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27 Aug 2004

Guest Column: West Coast Offense Simplified

by Chris Miraglia

Bill Walsh's West Coast offense was the blueprint for about half of the current NFL teams. For its time, it was revolutionary. In a salary-cap era, it's ingenious. Everyone who follows football has heard the term and has at least a vague idea of what it means. Though like a lot of things in the NFL, it's often brought up by announcers, while never being thoroughly explained.

The entire offense is based off a series of quick, highly accurate passes. I tried to show this with passing numbers for yards per completion that didn't take into account yards after catch, but those numbers aren't in the public domain. Instead, look at completion percentage. San Francisco quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young each had a career completion percentage of around 64%. Some seasons, they were over 70% completion percentage. Compare this to quarterbacks that played in more "vertical," or downfield, passing offenses -- John Elway (57%), Dan Marino (59%), and Ken Stabler (59%).

The passing game normally will substitute for the running game with one basic principle -- it's easier to run down field and gain yards if you just cut out all the middle men and completely circumvent your O-line and their D-line. That way, you don't have to look for holes to run through. An average running game is normally needed to keep a defense "honest" and allow teams to run the short passes. Slants, quick outs, and curls are all mainstays of the West Coast.

This is one of the reasons why receivers in the NFL have been gradually getting larger and larger. In a West Coast offense, receivers have to be durable as they might be getting the ball eight times a game. You are also, in many ways, asking the receivers to double as running backs. If you can get a big receiver open for three yards and he can run over the cornerback, you can get a decent-sized gain. If he can run over the corner and the safety, you'll wind up with a huge gain. This is why Yards After Catch is such an important statistic in a West Coast offense.

The pro formation was designed specifically for the West Coast. In a basic pro, the five linemen and a tight end are on the line of scrimmage. There are two running backs in the backfield, lined up several yards behind the guards. There are two receivers, one to either side of the formation, with one on the line of scrimmage and the other a yard back. The advantage to this formation is that the running backs are already in position to get out into the flats easier and serve as a dump-off if the wide receivers are covered. Most of the times, at least one of them will sit back and block any potential blitz. It also leaves a degree of ambiguity as to which back will go out, and whether one or both will stay in to block.

Teams are starting to move away from the West Coast offense because defenses have learned two ways to exploit it. One is that to execute a West Coast offense, you need a quarterback with three important traits: He has to be highly accurate, he has to be a downfield threat (to prevent all the coverage staying short), and he has to be a good decision-maker. There aren't a lot of quarterbacks that count for all three of these things. The second flaw is that your QB will be putting the ball in the air maybe 30-40 times over the course of the game. Any time the ball enters the air that often, it's begging for an interception.

Since in a West Coast, the QB is mostly taking three- or five-step drops, he doesn't have time to make a lot of reads and wait for something to develop. He needs to make his reads quickly and throw to the open receiver. If the quarterback has no long-range ability, it shortens the field for the defense.

At this point, there are a lot of teams running some variation of the West Coast offense. The Green Bay Packers consistently rate as one of the better offenses in the league, even without a big-play wide receiver. This is because Brett Favre has all of the elements needed to run a West Coast offense. He has a strong arm and a dangerous running back to keep opposing defenses from sitting on the short routes.

Detroit also is trying to run a pure West Coast offense, but so far they have not had the quarterback talent or the running back to pull it off. Joey Harrington has the arm strength, but doesn't yet have the composure or the decision-making to run an effective West Coast offense. He's not helped by the fact that his best receiver got injured early in the season and that he had no real running threat. A young quarterback who is shaky in his decision-making, combined with no real help from his receivers or running backs, is not the key to an effective offense, whether West Coast, East Coast, or Ivory Coast.

At this point, parts of the West Coast offense are showing up in offenses that aren't really West Coast offenses at all. The Ravens use it for their limited passing game, but mostly rely on a "pound the ball" style. They use the short passing game just to open up the run enough for Jamal Lewis. The Eagles, instead of finding wide receivers who can act like running backs, rely on their running backs to be receivers. Until the arrival of Terrell Owens, the team's passing game was heavily reliant on running backs coming out for screens and dump-offs. The Packers do some of this also, though they're more willing to "gun it" downfield. The Niners, the team that gave the offense its name, still use it when they throw the ball, but they are more concerned with a balanced offense these days and run the ball more often than in the original West Coast offense.

Chris Miraglia is a journalism student from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He is constantly irritated at how they never show AFC East games in Orlando, and is on a personal crusade to get the powers that be to stop showing Jaguar games.

Posted by: Guest on 27 Aug 2004

1 comment, Last at 13 Mar 2006, 4:11am by PDBIP

Comments

1
by PDBIP (not verified) :: Mon, 03/13/2006 - 4:11am

Vince, 8: Great link. It's interesting how humble and on point Martz sounded at the end. I wonder what his head sounds like now.

Marc, 10: From the link: "In the Raiders organization, Walsh had no barriers to restrict creativity. It was a fully dimensional approach."

I love that line.