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09 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
For the last two decades, many NFL teams have attempted to emulate the West Coast Offense, the short-passing system pioneered in San Francisco by Bill Walsh, who led the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles. The West Coast Offense works because short passes are easier for quarterbacks to throw accurately, easier for receivers to catch, and harder for opposing defensive backs to get their hands on. But this year, Giants offensive coordinator John Hufnagel has employed a passing attack that couldn't be more different.
When Walsh won his first Super Bowl in 1981, his quarterback, Joe Montana, threw so many short passes that the 49ers led the league in completion percentage (63.4%) but finished dead last in yards per completion (11.5). This year, Hufnagel has Eli Manning throwing so many long balls that the Giants are the statistical opposites of those 49ers - first in the NFL with 13.2 yards per completion, and last in the NFL with a 51.4% completion rate.
The biggest difference between Hufnagel's offense and most other schemes is the way he uses running backs and tight ends as deep threats rather than simple dump-off options when the quarterback doesn't have a wide receiver open downfield. With two more deep threats than most defenses are accustomed to seeing on the field for each play, the Giants stretch opposing secondaries and throw long passes down the middle effectively.
Jeremy Shockey catches long passes more consistently than any other tight end in the league. Shockey's average of 14.7 yards a catch exceeds the league's other top receiving tight ends: San Diego's Antonio Gates averages 13.9, Baltimore's Todd Heap averages 11.4, Dallas's Jason Witten averages 11.3, Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez averages 10.9, and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller averages 9.6. Although the Giants drafted Shockey in 2002, before Hufnagel joined the staff, he's a perfect fit in the offense and is on pace for career highs in receiving yards and yards per catch and has already set a career high for touchdowns.
Shockey runs the curl routes that every team asks its tight end to run, but he usually goes deeper into the secondary before turning around and finding open space. That makes him more of a threat to safeties covering the deep middle of the field, drawing them away from the Giants' wide receivers.
Running back Tiki Barber has always figured prominently in the Giants' passing offense, but before Hufnagel arrived, he caught shorter passes, mostly when his quarterbacks couldn't find a receiver downfield. Now he runs longer pass routes. In his first seven seasons, Barber averaged 8.6 yards a catch; in two seasons in Hufnagel's offense, Barber has averaged 10.7 yards a catch.
Barber's ability to adjust his routes on the fly separates him from most running backs. He has an excellent sense for finding voids in the middle of the defense, and Hufnagel's offense allows him to find those voids behind linebackers.
Deep passes also open up the Giants' running game, since opposing defensive backs have to play farther off the line of scrimmage to avoid being beaten for long gains. Little wonder, then, that Barber is on pace to set a career high in rushing yards this season.
Most West Coast Offense coaches are either former Walsh assistants, like Seattle's Mike Holmgren,or assistants who learned from one of Walsh's assistants, like Philadelphia's Andy Reid, who coached under Holmgren in Green Bay. Hufnagel isn't known as a disciple of any one coach, but he spent a year working with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (now the Notre Dame head coach) in New England and another year working with offensive coordinator Tom Moore in Indianapolis, and the aggressive schemes those coaches employ clearly rubbed off on him.
Hufnagel was a quarterback for 12 years and a coach for eight more in the Canadian Football League, then spent two years coaching in Arena Football before becoming an NFL assistant. His style shows those roots: The long-ball approach he favors is common to the Canadian and Arena games. Giants quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride, another believer in the importance of long passes, spent two years coaching in Canada.
Ultimately, offensive systems succeed or fail based less on how coaches draw them up than on how players execute, and the Giants have yet to prove they can turn this passing philosophy into one of the league's elite. Amani Toomer, 31, has lost his speed. Plaxico Burress and Tim Carter have the kind of speed needed for Hufnagel's offense, but they drop too many passes. And Manning still misses too many open receivers.
But Hufnagel's system can work if Manning and his younger receivers can develop into reliable NFL players. Either way, the Giants will likely look to add another receiver who can line up on the opposite side from Burress and stretch the field.
With the team in first place, a strong showing by the offense in December and January will lead other teams to start copying their philosophy, which will come with a readymade label: East Coast Offense.
This article originally appeared in Thursday's edition of the New York Sun.
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