Football 101: The West Coast Offense

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Welcome to Football 101. This is going to be a series that will help us get through the rest of the offseason. Various writers here at 12th Man Rising will try to explain certain aspects of football most people have heard of, but don’t really know much about it. Concepts like Zone Blocking, Air Raid offenses, the Run ‘n’ Gun offense, or even the K-Gun offense, cover three, 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, and many more may be explained during the long and boring off-season. Lets kick things off with an introduction to the West Coast Offense.

When someone talks about the West Coast Offense, visions of Jerry Rice and Roger Craig catching passes from Joe Montana, or even images of Bill Walsh, comes to mind for most people. But what most people don’t realize is the history behind the offense; even its true creator for that matter (you heard me right – Bill Walsh didn’t invent one of the most interesting, revolutionary and complicated offenses in the NFL), or the purpose of the offense.

So, where did it come from?

The History:

The name “West Coast Offense,” as it is known today, was (accidently) coined by then-New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells. After Parcells, a strong believer in tough defense over finesse (passing) offenses (sounds familiar to someone in Seattle right now, doesn’t it?), defeated Bill Walsh’s Niners in the ’85 playoffs, he stated very disdainfully, “what do you think of that West Coast Offense now?”

How did the West Coast Offense ultimately become associated with the Niners?

In ’93, Bernie Kosar—the at-time backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys—described the Cowboy’s offense as a “WCO” (West Coast Offense). That description was later published by SI (Sports Illustrated) writer Paul Zimmer, known as “Dr. Z.” However, Kosar’s description was misunderstood; his intention was to compare the Cowboy’s offense to the west coast teams of the 70’s (the Radiers, the Chargers) that used the Air Croyell offensive system.

However, due to a reporter’s mistake – the Kosar quote was applied to Bill Walsh’s offensive system. Walsh was not very fond of the name being used for his system. Despite his complaints, the name stuck. Now the term is used to describe a multitude of passing systems (just look at the Madden Playbooks for example, a lot of them have the name “West Coast Offense” next to them but are either closely related to the two aforementioned systems, or not related at all).

A common misconception about the offense is that most people believe that its origins hail from the west coast—because of the name, it makes sense. However, that’s not true at all. The offense’s roots lead back to their planting site, in Ohio. Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown (a coach for the Browns and Bengals) is the catalyst for the offense. For that reason, Bill Belichick has stated that the offense should be known as the “Ohio River Offense.”

Air Coryell

This is the ‘West Coast Offense’ that Kosar was speaking of when he was describing the Cowboy’s offense. However, today this offense is commonly called the vertical offense (it is still referred by the “Air Coryell” system as well, but that’s usually done by extremely knowledge fans, or coaches). While it has similar principles to Bill Walsh’s (I mean Paul Brown’s) offense—more emphasis on the passing game—it attacked things a bit differently, though.  Coryell’s system was based on the “big play” factor; deep passes and huge gains were the name of the game. This system attacked defenses vertically – through the middle of the field (or the seams).

The whole purpose was to “stretch” the defense vertically, in the hopes it’ll open up lanes for other receiving options—usually in the middle, where tight ends are commonly utilized the most (that’s where Kellen Winslow came in for Coryell).  The concept behind this was simple: the defense had to decide to either defend the deep passes, or defend the ones underneath, once the defense, or rather the defender decides, there’s usually always one receiving option open.

This proved to be a very effective system during its early years in the modern NFL. Coryell’s system was called by the Profootball Hall of Fame, “one of the most explosive and exciting offenses that ever set foot on an NFL field.” They weren’t wrong either; during Coryell’s tenure with the Chargers, his team lead the league in passing yards in 7 of his 8 years there. Clearly being one of the most explosive offenses in history.

Coryell was ahead of his time; he revolutionized the game, and is considered the father of the modern NFL passing attack—passing teams to this day still use the principals he laid down years ago.

Bill Walsh’s / Paul Brown’s offensive Philosophy:

Now this is the offense that (accidently) is known as the “West Coast Offense.”

Bill Walsh’s system is founded on the foundation that Paul Brown built: pass first, run later.

During Bill’s (and especially in Paul’s) time in the NFL, most teams were pretty cookie cutter in design: strong defense and a ball control offense (running the ball). Paul Brown’s philosophy went against the grain because most argued that you need to set up a running game to open up the passing attack (brings the safeties in). Brown and Walsh decided that wasn’t the only way to dictate to the defense. They believed attacking defenses with short, horizontal passes would do the same thing: It would stretch the defense, and that would leave room for bigger runs and passes later in the game.

This was an absolutely genius idea. The whole concept is that it would force defenses to play “honest,” because the offense’s goal is to dictate the flow of the game and to make every down manageable that it could be converted into a first down via pass or run. That ultimately leads to unpredictable play calling, thus keeping the defense unable to become overly aggressive.

Death by paper cuts might be the best way to describe what the offense did to most team it was facing.

Walsh’s Offense Design:

By now, it should be obvious that Bill Walsh’s system is a modified version of what Paul Brown designed.
Here are a few things he emphasized:

  • Walsh put a huge importance in scripted plays. Scripted plays were one of the genius ideas by Walsh. He would make his players run anywhere from 15-20 plays over and over again at practice until they knew them to near perfection. The concept behind that was pretty clever; he did that to put the defense in complete disarray, as it would leave defenses on their toes because even if it seems like an obvious passing (3rd&10 for example) or Running situation (2nd&1 for example) the scripted play will state “that we run this play, on this number on our script, no matter what.” Because of that, it’ll open up the defense and the playbook.
  • He relied heavily on two back sets, giving it an irregular display in which five players aligned to one side of the ball and four players aligned on the other. This forced defenses to forgo their favorable formations. Just another way to make Walsh and his offense just that much more unpredictable. This was also based on the protection philosophies he believed in. With two backs behind their QB, there’s always someone available to pick up a blitz, while another is there to catch a pass (if the progressions dictated such).
  • Another reason the passing game was so emphasized was to gain the lead fast and early—for the most part, it worked. Once they gained the lead, Walsh then choose to drop the hammer and run the ball down their throats. By doing so, it’ll take advantage of a tired defense and ultimately run the clock down – almost ensuring a victory.

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