It’s been 10 years since maybe the most shocking game in NFL history.
One word causes a combination of nostalgia, frustration, bewilderment and laughter between the 2008 Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots: Wildcat.
The Patriots, riding a 21-game regular-season winning streak, were 12.5-point favorites against the lowly 0-2 Dolphins, who were 1-15 the season before. But Miami had a trick just waiting to be unleashed.
Dolphins running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, sharing a backfield, ran a college offense to perfection and made a respected Patriots defense look silly in a 38-13 victory in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Sept. 21, 2008.
“We didn’t have any idea that was coming,” former Patriots linebacker and ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi said. “I laugh at it now. But we were so pissed that day. I was hopping around. I didn't know what I was doing. It was a shock to the system."
With Brown in the shotgun at quarterback and Williams coming in motion toward him, it took just six plays to gain 118 yards and four touchdowns, and for the Wildcat craze to successfully move from the college game to the pros.
“That was probably my No. 1 or No. 2 favorite season ever. It felt like we revolutionized the NFL,” Williams said. “There is an invisible wall between college football and the NFL. There may be some good reasons, but it seems like a lot of it is just tradition and habit. We exploited that.”
Miami’s Wildcat, which lasted for one wildly successful 2008 season before receding in 2009, was a new twist on the old-school, single-wing offense. It became the basis for several current NFL offensive trends, such as RPOs (run-pass options) and the read-option running attack.
ESPN spoke with several former Dolphins and Patriots from that game to relive the improbable day when it was released, and all that transpired before and after it.
The Dolphins hired Tony Sparano as head coach in 2008 following the disastrous 2007 campaign. Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations, made an underrated hire to bring on former Arkansas offensive coordinator David Lee as quarterbacks coach. Lee ran the Wildcat at Arkansas with running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
The Dolphins, stuck in quarterback purgatory, signed Chad Pennington that offseason. But they hoped to build their offense around their two best offensive players: Brown and Williams.
Williams: “In training camp one day, Lee put it on the board. Most of us looked at each other and said, 'We’re not doing this high school s---.'”
Brown: “When we put it in practice, it didn’t work. It looked bad. Our defense was ragging us for the longest, like y’all need to throw this out, what is this?”
Former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder: "It was gimmicky. We were like, 'Oh, this is cute.' We used to talk a lot of s--- when we stopped it in practice. Defensively, we were surprised that s--- worked as long as it did."
Former Dolphins defensive coordinator and current Jets head coach Todd Bowles: “Boy, we had some coaches who came up with some things. I was like, 'What is this?' at first. But we weren’t putting the ball down the field very much, so it was a good gimmick for us to use at the time.”
Brown: “We had it fully installed for a few weeks before they called it for the New England game. We were 0-2 going into New England coming off a 1-15 season; we didn’t have anything to lose. What better time to pull out all the stops? My first thought is, 'I can’t mess this up, because we’re not going to get another opportunity.'"
The details and responsibilities
After an ugly 31-10 Week 2 loss at the Arizona Cardinals, Sparano called up Lee on the team plane home to discuss a plan to somehow beat the Patriots. They decided to put the Wildcat in that week.
Brown had a baseball background, so he volunteered to be the quarterback in the Wildcat after it was introduced. Williams was put in as the wing back. Pennington and another running back, Patrick Cobbs, played receiver. The offensive line was unbalanced and relied on strong zone-blocking to make it hard for defenders to figure out what was going on.
Former Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison: “When you see a surprise element, we tend to overthink things instead of simplifying things. We got to panicking and fussing amongst each other and arguing and overthinking things. We were a good, attacking defense that dictated what offenses gave us. This offense had us on our heels and dictated what we did.”
Williams: “We only had about five or six plays. We had a power, a counter, the sweep to me, a reverse, a reverse pass and Ronnie had a fake rollout counter pass. We practiced them every day for a half hour, even the trick plays. We got really good at it.”
Bruschi: “You see that type of formation, I thought I had to attack it. But when I attacked the line of scrimmage, the offensive linemen were getting angles on me. It really did play mind games on me in terms of what parts of the formation were my responsibility. Any type of delay from a defense, you’ll get beat every time.”
Former Patriots defensive lineman Jarvis Green: “My job was to hit the RB as hard as I can. The biggest thing was not to be a hero. I had to make sure they didn’t get outside the defensive ends because that makes the play more dangerous.”
Williams: "It wasn’t a matter of play design as much as it was different. The key to beating the Patriots is to confuse them. Their strong suit is their preparation. They scout so well. They have such a good idea of what the other team is going to do. I remember them being frustrated on the sidelines because they didn’t know what to do.”
The first Wildcat play came on second-and-goal late in the first quarter of a scoreless game. Brown took the shotgun snap, faked the sweep handoff to Williams and ran a power play directly into the end zone for an easy six points. The Patriots defenders all looked around at each other. Coach Bill Belichick was yelling into his headset. What was that?
Crowder: “As soon as they put it in against the Patriots, the whole defense jumped up and walked to the sideline. We knew how it looked against us and thought, 'These m-----f------ about to embarrass themselves.'”
Brown: "I remember their adjustments. When we first got into the formation, we saw the D-line sliding one way and the linebackers trying to realign them. It was unbalanced set, so you hear guys yelling, ‘No, over here.’ They kept changing up, but none of it worked. They couldn’t make the right adjustment. We caught them off-guard. It was special because it was the Patriots, Bill Belichick, the rivalry and the masters of preparation.”
Harrison: "It was one of those nights where I couldn’t sleep. I was always haunted by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.”
And he can pass ...
Harrison realized what was going on halfway through the game and wanted the defense to calm down. He reminded his New England teammates that they had a defensive check to revert to when chaos happened.
But everything went out of the window midway through the third quarter when Brown took a Wildcat snap and Patriots were there to stop him -- until he lifted his left arm to throw a touchdown to streaking tight end Anthony Fasano to put Miami ahead 28-6.
Bruschi: "Once we got down that it’s Ronnie Brown back there at QB, we thought we may have it. Then all of a sudden he’s throwing the ball. Then he’s left-handed. We didn’t know what was going on. I remember Fasano punching the ball after the TD in celebration. And that’s when I knew they got us from everywhere. Our heads were spinning that day.”
Brown: "For me, it was a great opportunity to play QB. I was pumped. I had never played QB on any real level. It was pretty cool. Me being left-handed, I think, caught people off guard. I still remember rolling out the left and trying to make sure I didn’t miss Fasano.”
'The utmost frustration'
The final dagger came at the start of the fourth quarter, with the Patriots attempting a comeback -- if they could just get a stop. Pennington (17-of-20, 226 yards in the game) was dicing the defense up with his arm. Brown and Williams (finished with 211 combined rushing yards) were going wild on the ground.
Brown had one more big play left, a 62-yard touchdown right up the middle out of the Wildcat to put the Dolphins ahead 35-13. He broke a couple of tackles and took it to the house.
Green: “Ronnie Brown was a monster. He was such a strong runner. He was so good at the read-option. He was the most dangerous man. Strong legs, strong instincts and as we found out, he could throw.”
Harrison: "That was the utmost frustration. We prided ourselves on being very prepared and being able to adapt to anything in the game. We were so surprised. We were confused. You saw the frustration on the sidelines. We were bumping and running into each other.”
Dolphins radio analyst Joe Rose: “Bill Belichick has never been so fooled before. Belichick had never been so unprepared before. He couldn’t make adjustments even at halftime. He couldn’t stop all the options, especially with the motion guy added. Ronnie and Ricky were the two perfect guys to run it. I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, they’re doing this to the best in the business.'"
Williams: “[Patriots defensive end Mike] Vrabel and Bruschi were pissed. On Ronnie’s TD, I was running almost right next to him. Vrabel was coming at him, and I just threw at him low -- it was kind of a cheap shot, but it was legal -- I wanted any shot I could get at the Patriots. He got mad and he jumped on me or punched me. Later in the game, we were in our four-minute offense running the clock out. They tackled me after a couple-yard gain and a couple of the players stomped on me. And I remember having a big bruise on my shin from their frustration.”
After the game, the Dolphins were the talk of the sports world. Nobody had made the Patriots look so unprepared for a game before. But nobody could have expected what the Dolphins had coming.
Rose: “We haven’t had anything like that before or since. It was unbelievable. New England's fans walked out of the stadium in disbelief. The Patriots looked in disarray. But it was as much fun as I’ve had doing games in 15 years. Ronnie and Ricky, man, it was just awesome.”
Belichick that night in his postgame news conference: “Well, there is not too much to say here. I thought that Miami played a real good football game. They did everything a lot better than we did. They outplayed us. They outcoached us. They certainly dominated on offense and defense. ... We’ve got a lot of work to do. I know we are better than that.”
Crowder: "I remember we were in Foxborough leaving the game headed to the buses. I walked past a TV, Belichick had his presser on, and I remember he said, 'They got us. They did everything better than us.' I remember him saying something of the effect that we’ve got a lot of work to do and it felt was in slow motion. I remember him admitting -- Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of all time, saying he got outcoached. That should be some flattering stuff for Tony Sparano and David Lee. But I remembered thinking next time we played them would be different.”
The Patriots went down to Miami nine weeks later and shut down the Wildcat. New England held the Dolphins to just 66 rushing yards -- only 27 came via Wildcat -- by bringing pressure off the edges and inverting its defensive players. The Patriots forced Miami to convert back into a traditional offense and won 48-28.
But otherwise, Miami was successful with the Wildcat. The Dolphins went 11-5, winning the AFC East. It’s the last time the Dolphins won the division or in Foxborough. In 2009, the Dolphins drafted Pat White in the second round to run the QB version of the Wildcat, but it was not nearly as successful. Pennington, Brown and White all suffered severe injuries. The Dolphins went 7-9 and eventually they all split up.
But the impact and memories of that season live on.
Harrison: "You still see people use that. I think the RPO thing came from that -- using a QB inside of a RB to do that. People weren’t afraid to use it as a surprise element in the NFL anymore. It would never survive in the NFL as a full-time offense. The Ravens ran a straight option play in the red zone with Lamar Jackson."
Williams: “I remember the running back room most from that year. With the Wildcat, there was four RBs on the field. We took a lot of pride in that being ours. We loved it.”
Crowder: "They made chicken salad out of chicken crap. Coaches utilized the hell out of our best two players -- Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown. I remember Tony Sparano, you would see the cockiness come over him. They were 100 percent, flat-out out-coaching people. It brought a little swag out of Tony that he didn’t naturally have. He wasn’t a crap-talker or arrogant, but it would come out when he talked about the Wildcat.”