terms of scholarship offers. He also said it was a good test to see how the 2009 Spiders would be after graduating a number of players off its title team.
Snelling said Virginia's loss was "a little disappointing." He phoned his former running backs coach, Anthony Poindexter, in the days following the game.
"You always take a little crap whenever you lose, especially when someone comes in your house like that," Snelling said. as Ovie Mughelli, who played at Virginia's Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest, muttered an "mmm, hmmm."
"But," added Snelling, "they'll be losing some, too, these teams around here."
MORE ON THE FALCONS-DOLPHINS GAME:
NOTEBOOK:Falcons prepare for Dolphins Wildcat formation * QUOTABLE:Head Coach Mike Smith talks about the Dolphins * VIDEO:Click here for interviews, features and more from Dolphins week * EXPERT'S TAKE:Jay Glazer shares his thoughts on the Falcons in Week 1 * BLOG:J. Michael Moore covers the Falcons in J. Mike's Missives * MONDAY NOTES:Addition of Williams gives Falcons options in secondary * TRANSACTION:Falcons waive Butterworth, add Bruggeman to practice squad * TRANSACTION:Team waives safety Jamaal Fudge * PREVIEW PACK:More info on the Falcons-Dolphins game * TIME MACHINE:Frank Kleha taks a look at momentum in season openers * GAME INFORMATION:Parking, directions and other info about Week 1 * FALCONS BLOGS:More coverage and news on the re-designed blog site * DEPTH CHART:Click here for the updated Falcons depth chart * ROSTER:Click here for the updated Falcons roster * QUOTABLE:Player quotes from the Falcons locker room on Wednesday