Kansas City Royals

Chiefs late to Wildcat party

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. —The surprise is gone. That's what coaches and players say. The Wildcat formation isn't what it once was, with its shock value and defensive adjustments. That was so 2008.

"It's been done," Chiefs safety Jon McGraw said. "Everyone is exposed to it. You know where the threats are, you know what to expect. There's only so many things you can do out of it. There's not an element of surprise anymore."

But offenses still practice it. They have to. The surprise is gone because most teams' playbooks contain some variation of the Wildcat package. Some of those teams, such as Cleveland and Dallas, run it more than others. It's trendy, and other teams try to keep up. The Chiefs might be late to the party, but now they're here, and they're lining up with the quarterback split wide.

Kansas City spent most of an entire day last week working in the Wildcat formation. Sure, it was to see how rookie wide receiver Dexter McCluster and running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles performed in a formation that relies on quick thinking, judgment and speed. It also was to expose the Chiefs' defense for those times that an opponent tries to catch Kansas City unprepared.

"It all comes down to the players you have," coach Todd Haley said. "You check out who can do what. If it's something we want to do, we'll expand on it. If it's not, then we'll still have an advantage of letting our defense see some of it."

McGraw said the Chiefs' defense is ready. After all, the Browns — and a few other teams that occasionally run the Wildcat — are on this year's regular-season schedule. McGraw said the challenge of defending the Wildcat comes from the offense adding a blocker to even out the number of defenders. During normal formations, the offense is at a slight disadvantage because the quarterback has two options: hand off or pass. The Wildcat offers scrambling as a third option, canceling the defense's slight advantage.

To answer, defenses can play the safeties close to the line of scrimmage and, let's face it, not worry much about the quarterback split wide.

"There's a blocker for every man," McGraw said.

The Chiefs haven't dabbled much in the NFL's trendiest offense, making brief — and not especially successful — appearances in it during the 2008 season, when Larry Johnson and Marques Hagans took turns running the formation. It was so unmemorable that the Chiefs seemed to abandon the package; they appeared to acknowledge that they just didn't have the personnel to run the Wildcat without soiling its good name.

Two years later, the Chiefs used a second-round pick to select McCluster, who possesses all the tools — and the experience, having played at Mississippi in the Wildcat-rich SEC — for opponents to take Kansas City seriously as a team with a Wildcat presence.

"We have the players to do it," McCluster said, "and we have the mismatches."

But if the Chiefs are to incorporate it more than occasionally, the team isn't telling. Haley said it's not part of his natural instinct to run such a gimmicky offense. He said that's not the way he learned under his mentor, Bill Parcells, and it's not the way Chiefs coordinator Charlie Weis believes, either.

Haley said that, when he was offensive coordinator with Arizona, the Cardinals ran the Wildcat occasionally, with marginal success. After one game, Parcells called Haley and reiterated a message that stuck with Haley, albeit one he's not necessarily limiting himself to.

"Let the runners run, throwers throw, catchers catch," Haley remembered Parcells reminding him. "You still have to prepare for it; that's part of the deal."

So the Chiefs are preparing, whether that's to run it or stop it or both. Haley said the Chiefs might as well join the rest of the league, late as Kansas City might be.

"Wildcat's a part of the league," Haley said. "Teams know it's coming now. There's been a lot more going on than the last year, year before, and I don't think that'll necessarily go away any time soon."