Football University - What is WCO, spread, and Coryell?

Today we're going to cover a reader question from recently.  "Calvinandhobbs" asked for a comparison/contrast of the Spread Offense and the West Coast Offense.  I'm also going to cover (very briefly) the "Air Coryell" system since it often gets mixed up with the WCO.

The good news, dear reader, is that the three topics are very easy to understand.  The catch is that the way they are employed by team can make them tricky to spot.

the Air Coryell system

First, the Air Coryell is not like the other two terms at all.  It is not a strategic approach.  It is a numbering (or "nomenclature") system used to communicate plays.  It was used by two teams on the west coast (Oakland and SD), and was good for simplifying play calling.  That's it.  It was based on the idea that you could use a three digit system for labeling routes (on pass) and regular words for run plays.

It was also called the West Coast Offense.  This is where things get a little sticky.

The term "west coast"

In the late 60's Bill Walsh was an assistant with the Bengals.  He came up with a system that would later change a lot about football offense.  It wasn't until he got onboard with the 49'ers that he used the final version, and it had much success.

This new system received the label "West Coast Offense", which was a misnomer.  "WCO" was actually another name for a "play naming system" called the Air Coryell.  It was Bernie Kosar (the Browns QB who was often on the wrong side of famous highlight reels against Denver) that used the term incorrectly, and was quoted by Dr. Z of ESPN fame.  Walsh was often annoyed that his system was being mislabeled as an old nomenclature system.

No big deal.  The name WCO has stuck, and now is widely regarded as the name of Walsh's system.  Sometimes you may hear the WCO called Air Coryell, and you now know that Air Coryell is only a naming system, not an offensive strategic system.

So let's dismiss the Air Coryell, and focus on what is really important.  What is the WCO, and what is a Spread Offense?

The modern West Coast Offense

The old school thought in football offense was that we run the ball on most plays, and then occasionally throw the ball down the field to stretch the defense vertically.  The run was the heart of the game, and passes kept defenses "honest".

The West Coast changes that dynamic.  The idea of the WCO is to use multiple high percentage passes to spread the field horizontally to set up lanes for the running game.  There are less deep throws, but the throws made are likely to be caught, even if they don't gain an immediate first down.

A lot of folks think that a team that throws more than runs is a WCO team, but this isn't necessarily the case.  There are also exceptions to the rule that complicate things.

Denver, for example, is considered a WCO team.  But they run more than they throw.  How does that make sense?

Denver's offense is predicated on the zone block / one cut run.  Remember this imporatant addage above all else as you read this section: The one cut run always has the RB take advantage of a hole that wasn't pre-determined, and the direction of that cut is always back to the center of the field.  From here on out, the pasing game issues I bring up in relation to Denver drive home the seriousness of the idea that the passes must spread the defense horizontaly.  

Passes from the offense are secondary to the run, and are often misdirection plays that take advantage of a defense that has to constantly bite at the Denver runs.  However, in deeper coach-speak this qualifies as a WCO based system.  Whenever Jay throws a pass (let's say the signature bootleg) he is forcing the defense to cover lanes (either his own running lane or a passing lane) that keeps defenders away from the lanes used by the RB (always a cut to the center).

To most of us, it just looks like Jay is taking advantage of the defense by passing to an open receiver.  But this isn't really what is happening.  Bootlegs and option plays are both misdirection plays that are not likely to succeed in most systems.  But Denver uses them rarely (increasing their percentage of success since teams expect runs), and when they do they are clearing the way for the run to succeed by hitting the edges of the field (a horizontal spread).  And this is the key.  The bootleg and the option are both threats of either a pass to the sideline (regardless of depth, but typically short) or a run by the QB to the edge.  Throw in the screen (another of Denver's favorite tricks) and you have passes designed to spread the field to the edges.

The result is a passing game designed to clear open the lanes for our RBs.  And this is why the system is considered WCO, even though there aren't as many pass plays as in other WCOs.


In this illustration (a simple pocket pass), the QB has easy options.  His two strong side options (a WR and TE) hook back for the catch, but do so to the outside.  This is high percentage, but still leading the defenders away from the running lanes.  The RB screens right for an easy dump off.  The #2 WR cuts in, than back out to attempt to pull a FS out of position, along with a zoning WILL if he is lucky.

The one cut runner runs to the edges, but finds targets of opportunities and "cuts back" to take advantage.  This means he is almost always angled back towards the center of the field.  This is why most of Denver's pass plays are to the edges.  The spread that is created on the defense plays into the scrambling skills of an Elway, a Plummer, or a Cutler.  Again, looking at the above illustration, you can see the play is an attempt to keep defenders from heavily covering the center of the field, which is the direction almost every single cut goes back to.

Some people think that Indy may have a WCO.  They don't.  Having a terrific passing game doesn't mean a team is WCO.  Indy runs a timing based play action system.  The QB is prepared to throw at a predetermined moment (sometimes blindly) because he has to know where each WR will be at that moment.  Most of the passes are play action (run as if the play were a run) to buy the WRs and the QB time to execute.  Runs still set up the pass.

The Spread Offense

So what is a spread offense?  A lot of people see a spread offense and think that it must be a WCO.  Again, people often see "pass heavy" in the WCO definition and think that all pass heavy systems are WCO.

The idea behind the spread offense is very simple.  The idea is to have eligible receivers on the defensive side of the ball "spread out" so as to have distance between them.  This forces a defense to account for many receivers (whether the receivers are WRs, TEs, or RBs).  The spread is both horizontal and vertical.  The spread also prevents double teams because each receiver needs to be accounted for, and spare defensemen just aren't available.  Typically, at least one player goes deep while two other players each take a sideline.  A fourth player takes an area near the center of the field, while a fifth either screens or takes a seam.


Remember this 3 TE set pass play from a couple of weeks ago?  It is a formation that has been used by the Steelers, whose new coach likes the spread for Big Ben.  It is a spread play, and forces a lot of 1:1 match-ups.  Now we are starting to put previous material to work for new applications at the University!

There are many variations of spread offenses.  Some are run first, and some focus heavily on a shotgun formation with multiple true receivers.  However, any defense that spreads the field in both directions (whether run or pass first; whether with true WRs or multiple positions) can be said to be a spread offense.  The no huddle is a feature of many spread offenses at the collegiate level, but no so much in the pros.

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Any questions on any of the three terms?  How about ideas for future stories?  This is a safe place to ask any questions related to football theory, play creation and calling, and coaching in general.

Next week I'll be covering the defensive line.  We'll cover gap assignments, the meaning of "one gap" and "two gap", as well as the meaning of terms like "1 technique, 2 technique" etc.  

The week after that I'll be covering CB techniques, with a focus on bump-and-run and off coverages, as well as zone and man assignements (and what a coach considers when making up the game plan for his CBs).

Have a terrific weekend!  I'll get to questions as quick as I can!

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