The West Coast Offense is not my favorite offensive scheme, not by a long shot. I greatly prefer the Gilman-Coryell-Martz approach. I would also prefer the Spread, and the K-Gun, two very similar offenses. The WCO would rank just above the Erhardt-Perkins and Lombardi-Shula schemes. That's pretty low on my list of favorites.
So why do I dislike the WCO? It's pretty easy to beat these days, that's why. Nobody plays it in the pure form that Walsh did back in 1981. The reason is simple: They can't. The pure system doesn't really work anymore. Let me give you a little history lesson about it.
Back in the year 1981, everyone was deathly afraid of the bomb. Not the atomic bomb, the long pass. The 1978 rule changes had been in effect for three full years prior to the 49er eruption.
Teams like the Steelers and Raiders had used the bomb with devastating effect on route to Super Bowl championships. The Cowboys were playing bombs-away also. Even the Rams, with Vince Ferragamo, were throwing the football deep.
In those days, most defenses would concede a four yard pass and think nothing of it. They would not contest those short routes much at all.
If you added some sophistication to your short passing game, running combination routes to produce rub-offs and so forth, you could really move the chains. You could sustain a drive for 9-12 plays, keep your defense off the field, build your QB's passer rating, and score touchdowns.
Bill Walsh knew and understood this. He organized his entire offense around the precept that defensive coordinators would give him his short yardage, practically for free. This was especially true in the final two minutes of the game when everybody (and I mean everybody) played the prevent defense.
The 49er offense was revolutionary for the time. Frankly, I always knew it could be stopped. I used to chastise our Ram defensive coordinators, like Fritz Shurmur, for ordering our corners to cover the 49er WRs as they ran endlessly down the field on eight and nine routes to no avail. Joe would seldom throw the football deep. Truth be told, he had a 40 yard arm. He couldn't fling it that deep with any consistency of accuracy.
Well, it took awhile, but a defensive coordinator arose who had the nuts to play a realistic defense against the WCO. I regret to say this, but the man's name is Bill Belichick. At the time, he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants under Bill Parcells.
If you will check the historical record, you will find the New York Giants were the team that most consistently vexed the 49er dynasty. They laid a devastating 49-3 route on 49ers on route to their first Super Bowl victory in 1986-87.
Jim Burk sent Joe Montana out on a stretcher in that game. They terminated the 49ers shot at a three-pete in 1990-91. They also terminated Joe Montana's career as a starter with the 49ers. After that game, it was basically Steve Young's team.
The 49ers always struggled offensively against the Giants, and it wasn't just because of their awesome linebacker corp. The scheme was what hurt them. Belichick's defensive schemes worked extremely well against the 49ers. In fact, it's fair to say he showed us all the pattern for how to defeat the West Coast Offense. How did he do it?
It's pretty simple: He totally ignored the long pass. When Jerry and John went deeper than 40 yards, Belichick's DBs were instructed to let them go. Yep, just let them run around the field free without an escort.
It didn't matter if Jerry was running around the endzone, waving his arms frantically, just as long as he was 45-65 yards away from Joe Montana. Such a sight didn't bother Belichick at all.
Let me unpack the strategy just a little for you.
Belichick understood that Joe had a pop-gun arm. He also understood that Walsh had invented a short-passing offense. He understood that the eight and nine routes run by 49er receivers were nothing in the world but trickeration.
He knew that the 49ers had little or no inclination to throw the football deep. He doubted Joe would get the pocket-time he needed to throw deep against the Giants because of pass-rushers like Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Marshall, and Jim Burk. He doubted Joe could throw the deep pass effectively, even if he was given time.
Belichick decided he would defend a 40 yard box from the scrimmage line, and no more. He divided that 40 yard box into two zones. He called the first 20 yards from scrimage the red zone, and he called the second 20 yards the yellow zone.
He called the first 20 yards the red zone because this was the hot-spot for most WCO activity. More than 75 percent of the 49ers' plays terminated within 15 yards from scrimmage. This is where most of the action was. He decided to defend this area with hard-n-tight man-on press-coverage. Every receiver would be shadowed in this zone, and every play contested.
Belichick decided to defend the yellow zone with a soft-zone coverage. The soft-zone is scheme notorious for allowing receptions but producing devastating hits on receivers.
The remainder of the field would be undefended.
This scheme is what some people call the Belichick-Box. It's really a pretty simple scheme. Everything about it is designed to deny short 'high percentage' passes. Everything about it encourages the quarterback to hold the football for a 6 count. Everything about it encourages the quarterback to attempt the deep pass.
When Belichick first deployed it, the objective was to take away the 49ers' short-passing game, and give Giants an opportunity to physically destroy Joe Montana. It worked out precisely as planned... Several times.
In the 4th quarter of the 1990-91 NFC Championship, Joe Montana was trying to move the 49er offense to a score, and finish the Giants. None of his short receivers were open. His pocket began to break down. He scrambled right trying to extend the play and find a deep receiver. He was cut off at the pass by Lawrence Taylor. Leonard Marshall absolutely crushed him from behind.
NFL Films ranked that hit as the second hardest of all time. It was just behind the closeline Concrete Chuck Benarik put on Frank Gifford. That hit effectively terminated Joe Montana's career with the 49ers. He stayed on the roster for two more years, but he was rarely the starter. If was basically Steve Young's team after that play.
The NFL Network really should show the 1990-91 NFC Championship game soon. It's educational. Some will tell you that the classic Walsh offense died on that day. Walsh's disciples went scurrying in every direction after that game. They modified the WCO in many ways in response to the Belichick Box.
The 49ers went with Steve Young, a quarterback who could run like hell & extend pass plays by scrambling. Holmgren experimented with an evasive Howitzer-armed quarterback named Brett Favre who could gun the football deep. Shanahan invented a new running scheme that could punish teams for using the Belichick-Box, and freeze them with play-action.
Basically, the WCO doesn't work well these days unless you have most or all of the following things:
- An athletic, mobile, evasive QB who can extend a play.
- A rifle armed QB who can throw deep with great accuracy and consistency.
- Big physical receivers who can jump. These receivers use their size and strength to beat press coverage, and they use their hops to rise above coverage and take the ball away from defenders.
- A great offensive line who can consistently deliver five seconds of pass-protection.
- A one-cut-and-go running attack that can punish defenses running the Belichick-Box, and freeze the front seven on a play-action fake.
With that laundry list of WCO requirements, I look at my Rams and frown.
- Do we now have an athletic, mobile, evasive QB who can extend a play? Maybe, maybe not.
- Do we have a rifle armed QB who can throw deep with great accuracy and consistency? Probably.
- Do we have big physical receivers who can jump? Nope.
- Do we have a great offensive line who can consistently deliver five seconds of protection? Hell no.
- Do we have a great one-cut-and-go zone-blocking running attack? Not really. Maybe we develop one if Steven Jackson stays healthy.
So if you were a defensive coordinator scheming against the Rams in the 2010 season, just what would you do? It's very simple: You deploy the Belichick-Box.
You encourage Sam to hold the football. You encourage Sam to hope that a deep receiver will come open. In the process, you give your attack dogs a chance to kill Sam. With our shaky line, they'll get plenty of shots at him.
Given the Rams poor record of pass-protection in recent years, and given Sam Bradford's history of injury, the WCO is probably the last offensive scheme I would attempt to deploy if I were the Rams' management.
So what would I run? An NFL-modified version of the Spread. More about that next time.