Tony Sparano: Remembering when he unleashed the Wildcat in 2008 and dominated the Patriots


Over the weekend, news broke about the tragic passing of Tony Sparano.

The 56-year-old spent 18 years coaching in the NFL, working with the likes of the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders. 

Most famously though, he spent just under four seasons as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, between 2008 and 2011. 


It was in Sparano's first year with the Dolphins that he found the most success. He led the team to an 11-5 record and the AFC East division title. 

It was quite a turnaround from the franchise-worst 1–15 season that Miami finished with in 2007 - but unfortunately, their post-season run ended in the wildcard round 12 months later. 

Still though, that 2008 season gave Dolphins fans one memory that they'll cherish forever - and it came against the New England Patriots of all teams.


Miami went into week three with an 0-2 start, facing the NFL's best team, who were undefeated in 21 regular-season games themselves. 

So, going into that matchup, nobody would ever have predicted that Sparano and his Dolphins could triumph over the Patriots. 


But that's exactly what they did - and quite impressively too, running out 38-13 winners at Gillette Stadium.

Their win wasn't just down to luck, or even that that they were facing the Patriots on an off day. 

No, their success came from Sparano himself, who dug deep into his playbook that day as the Dolphins took inspiration from the college game. 



As a head coach, Sparano was not the greatest tactician - but on that September day in 2008, he "outcoached" Bill Belichick - as the Pats supremo himself admitted. 

And he did so by deploying the wildcat formation. Although it was nothing new to the NFL back then, it was only used very sparingly on offense. 

The Dolphins version of the trick tactic saw running back Ronnie Brown lining up in the shotgun with quarterback Chad Pennington starting out wide. 


That positioning gave Brown three options - he could take a direct snap and run himself, hand it off to fellow RB Ricky Williams or even throw the ball, acting as the QB. 

The set up aims to baffle the opposition - and that's exactly what it did to Belichick and his Patriots. 


Brown himself ran for 113 yards and a team-record four touchdowns and out of the wildcat, he also threw for one more TD. 

Williams added another 98 yards rushing as the Dolphins put up 38 points and from that moment on, they didn't look back. 

The wildcat was used throughout the 2008 season as Miami kept the Patriots out of the playoffs for only the second time since Belichick took over in 2000. 


The formation primarily aims to confuse an opposition defense - but it also has a secondary use. 


The wildcat helps even up numbers in the run game. Normally, whenever the offense goes to the ground, the defense is effectively playing 11-on-10. 

That's because the quarterback isn't going to carry the ball or block - but when he's lining up out wide, all of a sudden, there's an extra player the defense needs to account for. 

Therefore, the play becomes 11-on-11 and gives the offense a slight physical, as well as a mental advantage. 


Of course, as more and more teams started lining up in the wildcat formation following the Dolphins success, NFL defenses did eventually catch up.

With less of a passing threat, the defense can lock up the run and line up with an extra safety to avoid a repositioned QB from beating his corner one-on-one. 

Due to that tactical shift, the wildcat has become less used in the NFL but perhaps paved the way for what's become a staple offensive play, the read option.  


Of course, Sparano did not invent the wildcat. It was born on the college field. But he deserves credit for bringing it to the league - and taking a chance against the Pats all those years ago.

Thanks to him, for a little while, offense in the NFL became more exciting than ever and fans of the Miami Dolphins will have a lasting memory from that special 2008 season. 

Rest in peace, coach.  

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