16 Aug 2007
What is the West Coast Offense? And what does it mean to "pass to set up the run?" These phrases are universally used in connection with Bill Walsh's offensive system that emphasizes passing -- typically, short passes -- in the early stages of the game to force linebackers and defensive backs to drop back and play the pass, thereby softening the defense to be run against later on. Prototypical examples in today's NFL includes Andy Reid of the Eagles and Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks -- two coaches who are, not coincidentally, proteges of Bill Walsh.
But not so fast. According to Chris Brown (presumably not the brittle Titans' running back) of Smart Football -- which is an excellent football strategy blog, though the posts are infrequent -- this conventional wisdom is all wrong. To quote from a recent post:
[T]he West Coast Offense, or maybe more appropriately the Walsh Offense, has nothing to do with formations, nothing to do with routes or pass plays, and only a notional bit to do with "passing to set up the run." (As a digression, TV announcers often say that any team that throws it a bit "passes to set up the run," but when Walsh said it, he was very specific. He literally meant that he threw certain passes to certain areas to influence particular run defenders, he dropped back so he could run specific looking draws, and he would run play-action passes to set up those corresponding run plays for later in the game.)
Instead, the Walsh Offense is about two interrelated ideas: (1) A meticulous and thorough approach to building a game plan, and (2) a calm, planned out approach to calling the actual plays in the game so that all your gameplanning is actually useful on game day. Walsh didn't revolutionize Saturdays or Sundays, he revolutionized Sunday night through Thursdays. He figured out what would work when the pressures weren't on, he had his players practice those plays they had determined would work best, and then he actually ran those plays they practiced in the games they played, as opposed to some seat-of-the-pants calls made by other coaches.
This prompted two thoughts. First, the next time I watch a supposedly West Coast Offense at work, I'm going to see if I can spot a "specific pass to set up a specific run" in a single game. I don't think I've ever seen this, but maybe I haven't been cognizant of the strategy. Second, Chris' theory does explain why Andy Reid's playcalling can seem frustratingly unresponsive to actual game conditions; there have been times when Eagles' opponents seem to be begging to be run on, and yet Reid insisted on forcing throws to guys like Hank Baskett. This suggests there's at least some method to Reid's occasional madness.
In any event, the real goal of this post is to raise the profile of "Smart Football" -- check it out.
21 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2007, 1:39pm by Andrew
To win a Super Bowl, do you want a team with balance, or one that is dominant on one side of the ball? Part I of Scott Kacsmar's study looks at what the DVOA era tells us about building Super Bowl teams. Having a dominant unit and a track record of success is crucial, but has that always been true?