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Tales of Mythology - The Myths of the West Coast Offense

One concept that you hear being thrown around a lot by folks who know what they're saying, those who don't know any better or those who should is "They run a West Coast Offense, you know...", with the suggestion that this has a specific meaning that everyone should understand. My experience has been that this is only partly true. The term WCO has several meanings, depending on who is using it.

Even among those who agree on its derivation, there are extensive variations on the theme. Let's look at some uses of the term in modern times and then go over the things that Bill Walsh used to create his system. Finally, we'll talk about some modern examples that are considered WCOs and see how they match up.

Usually, this is a name given to a system that has descended from the body of work left to us by Bill Walsh, but even that isn't always true. The myth of the West Coast Offense is that it is a single, monolithic edifice - in other words, that the term has a specific meaning. Historically, though, what the term meant in the past and what it means today has changed completely. Even if you can connect the dots between the old and the new with any level of precision, many of the systems we now use it to describe are so contradictory as to defy logic.

The term WCO has been used by some to refer to an offensive system that derives from any of three sources. The first source is the work of Sid Gillman, a college coach who went on to become the head coach of the LA Rams from 1955 to 1959 and who was the head coach (and general manager, for a while) of the San Diego Chargers from 1960 to 1969. Gillman was considered an offensive genius for his work on developing the passing offense. His work was intricate and thorough, and many systems that would come later can be traced to his approach of using the vertical and horizontal planes of the field to improve the results of the offense. Gillman once said,

"A football field is 53.33 yards wide by 100. We felt that we should take advantage of the fact that the field was that wide and that long. So, our formations reflected the fact that we were going to put our outside ends wide enough that we could take advantage of the whole width of the field. And then we were going to throw the ball far enough so that we forced people to cover the width and the length."

Gillman installed several other aspects of the modern pro game. As a young man, he worked in a movie theater. At that time, newsreels that gave short blurbs on events of the day were popular. Gillman cut out the parts involving pro football and spliced them together, taking them home to study them on his home projector. Later, he would be one of the first coaches to use game film to break down the opposing offenses and defenses. He also developed a motion offense that he called the 'Feast or Famine' in order to counter the pass rush of the Boston PatriotsIt's also noteworthy that Gillman approached then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1963 with the idea of having the champions of the AFL and the NFL play a single final game, but his idea was not implemented until the Super Bowl game was played in 1967.

The second source is that of Don Coryell, who became famous with the 'Air Coryell' passing offense. That offense emphasized the vertical passing approach of Gillman's system. It was a high-risk, high-reward approach that traded a higher number of incompletions and interceptions for higher scores. This is not the most common use of the term West Coast Offense, but you do run into it at times.

Finally, the most common derivation of the term is to describe the offense that was developed by Bill Walsh. Although Walsh became famous for using this short-yardage, pass-oriented, horizontally-based timing-pattern offense in San Francisco, he actually developed it while working as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals back in the mid 1970s, so the use of the term WCO is actually a misnomer. Perhaps Midwest Offense would be more historically accurate.

In one of those great meaningless definitions, Wikipedia describes the WCO as "one of two similar but distinct offensive-strategic-systems of play: (A) the "Air Coryell" system; or (B) more commonly the pass play system popularized by Bill Walsh. However, WCO may simply refer to an offense that places a greater emphasis on passing than on running." Since relatively few systems in modern professional football don't place a greater emphasis on the passing game than the running game, this is less of a definition than a dustbin - it's a place to put things, but not a very nice one.

So, what is the West Coast Offense? Of the modern systems that are referred to this way, you have as diverse approaches as the Broncos in 2008 and The Chicago Bears of that same year. Before breaking them down, let's look at the history of the WCO and see if we can separate some of the malt from the grist.

When Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, he had already put into action most of the factors that went into his offense. At that time, the term West Coast Offense wasn't used, but the essence of the approach was well established. As he installed the offense of the 49ers, you could begin to see the overall concept leaping to life. Here are some of the essential factors.

1. Complexity
The WCO isn't an easy offense to master. When Walsh took over the 49ers, they had gone 2-14 the previous season. One columnist referred to them as the 'worst 2-14 team in history'. It didn't get easier quickly. In fact, the 49ers would go 2-14 again in his first year. Was there a difference? Yes - the same columnist now referred to them as the 'best 2-14 team in history. He was right, too - they were suddenly very tough to defend. Walsh knew that it would take time to institute and develop this offense (at least 2 years), but he also expected that doing so would give the 49ers the best chance to win, and win championships, for a long time. He was right, and that hasn't changed. There are a lot of systems that can win a championship, but if you use this one, you're going to institute a complex system that will take time to develop. When a team is described as running a 'simplistic' approach to the WCO, it usually isn't the WCO at all. It's some other variant, and you're just reading some spin. By the way, there's a lot more on Walsh's passing approach and plays right here.

2. Deception
The WCO uses a concept that Mike Shanahan, a Bill Walsh disciple, would later become famous for. He would run many plays off of a single formation, and would run the same plays from multiple formations. It drove defenses out of their minds. It still does. Wash was the first to establish this as a hallmark of his system, and it was extremely effective. 

3. Key Concepts
If you're going to run a WCO, here are some of the foundations of the system. The WCO is based on three simple things: Creating mismatches, overloading zones and creating and exploiting holes in the defense. While many might argue (fairly) that these are now common to many systems, including the system Josh McDaniels is installing in Denver, at that time it was a complete innovation in the pro game.

4. Ball Control
This one still fools a lot of people. Back in the late 1970s, the conventional wisdom was that you can have three things happen when you throw the ball and two are bad (incompletions and interceptions). Walsh took the perspective that if you do it right, you can improve on the stats from running the ball by creating a ball-control passingsystem. It worked, too. It was an innovation that still is argued by the uninitiated today.

Walsh liked completions. He hated incompletions, but he despised interceptions. His system was based in an attempt to eliminate both. He liked to consider his approach to the passing game as a "long handoff." He used high-percentage, short passes to accomplish this. He did so by stretching the field more horizontally than vertically. Both approaches (and the vertical was most loved, perhaps, by Don Coryell and Al Davis) harken back to Sid Gillman's pioneering innovations but Walsh would take the horizontal game to a level that even Gillman hadn't considered.

And the result was, as it is today, often called a dink-and-dunk offense. This visceral reaction to the system is usually based in a fan's interest in the 'big play' or a commentator's desire for the same but it still shows a poor understanding of football. Anything that works, wears down the defense, discourages them, increases completion percentage and scores a lot of points is a heck of a system. Personally, I'd rather win ugly than lose brilliantly, but everyone needs to make up their own mind about that.

The WCO had another innate advantage - it kept teams from putting 8 in the box for fear of a short pass to another open zone that turns into a long gain. If a system is finding itself having trouble going up against that approach to the defense, they aren't running the system properly. 

5. High Completion Percentage

Walsh was often referred to later as 'The Genius'. This was in part because he had a rare brilliance at improving the passing skills of his quarterbacks. When he took over the 49ers, he had Steve DeBerg as his initial quarterback. Although Walsh knew from the beginning that DeBerg wouldn't stay on as his starter, in the first year he managed to improve Steve's passing stats to the point where DeBerg had more attempts and a higher completion percentage - at about 60% - than anyone in the history of pro football up to that point. Although many - most - quarterbacks are now capable of those numbers, at the time it was an innovation of nuclear proportions.

Walsh also took a short, slender beanpole of a QB with an inconsistent background, a suspect arm and few takers and helped Joe Montana become one of the best in history. Joe has always given a lot of credit to Walsh and we should, too. We can also note that the list of QBs that Walsh developed into exceptional players is long. This wasn't a hit/miss proposition, but the result of an individual with a rare level of insight into what makes a quarterback great applying those principles in an effective fashion.

6. The Dominance of the Pass
Walsh believed that the smashmouth approach lacked innovation. He made an attempt to fill that void that has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations except his own. A ball-control, pass dominant, complex system with lots of timing routes, short passes and a very high completion rate was the outcome.

It's important to keep in mind Walsh's very specific and effective use of the running game. It wasn't that he couldn't run the ball, and it wasn't that he didn't like and use that option. He just understood a faster way to manipulate the defense than 3 yards and a cloud of dust. The proof was in the Super Bowl victories.

7. Multiple receivers
Walsh never used less than three receivers and he often went to 4 and 5, of whom one could be a tight end and one or even two could be running backs. This innovation has been used in a wide variety of other approaches since then.

Of the 5 that might be on the field, only three were really going to be options. Walsh did not believe in having his quarterbacks make more decisions than was necessary. The quarterback was responsible for checking the primary receiver. If it didn't look like that would work, he checked down to his secondary. If that wasn't a sure thing, there would immediately be a dump-off pass to the outlet receiver. It was fast, effective and completely new. Now, it's part of many systems.

8.The Open Man
All of the routes were designed so that if they were run properly, at least one man had to be open. This is done by many systems today, but back then it was a new issue for the defenses to obsess over. I love some of the modernIndianapolis Colts routes (others also run them) - they achieve this by getting a 'rub', or 'smash' a defender on a cornerback covering one receiver to get another one open. Ted Bartlett calls it a smash route, and was kind enough to diagram it for those who are interested (Here). I've also got a good detailed discussion of the route here.

There are a lot of ways to make this concept of creating an open man work, but what is probably most important for the fan is to recognize that the game is set up this way, so you can go back later and identify the specifics of how it's achieved on any given play. Watch for it - it's there, and it will add another dimension to your enjoyment of the game.

9. Timing Patterns

Walsh was an innovator, at the pro level, of the timing route. Many of the passes would be thrown before the receiver even made his cut, just on the basis of how the play unfolded. This required an incredible amount of practice time - Walsh on many occasions violated NFL rules on how much he could have the QB and WRs practicing. They had to be on the same page. If not, that pass could go to, and through, a hole that was there because the receiver wasn't. The crowd would boo the QB if it resulted in an INT, but it was up to the receiver to get there on time. That still is a common occurrence, in part because nearly every system in modern pro football employs Walsh-style timing routes. If the QB throws a perfect pass to a spot on the field that a receiver isn't near, it might not be a mistake on the QB's end. Announcers are quick to assume that the QB is in error, but that's often not true.

10. Yards After the Catch

There were some comments posted after the Seattle game, worrying because a large percentage of Kyle Orton's yards were yards after the catch (YAC). Those fans can stop worrying. The West Coast Offense was designed that way, and that innovation, too, has made its way into many systems including the one currently in Denver. The patterns are designed to confuse defenders, to create holes in the defense, to permit the receivers to get open and to create more YAC. It's the nature of the beast.

11. Pass to Score, Run to Win
I know - it's been said by many coaches. That's fine - it's a smart football concept that works for a lot of systems. Walsh used it as part of his system. He believed in ball control on many levels but he liked to strike first, strike hard and then use his defense and his running game to run out the clock. It isn't an innovation singular to the WCO, but it was part of the system. What people sometimes forget, though, is that Walsh was happy piling up the points before he made the change. Some coaches have shown a tendency to get a small lead and try to switch their offense to the run prematurely. They often create tighter games than they should. If it's working, it's a good idea to let it work for you. You'll exhaust the defense (another advantage of this offense) and create a scenario in which you can more easily score again later if your defense lets you down.

Part of passing to score was to throw longer passes when you got inside the opponent's 25-yard line. Walsh understood that the back of the end zone acted as a 12th defender once you got in close, and he liked to take full advantage of the amount of open field that he had when he got to the 25. Contrary to what many people believe about the WCO, it wasn't entirely about the short pass. Walsh had studied Gillman's vertical game as well, and adapted it to suit his own needs.

12. And Don't Forget to Run

Although Walsh was a master at the short passing game, that didn't keep him from cultivating 1,000-yard rushers like Roger Craig. He didn't believe in running on 1st down, though. Walsh knew that if you gained a completion on first down, 2nd and 3rd downs would be harder to predict and would increase the flexibility of his system, opening the door to the running game and to more short passes, as well as the occasional longer ones. Walsh required that his running backs also be excellent receivers. Sound familiar?

13. Tight Ends are Important

Walsh took the perspective that the tight end was a far more important player than many fans would believe today. He saw his tight end as the linchpin connecting his running and passing attacks together. He worked constantly to find the best and most versatile tight ends, players who could run block, pass block and receive. He used them to overload zone coverage, to run interference on passing routes and to exploit weaknesses in the coverage. You never knew if they would be primary receivers, secondary, outlet receivers or decoys. He pioneered a lot of ways to use his TEs. Coaches today still use his groundbreaking concepts.

14. Possession Receivers

Walsh was the first to look for a big, strong wide receiver who could repeatedly go over the middle and get yards. That's a part of the WCO that is still helpful at the least, and essential if the opportunity is there.

And Many More...

Believe it or not, the above is the short version of the essential concepts of the WCO. Walsh's innovations and preferred usage of the system would take up a book. In fact, if you have a few spare dollars or a willing friend to go in with, I'd recommend the book The Genius by David Harris. It covers much of Walsh's time with the 49ers in detail. You can learn the ways in which he changed training camps across the league by scripting, for the first time, every moment of the camp, running the drills and plays at game speed. There are a lot of other aspects of his career that will give you a much deeper understanding of how to take a losing team, build it, train it and succeed. While Walsh would burn out after about a decade (a very common occurrence among professional head coaches), he left behind a storehouse of knowledge and innovation that will influence professional football for decades to come.

Examples of Modern WCOs?

So, let's consider a couple of systems that most fans are currently familiar with. The Bears system in 2008, for example, liked to tell you that "We get off the bus running" (Lovie Smith). That's fine, but contrary to how it's portrayed in the media, that clearly isn't the West Coast Offense. The West Coast uses the pass as its primary form of ball control.

Did they employ a three-receiver approach? Sometimes, sure they did. Last season there were a lot of plays that didn't use more than two, and that's really not the WCO. Is their system complex? Well, I think that the answer is "More than many think, but certainly not as much as Walsh intended." That may change this season, but last year the Bears offense was often fairly predictable. It ran the ball on 1st down (and often 2nd down) most of the time, which Walsh wouldn't agree with.

Do they employ a big wide receiver to go over the middle? No - the Bears generally didn't like going over the middle last season although there's no doubt that tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark can. They didn't have that big WR, substituting the TEs. Yet, they did garner a lot of YAC. Their approach seems to use some of the principles, but isn't truly a WCO. It would probably be more accurate to say that they employed some WCO concepts - short passing, run to win - as well as applying a run-based offensive system.

One of the common complaints in Chicago was that teams stacked the box, having 8 players up near the line of scrimmage. Since one of the core attributes of the WCO was that teams feared doing this (it creates the opportunity for a big play), what was happening? There are several things to consider if another team is stacking the box successfully.

  • Scheme - The first issue is simple - no one will stack the box against the pass. They stack because they are expecting a run. Since Chicago bragged about running all day, every day, the opposing teams were usually right about that. The point here is not one system or another being 'right', but whether or not a team is taking advantage of the strengths of a particular system - in this case, the WCO.
  • Why don't you stack 8 against the pass? Denver fans might remember the answer - it's because you then leave a single safety back and you're exposed. If you are running the WCO properly, you'll be passing most commonly on 1st and 2nd down. Since the scheme is set up for a high number of YAC and will create an open receiver, stacking the box if you're the defender will increase the number of big plays against you. Since the standard plays in the WCO are only of 2 to 10 yards anyway, the strength of the quarterback's arm isn't a factor here. I know that a lot of announcers have mistakenly told people differently, but these are the facts of the WCO.
  • Again - If the system is run right, there will be an open receiver on every play. The passes are short, so the strength of the quarterback's arm is of less importance than most casual fans are aware. The plays have to be designed properly and run properly. If you're running the ball on 1st and 2nd down, you're really not running the WCO at all. 
  • Receivers - The receivers have to get to the right spot at exactly the right moment. If they don't, or can't run those plays or if the receiver doesn't run the routes precisely, the system won't work. If you stack the box against 4 and 5 receivers, you're essentially ensuring that a big play can be successful. 
  • Quarterback - The quarterback needs to do several things. He needs to make good decisions, check down as needed and get the ball out. Mobility isn't a big issue within this offense. Smart play is. So is accuracy.
  • Use of the running back is another aspect. If the opposing team knows that you are probably going to run the ball on first and second down, you're not really running any version of the WCO. You're setting yourself up to have a lot of third-and-long plays that let the opposing line tee off on your O-line and QB and blitz to their heart's content.Hester may make strides this year, but last year his route-running was frequently poor. In fact, Chicago suffered from that overall. It was part of the reason that the QB tended (and he did) to hold the ball too long - no one was getting open. 
Many teams successfully stacked the box on 3rd down and blitzed against Chicago's front five. If your O-line can't pick up the blitz successfully, you're going to be in serious trouble. If you're throwing a lot on third down, usually you've run with less than perfect success on 1st and/or 2nd. If your running back is your team's leading receiver, your quarterback isn't seeing his options well or your receivers aren't getting open enough. That refers back to scheme, possibly to decision making and certainly to issues with receivers more than to arm strength. Overall, Chicago's system was less of a WCO than just a run-oriented ball-control offense that employed a lot of short passes. There's nothing at all wrong with that, but it's really not a WCO.

How about Denver last season? You could still see the WCO basis that Mike Shanahan installed, but it, too, was changing to the point of losing much of the WCO basis. A concentration on the pass was consistent with the WCO, but there was a plethora of mid-to-long passing. The routes often met the criteria, though - they were often complex and many were run off out of different formations, while different plays were run out of the same formation. That seemed to be changing, though.The running game, in the WCO, is still used to keep defenses honest. That wasn't done properly, as many here have discussed. There wasn't as much of an emphasis on throwing on first down, throwing short and moving the chains, either.

Brandon Marshall is a classic WCO receiver, so that fit well. The Broncos also had good YAC numbers. They often failed as a ball-control passing offense, though, but attempting too many longer passes when a shorter-routed receiver was wide open. Overall, I'd have to say that there were more criteria met than missed, but I don't know if that would still be true this year if things had stayed the same. There was so much more of an emphasis on the vertical game that it might not have been a WCO if that had continued. Keep in mind that Walsh did use the vertical game, but it wasn't the area of emphasis.

I hope that this helps. One of the biggest understandings that a lot of fans face is this - the principles and attributes of the WCO have made their way into many other systems, including the one being installed in Denver. If you pay attention, you'll be able to see how many of those systems have unfolded. I hope that this will help you to enjoy the game a little more, and to understand it a little better.

Go Broncos!

Many thanks to one of our resident coaches, SlowWhiteGuy, who gave generously of his time and encyclopedic knowledge in the preparation of this article. In an era when untrained people brag of their level of football knowledge, SWG is one of the folks who really does understand the sport and he shares his gift unstintingly. Much appreciated, my friend.

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