Coaches find success in single wing

On an NFL field in September, the Miami Dolphins -- fresh off a 1-15 season -- stunned the New England Patriots, then on a 21-game regular-season winning streak, thanks in part to a funky formation called the "Wildcat."

The sports world noticed, watching as running back Ronnie Brown took several snaps and either handed off, ran or threw, confusing the Patriots each time.

Replays repeated on countless highlight shows. Reporters questioned. Coaches copied.

And, at a high school in suburban St. Louis, a few players noticed, too. So they approached their coach, Mark Bliss, in the ensuing days.

"Hey, Coach," they said. "They're running our stuff!"

Bliss, though, wasn't as alarmed.

"Hey," said Bliss, currently in his first year at Edwardsville (Ill.) High School, "In football, what goes around comes around."

Wild on the Wildcat

What's going around: The Wildcat.

Actually, "Wildcat" is just a nickname, a variation, of one of the most time-tested formations in football -- the single wing. Glenn "Pop" Warner is credited with inventing it at Cornell in 1906. Colleges won championships with it in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. Some Bowl Championship Series schools still experiment with the formation, and a few pro teams are mixing it into their game plans.

Where it's really going around, though, is at the high school level. There, the single wing is not just a package in some teams' offenses -- it is their offense. No, it's not everywhere. Not hardly. Only a few teams, scattered across the nation from California to Illinois to Florida, still use it. But single wing practitioners -- some recent adopters, others who have been running it for decades -- swear by the formation.

And it's not just to be different, to stand out in the spread-formation and I-formation crowd.

It's because, for the most part, they're successful.

"I've studied a lot of offenses," said Brady Lake, first-year head coach at St. Charles (Mich.) High School. "You name it, I've looked at it. And this, I think, is the best offense for high school football."

The single wing, explained

When Baldwin High School (Baldwin City, Kan.) coach Mike Berg examined the players in his program, he saw something missing for 2007: a classic-style quarterback.

So instead of forcing someone under center, he searched for an offense in which "under center" was nowhere near the playbook. In the single wing, he found it.

Although multiple variations exist, the basic concept is consistent: Instead of having one player take the snap on every play, as many as three backs line up in a shotgun formation, each in position to receive the ball from center. In the classic formation, all 11 players set up in a bunch. Today's incarnations can contain multiple wideouts and just two players in the backfield, not unlike the spreading spread formation.

But, at its core, it's all about who gets the ball -- as in, who gets the ball? The tailback? The fullback? Someone else?

And that's just on the snap. Afterward, there's more confusion, with handoffs, spins, pitches and other devices employed to dumbfound defenders. Many teams even use different players to throw different types of passes. (Single wing teams typically throw at least 10 percent of the time, if not much more.)

"There's just a lot of commotion going on in the backfield," Berg said.

The single wing's success

Since Berg switched, a lot of winning has been going on at Baldwin. The team finished 10-3 and reached the Class 4A state semifinals in 2007. This year, the Bulldogs were ousted in the round of 16 but still went 8-3. One opposing coach, Berg said, even called the spin-happy style "the spinning wheel of death."

This hardly is a revelation. On Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in Menominee, coach Ken Hofer has been running the style since the 1960s -- and winning, even recently, claiming state championships in 1998, 2006 and 2007.

Meanwhile, Bliss, the Edwardsville coach from whom Berg learned the offense (and who has connections with University of Tulsa co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, a former high school coach who is one of the innovators behind the ]Wildcat), won four state championships at Conway Springs (Kan.) High School during the late 1990s and the early part of this decade. Bliss also ran the system at high schools in Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida and Missouri.

And the list goes on. Adam Wesoloski, author of the single wing blog DirectSnapFootball.com, estimates the offense's winning percentage at 70 percent.

So why all the victories? For one, versatility.

"[Some] think the single wing's a gimmick offense," Bliss said. "And it really isn't, if you break it down."

That's because it offers all the same hallmarks of a so-called "normal" offense -- everything from power runs to quick throws -- along with its tricky elements (reverses, reverse passes, etc.).

"If you're a defensive person," said Hofer, the longtime Menominee coach, "it means you have to do a lot of preparing, which is to our advantage."

The advantage extends beyond teams with big-time players. When Hofer started his career at nearby Stephenson (Mich.) High School, his alma mater, he saw nothing but bigger schools on the schedule and needed an offense that negated the talent and size gaps.

Lake, the St. Charles coach who was its offensive coordinator last season, saw a rebuilding year coming after a 10-1 record in 2007, leading to the switch.

"You can win with lesser players," said Jerome Learman, whose Lake Michigan Catholic (St. Joseph, Mich.) team has earned three winning seasons during his four-year tenure there. "Obviously, if you've got great players, it makes them even better. But if you've got 11 average guys, it can make them pretty successful."

The single wing club

One year, it's on the West Coast. The next, it's in the East. Another time, a Midwestern school hosts it. It's the Single Wing Symposium, an annual clinic for coaches of youth league teams on up. (Bliss estimates between 75 and 150 coaches attend each year.)

And it's hardly the only way for single wing enthusiasts to stay connected. Other, smaller meetings take place yearly. There's the National Single Wing Coaches Association, which keeps track of schools running the offense and lists them on its Web site, nswca.org. There are blogs like Weseloski's, which spreads information about the offense and its various evolutions.

That's the thing with the single wing -- sharing. Although coaches try to keep the secret from prospective opponents, they like spreading the word around the nation. Bliss, as coach at Las Animas (Colo.) High School in the early 1990s, learned from now-retired Manitou Springs (Colo.) High School coach George Rykovich, who "told me he would love to plant a seed, because it's a dying offense," Bliss said.

Now Bliss likes being the single wing's gardener; Edwardsville even is hosting this year's big get-together.

Selling the single wing

The wins are there. The information also is available. And yet, no U.S. state has more than a handful or so programs running the offense primarily.

The reason, single wing coaches say, is twofold. One: It's just so … strange.

"I think they don't want to be the oddball, they don't want to be different," said Berg, the Baldwin coach. "[They say], 'Why would we want to run that? No one else does it.'"

Another factor: It's a tough sell. Players, parents and fans themselves worry about the outcast image that accompanies the offense.

Plus, there's the star problem, particularly at quarterback. In his early years at Menominee, Hofer had parents approach him with those concerns, saying: "You don't have a quarterback. Well, my son wants to be quarterback."

That, though, has a flip side, which ultimately can work to the offense's advantage. Instead of one "superstar" getting the ball on every down, teams have three, four, even more players who can put up big numbers.

"It's brought our team closer together, because they all know they have a chance to get yards and to carry the ball," Berg said.

The single wing's spread

Years ago, few high schools ran the spread offense. Now, it's popping up everywhere, with prep programs trying to keep up with the colleges.

Will the single wing see a similar surge?

"A lot of stuff is cyclic," said Learman, the Lake Michigan Catholic coach. "Teams are going to adjust, and so on. And 20 years from now, everyone might be running the single wing and nobody's running spread."

Maybe, or maybe not. One thing's for sure, though: Every time Florida's Tim Tebow lines up somewhere other than behind center, and -- especially -- each time an NFL running back takes a snap, the single wing's profile increases. If only a little bit.

"It does give you credibility as a coach when a pro team is trying to do what you do," Lake said, adding: "It's going to be interesting to see [what happens] in the next couple of years. Coaches are always trying to find something new. And to do that, sometimes going into the old is new."

Patrick Dorsey is a high school sports reporter for The Indianapolis Star.