Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Aug 2007

West Coast Offense: A Contrarian View

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.

Posted by: Ben Riley on 16 Aug 2007

21 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2007, 1:39pm by Andrew


by beedubyuh (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 12:33pm

Great find! Now I'm going to spend all day pretending to work while actually reading the articles.

Does FO offer unemployment insurance to its readers?

by Jimmy (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 12:56pm

I don't have time to read that now, but sure as hell will read it later. Great find.

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:01pm

Err. . . there's quite a lot wrong with this. I can't be bothered addressing it all but I will point out that Mike Holmgren DID coach under Walsh. He was the quarterbacks coach and then the offensive coordinator for them. I have a video that shows Holmgren coaching for the niners in the superbowl.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:03pm

I remember after the 49ers became good, a big deal was made of Bill Walsh scripting his first 30 offensive plays in practice during the week, then calling those same 30 plays in the game. Writers would say "What a genius...the players already know what the first 30 plays would be, and they would practice those plays and then be better prepared for the game!".

To me, the scripting was overrated. I remember an article which Walsh talked about the 30 scripted plays he used in the 1984 NFC Championship against the Bears. Even though the Niners passed a lot, there were still times in which Walsh understandably had to deviate from the script (like not sending Bill Ring off-tackle on a 3rd and 12). So the script is a nice outline, but obviously you have to know when to deviate. Also, I think the effect the script had on the players was overrated. All coaches have their team practice the plays they plan on using in that Sunday's game. I don't think the Niners players were better prepared to run "scripted play #28" than a team not using a script.

My point is that Bill Walsh was a great game-day coach regardless of scripting. And I don't think Rich Kotite using a script would have made him any smarter. I haven't really heard anything about scripted plays since Walsh retired way back when.

by MRH (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:08pm

Karl - Ben writes (at least in what's posted now):
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.

I did have to read it carefully, as at first I skipped over the word "coincidentally".

by MRH (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:12pm

Re 4: I think a lot of coaches still have scripts. Anyhow, at Smart Football scroll down to the Bill Walsh lecture - "A Method for Game Planning". He talks a lot situational football and having a few plays for each special situation. Then this:

So what do we do? We take a sheet and list our first 25 plays. We keep a sheet and on one side of it are listed 25 plays that we are going to run. We have one square accounting for the second half of the football game and we have a block where we write in our adjustments at half time. I will show you two charts at the end of this talk.

You start the game with the first 25 plays, but now it is 3rd and 3. You turn the sheet over and go to the 3rd and 3 list. You have listed the plays in the order that you would call them on 3rd and 3. You take it; turn the sheet over and go to your next play. Trouble; long yardage, you turn the sheet over and go to the long yardage category. Punt; get the ball back. You have your first 25 plays listed, but of course, somewhere in here you are going to be backed up. You have the ball on your 1 yard line; so don't fight it. Turn over the sheet and look at your BACKED UP

In other words, the script was the general plan but on the back of the script were the pre-planned situational plays that would be used even before the script ran out.

by John (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:17pm

re 4 then you obviously weren't paying any attention to the packers when holmgren was the coach. The first 15 plays were scripted, and the announcers made a point of mentioning that almost every week.

by B (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:23pm

Well, the important part about the scripted 30 plays is not following or deviating from the script, but how the early plays set up the later plays in the script, and how they set up similar plays later in the game. When charting the Broncos/Pats game last year, I saw the Broncos use this quite effectively.

by James (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 1:33pm

It doesn't sound like this idea is that different from the conventional wisdom. Both are talking about using the pass to set up the run, just in different ways.

by Richie (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 2:35pm

The link at the top links back to this article.

by Kaveman (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 2:42pm

#4, #8: Mike Shanahan definitely scripts the first plays of the game, but what I recall hearing is 10 to 15.

I’m going to see if I can spot a “specific pass to set up a specific run� in a single game.

But... isn't that what a good chunk of an offensive gameplan is? A scheme to lead the defense to believe that something is going to happen, because you've done it before, and then surprise them with something they don't expect?

I'm a little surprised at the surprise... I always thought that this was the heart of what offensive coaches did. I tend to focus mostly on the Broncos though. And Shanahan's team is so much fun to watch because of the trickery. I don't mean trick plays, but ways in which he fools the defense. I think it was Belichick who said that playing the Broncos is dealing with misdirection; he'll make you think they're coming one way, and then come another.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 2:42pm

I'm not so sure that using "certain passes to certain areas to influence particular run defenders" in the same game is quite as important as it was back in Walsh's hayday. Today there is so much film on every team that as long as you run the play a couple time, the other team will be aware of it and therefore you'll be able to take advantage of that awareness.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 2:56pm

re: #9

Yeah, thats what I'm thinking.

What NFL coach doesn't have his team practice the plays they will most likely use on Sunday?

What NFL coach doesn't have pre-planned situational plays? Isn't that what a gameplan essentially is?

What NFL coach doesn't have early plays setup later plays in the game? Didn't Knute Rockne fake a limp to setup a deep pass to himself from Gus Dorias back in 1917?

I disagree with the premise that it wasn't what Walsh did on Sunday, its what Walsh did Sunday night through Thursday that gave him his success. What set Walsh apart IMO was his intuitive feel as to what would work during the game. Its like the author wants to somehow empirically prove that Walsh was a good coach because he scripted his plays and was well-prepared. I think Walsh's greatness is more intangible and innate.

by Joe Pisarcik Magnate (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 3:21pm

Great find! Now I’m going to spend all day pretending to work while actually reading the articles.

Does FO offer unemployment insurance to its readers?

Here here!

by Bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 4:13pm

1 & 14: What I really need is a place to go to during the day so my wife thinks I'm still employed. (Wasn't that in The Full Monty?) Oh, and the unemployment coverage is nice too....

by Ben Riley :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 4:15pm

Re: #11:
I’m going to see if I can spot a “specific pass to set up a specific run� in a single game.

But… isn’t that what a good chunk of an offensive gameplan is? A scheme to lead the defense to believe that something is going to happen, because you’ve done it before, and then surprise them with something they don’t expect?

In my mind, there is a difference between a general "scheme" of passing to set up the run (which I think of as the conventional wisdom on the WCO) versus targeting a specific player you intend to fool. It's this player-specific gameplanning that intrigues me, and I expect it'll be difficult to spot (for me anyway).

by senser81 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 4:49pm

re: #16

I would think that player-specific gameplanning has been part of the NFL since the beginning of time. Thats basically the purpose of all strategy, to generate favorable matchups of size, speed, skill, etc. I would hope that an NFL coach wouldn't say "since we are a good running team, our gameplan is to call a lot of run plays", and would have a more specific plan of attack.

I think that the main point of offensive trickery in the NFL is to get the linebackers thinking run on passing plays and pass on running plays, which has also been a concept since the beginning of linebackers. So I have a hard time believing the Bill Walsh was the first coach to use pass plays which would fool specific players in order to set up run plays.

I would think that Walsh was unique in that he used the pass to set up the run much more often than other coaches at the time(which gets back to general scheme), and that on game day Walsh had a better intuition as to what plays would work.

by Theo (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 5:51pm

Eagles - Ravens Pre Season Week 1

Eagles start the series.

1st10 Shotgun 3 WR TE HB: Pass SE.

2nd8 I right split. Run middle.

1st15 (after penalty): Shotgun 3 WR TE HB: HB draw.

2nd12 I right split. PA pass deep to FL.


by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 8:55pm

Smart Football is an awesome site, and I'm glad to see it get some love from FO. FYI, Chris is also contributing part time to the University of Texas college football blog Burnt Orange Nation. I suspect his comments there will be similar to what you'd see in the Strategy Minicamps.

by Tom Moore (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 6:28am

Look for the "Three Verticals" play. This is 1/4th of my playbook.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 1:39pm

I’m going to see if I can spot a “specific pass to set up a specific run� in a single game

There were several times last year that Andy Reid put out 4 wide sets with three receivers bunched on one side and with Westbrook as a single setback and then threw the ball. Then later in that game or another he would come out with the same 4 wide set in a similar situation and have Westbrook run the ball, usually for a touchdown.

Two examples of this:

Week 15 vs. Giants, Giants lead 16 to 14, 4th Quarter.
3-2-NYG 28 (12:42) B.Westbrook left guard for 28 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Amazingly, the Giants DID NOT learn from this and a few weeks later, the Eagles ran the same play, with the only difference being puting three receivers to the right of the formation instead of the left:

Wild Card, Giants lead 7-0, 2nd Quarter.
2-1-NYG 49 (14:22) B.Westbrook right end for 49 yards, TOUCHDOWN.