Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud grew up straight as a cornstalk just a few miles from the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln. 'Husker red was the only color he wore to college football games, and everyone knew the offense was designed to produce 3 yards and a cloud of crop dust.
So when Ruud sat down last week to dissect videotape of the Dolphins' wildcat offense, he couldn't help but feel a little homesick.
"It's that old option football we always played at Nebraska," he said. "I saw it in my sleep growing up. So yeah, I should know it better than anybody.
"You remember the wishbone and stuff? It's really assignment oriented, and it's a lot of discipline. … It's really a college mentality. You see a lot of those college teams do it. Like Georgia Tech, they'll throw it once a game. And Navy beat Notre Dame and threw it once. It's still tough to stop. It's assignment football, and if you're at all out of whack, they'll gouge you."
The Bucs are 30th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 163.4 yards per game. The Giants and Panthers imposed their will against them on the ground, and for the first half of the season, it might have been hard to prevent paint from running on them.
That's what makes today's game at Land Shark Stadium so dangerous for Ruud and the Bucs. The Dolphins have the league's fourth-best rushing offense (150.9 yards per game), much of it due to the wildcat offense executed by running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
Although the formation represents slightly more than 10 percent of the Dolphins' plays, it has produced about 40 percent of their yardage. The team averages 5.6 yards per carry in the wildcat.
This week, the Bucs practiced longer to prepare for the varied wildcat formations.
Brown, a teammate of the Bucs' Cadillac Williams at Auburn, makes the offense go for the Dolphins. With Williams in motion toward him and Brown taking a direct snap, the sleight of hand begins.
"It's been different. It's been fun and exciting," Brown said. "But at the same time, it has its challenges, and teams try to do things differently every week to see if they can stop us. But I enjoy it. Obviously, we have a lot of things we can do out of it, and we switch it up. Defenses do different stuff, so it's a challenge for us as well."
In truth, the wildcat is a variation of the single-wing offense. In fact, 19 of 32 teams have similar formations in their playbooks.
But nobody does it like the Dolphins. The base wildcat is an unbalanced set with a guard, tight end and slot receiver on one side of the center in the formation, with a guard, two tackles and a receiver on the other side. In a speed sweep, the slot receiver — usually Williams — is handed the ball after he goes in motion toward Brown. In the counter, Brown fakes the handoff and runs the opposite direction. In the split zone, he takes the direct snap and runs upfield.
Former Bucs star Warren Sapp called it "disrespectful to all defenses." Former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino has said he wouldn't run it. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski has called it a "gimmick and a gadget." Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said it was a "fad."
Call it what you want, but call it productive. Brown leads the Dolphins in rushing with 566 yards (4.2 average) and seven touchdowns. Williams has 456 yards and six touchdowns.
"Everybody does it, but they're still by far the best at it. I think a little of it is the personnel," Ruud said. "You've got to have a guy who feels comfortable back there and can halfway throw the ball, too. And Ronnie can throw it decent for a running back. It takes that type of personnel to be able to do it.
"And give those coaches credit, too. Without that wildcat, they're somewhat of an average offense, but that wildcat makes it so much harder to prepare for, their offense picks up because of it."
And the Dolphins expand the concept. In last week's loss at New England, they used the "WildPat" formation with rookie backup quarterback Pat White, a second-round pick from West Virginia. White ripped off a 33-yard run on his first attempt and pitched to Williams on the option for a 15-yard touchdown run.
"It's not something that's an exact science for us one way or the other," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "Prior to the game, we kind of whittle down what we think our best thoughts are, the formations we want to get out there fast so they see it, and we get a feeling what they're going to do against it."
Most of the time, opposing defenses try to match up players.
"Like for me sometimes," Ruud said, "if Ronnie is faking the ball like this and he runs that way, even though I know he doesn't have it, I kind of have to go with him."
The Bucs have particularly struggled stopping the run against big, physical football teams like the Giants and Panthers. The Dolphins are cut from the same mold.
"You have to have everybody on the details of their assignment, and when you're not and you're sloppy, you get gashed," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You have to go out there and be prepared. This team can also overpower you. They're a big physical unit. That's how they built this football team."