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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
14. Possession Receivers
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.
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 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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