CORTLAND, N.Y. - If Jon Gruden still were coaching the Tampa Bay Bucs, there's a pretty good chance the Eagles wouldn't have signed Michael Vick. That's because Gruden would have beaten them to him.
Gruden is bullish on the limitless NFL possibilities of the spread offense and its baby brother, the Wildcat formation. It's become all the rage in college football, and Gruden thinks the time is ripe to bring it in a big way to the pros.
Last year, more than a dozen NFL teams used the Wildcat. Most, including the Eagles, just tinkered with it. The only team that really made it a regular staple of their offense was the Miami Dolphins, who used the Wildcat on 12 percent of their offensive plays. But they seldom threw out of the formation.
"I wanted to use it last year, but we had some injuries and shied away from it a little bit," Gruden said. "But it's been something I've been studying.
"When you pick up a college tape, 90 percent of those guys, you never see them under center. Ever. All you're seeing is spread-read options. There are guys like Tim Tebow, who is going to be coming out next year, somebody is going to take him, and somebody is going to have a plan for him. Vince Young has struggled the last couple of years. But he was wicked in that Rose Bowl game against USC. He ran for 200 and threw for 200.
"Then there's Vick. He's certainly a candidate to run the spread. Everybody's got a guy [who can run it]. Brad Smith with the Jets. Michael Robinson in San Francisco. Isaiah Stanback in Dallas. Everybody's got a guy that can throw a little bit. I think there's a wave coming."
With their recent signing of Vick, the Eagles are expected to be a big part of that wave. They used the Wildcat about a dozen times last year with wide receiver DeSean Jackson taking the direct snaps. Jackson had success running out of the formation, but threw the ball just once (an interception against Cleveland).
With Vick in the Wildcat, they will have a guy who can run and throw out of the formation.
"Michael Vick would be one of the scariest guys to run that [Wildcat] offense," Jets coach Rex Ryan said yesterday during a break at the Jets' SUNY Cortland training camp. "Probably the scariest guy."
"What the league hasn't seen yet is the Wildcat with a true passing threat there," said Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who spent 7 years as the head coach at William Tennent and North Penn high schools. "Because if you have both, whether it's a Vick or a Pat White, the key is whether he can withstand the punishment of basically playing tailback as well [as quarterback]. How long will they be able to withstand the pounding of it?"
While Pettine acknowledges that Vick certainly will pose problems for opposing defenses in the Wildcat, he thinks the Dolphins' White, who was taken in the second round of April's draft, actually might be better fit for the role.
"A lot of [Vick's] runs [with the Falcons] were scrambles," he said. "I don't think they had a lot of designed runs for him. Plus, it remains to be seen whether he can withstand the type of punishment you're going to take playing almost a tailback-type position.
"Pat White, to me, would be a [ideal Wildcat] guy. He had a lot of called quarterback runs at West Virginia. He was basically a tailback who had good enough passer skills."
Even before the Eagles signed Vick, they already had expanded their Wildcat package this summer. They figure to expand it even more now with the arrival of Vick.
"The package has grown a little bit," coach Andy Reid said. "Can Michael eventually do that? Sure, he can do that. Are there other things we can do [with Vick]? Yeah, he can do other things. We'll see how all this works out. He's got to get back into the swing first. But at the same time, I can't tell you that things wouldn't be added to a package here and there.
"With Michael and Donovan [McNabb] and DeSean, we have a couple of guys that can run pretty fast and run the ball pretty good. So you add all those things up and you can have some fun."
Some of that "fun" almost certainly will include using Vick in other ways besides the Wildcat. He may line him up at wide receiver and be used on end-arounds or even get the ball on the outside via bubble screens or hitches, assuming he proves he can catch the ball.
Jets linebacker Bart Scott, though, is skeptical about the Vick-as-a-wideout possibility.
"I guess you could do that, but he's not a polished receiver," Scott said. "From that standpoint, he's handicapped because he's not comfortable. He doesn't know the minute details that you need to know to get off the ball, like how to point your toe, that type of thing. The things that come with doing something for a long time.
"It'd be just like if you moved me to tailback. Yeah, I can run. But I don't know the small things. I wouldn't be used to reading blocks, reading coverages, seeing where the safety is at."
Opinions of the Wildcat are mixed around the league. Some coaches think it could be The Next Big Thing. Others view it as a gimmick that will die out as soon as defenses prove they can consistently stop it.
"The single wing's been around a long time," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "[The Wildcat] is just revitalizing something that was very successful at one time. It certainly was an innovative move [to bring it back]. We'll see how that goes. We'll have to wait until the season to see how much it gets used and whether anybody really has an answer for it."
Said the Jets' Ryan: "I think it's a good weapon, I do. And you're talking to the guy that stopped it not once, but twice last year. It's more of a weapon if you have a guy like Vick that can throw the ball."
Ryan was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore last year when the Ravens' twice shut down the Dolphins' Wildcat, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. But the Dolphins, who used running back Ronnie Brown as the Wildcat, seldom threw out of the formation, except to occasionally flip it back to the quarterback.
"Defenses, when they see Ronnie Brown taking that direct snap, when see [Falcons running back] Jerious Norwood taking that direct snap, defenses take the safety out of the middle of the field and get into zero coverage, knowing that the guy isn't going to throw it," said Gruden. "When that guy back there can be a threat to throw it, it'll be real interesting to see what defensive coordinators do."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he's not going to lose any sleep over the Wildcat.
"I hope we see it every week," he said. "Because our defense is set up to defend it. If you've got a good front seven, you don't have to commit a safety to run or the option. That's the way it worked for us last year against Miami. We didn't have to [bring up a safety]."
"Our approach against the Wildcat was we had to be sound in what we did and make sure the edges were set, and we needed to beat blocks," said Pettine, who was the Ravens' linebackers coach last year. "The one thing the Wildcat allows you to do, it's like playing with an extra guy. It's the single-wing mentality. They now have an extra blocker. They can remove one more defender by splitting the quarterback out. Now you're getting two-back runs out of one-back spacing on the defense's part.
"That's why the issue for us always has been let's be sound, play great technique and beat blocks. That's how we feel is the best way to go against it. You don't need to scheme up anything crazy for it. We saw some teams try to do that last year and get burned on it because there's so many variations to it."