Football 101: Breaking Down the West Coast Offense

Alen Dumonjic@@Dumonjic_AlenContributor IIMarch 2, 2012

Walsh worked tirelessly to develop his West Coast Offense.
Walsh worked tirelessly to develop his West Coast Offense.

How It All Started

It's the year of 1969 and the Cincinnati Bengals are heading to a 3-0 record under head coach Paul Brown and quarterbacks coach / play-caller Bill Walsh.

Walsh's offense is directed by a postmodern athlete of yesteryear named Greg Cook, who was a 6'4", 220-pound quarterback that, according to Walsh, "could have very well been remembered or noted as the greatest quarterback of all time."

Cook's rookie season would get off to a dazzling start, with him throwing five touchdowns in the first two games. But in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, it came to a crashing halt that would change the path of Cook's and his astute coach's career.

Cook would tear his rotator cuff when he was brought down by a Chiefs defender. Despite playing through it the remainder of the season in which he would go on to lead the league in passing at a mind-numbing 9.4 yards per attempt and an astronomical 17.5 yards per completion, he would never be the same—nor would Walsh's offense.

Described by the Bengals offensive guru as having a "nickel-and-dime" offense, Walsh would redesign his vertical-happy offense, which he learned from Al Davis in his brief 1966 stint with the Oakland Raiders with a limited-arm talent named Virgil Carter.

Carter did not possess the talent that Cook did, but he was mobile, accurate and intelligent, which enabled Walsh to shape an offensive philosophy that would come to change the face of football.

Developing the West Coast Offense

Walsh's "nickel-and-dime" offense was one that relied heavily on a method, ball-control passing game that utilized the backs and tight ends as primary receivers. It also didn't just pass to set up the run, but replaced the run in an effort to manage situational football—a significant aspect of football—better.

In his book, Building A Champion, the former Bengals coach stated that he had specific goals set for each game, such as scripting 15 plays to open the game, "25 first downs" and "control the ball with short passing and selective running."

The reason for the latter came to be because of the inability to run the ball effectively, so the team relied on short passes such as slants and swing passes.  

Walsh's offense often featured split-backs out of 21 personnel.
Walsh's offense often featured split-backs out of 21 personnel.

The offense heavily utilized the quarterback under center as opposed to the shotgun set we see today and had balanced play-calling that entailed a significant amount of three- and five-step drops out of primarily 21 personnel, which featured a running back and a fullback aligned as split or "flat" backs.

In Cincinnati and later in the glory years with San Francisco, the two backs in the backfield were a constant with Walsh, citing protection purposes to keep quarterbacks upright.

The aforementioned three- and five-step drop-backs are often known as "rhythm"  or "timing" drops because of the way they were and are taught today.

Walsh tied in the drop-backs of the quarterback in with the option routes, which often created Hi-Lo concepts ran by the pass-catchers, which Walsh would go on to say was the "linchpin" of his offense and would later be the main aspect of all passing games.

An example of this is a five-step drop.

As Bill Walsh explained in his tutorial on quarterbacking, there are two types of five-step drops taught in his offense: quick-five and long-five with a hitch step that moves the QB up through the interior of the pocket at the end of the drop.

In the former, he takes five quick steps and once his fifth step plants into the ground, he is to get it out of his hands and hit his target. When executing the latter, the quarterback is to take five big steps before moving within the pocket and finding his target.

Both of these are commonly seen with NFL offenses today, as are most of the Walsh principles.  

Walsh would also introduce extensive use of motions and shifts to his potent offense that helped base out the defense and put them at a numbers disadvantage, which gave the 49ers an advantage in play-calling at the line.

The use of motion is something that was come upon by accident during the Cincinnati years, as Walsh would go on to explain in his book Building A Champion:

" In the third quarter [against the Raiders], Bob Trumpy lined up on the wrong side by mistake. He had to shift over quickly to the other side, and all hell broke loose. At that time, the Raiders had very specialized people. They had a weak-side linebacker, they had a strong-side linebacker, they had a defense end who only played on the tight-end side, and they would shift their two inside linebackers. So, when Bob shifted, they all ran into each other in the middle of the field, trying to adjust."

Along with the motions and a dynamic running game that featured the Trap, Counter, Draw, Sweep and Toss concepts to go along with a zone-blocking scheme implemented by legendary offensive line coach Bob McKittrick, the offensive scheme would go on to make yet another great impact on the game by introducing the "play-pass."

Deemed as the "one fundamentally sound play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense" by Walsh, it proved to be very effective for the 49ers over the years as they utilized mobile quarterbacks such as previously mentioned Virgil Carter, Joe Montana and Steve Young.

One of the most famous play-action passes that the the 49ers introduced was known as "Brown Left Slot-Spring Right Option," or as others called it, "The Catch."

Image courtesy of http://saturdaynitelites.files.wordpress.com/
Image courtesy of http://saturdaynitelites.files.wordpress.com/

Walsh would also develop a significant number of coaches within the organization who would go on to expand the West Coast offense, or as Walsh called it, "the Cincinnati offense."

Evolution of the West Coast Offense

The West Coast offense is still alive, but not the same exact one that Walsh developed.

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 19: Coach Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks directs play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on October 19, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Since Walsh stepped away from the game, several coaches have carried on the legacy of the offense—but with their own twists. Coaches such as Mike Shanahan have adopted the shotgun set and an offense that is based more around the zone-running scheme.

Andy Reid has used more of a power-run game from the one-back set as well as a pass-happy play-caller, and Mike Holmgren has done more with formations such as widening his tight end formation as Walsh disciple Brian Billick explained

Holmgren's West Coast offense is largely viewed as the closest one to Walsh's, but Holmgren changed the way he utilized the personnel as he expanded the packages and how they were presented.

Current 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who employs a significant amount of schematic similarities to Walsh's offense, said it best in a recent interview with CSN Bay Area writer Matt Maiocco:

"Bill used flat backs, even backs in the backfield, whether they were split backs or what he would call brown or blue, and most teams as the 80s brought on more I-backs in college football, more backs in college ran the ball from the I. Bill never really wavered from flat backs. He always had what he looked for in a back, the Ricky Waters, Roger Craigs, etc. It's different, plays are read out differently by the running backs in these types of backfield sets, as opposed to from the I when the back is at seven yards deep. Also, what it allows you to do is involve more two-back, pre-releases by the backs into the routes. So, what people do nowadays is instead of having two backs in the backfield with one of them running the corner route, now they just split a receiver out and have him run the corner route, but it's the same principles."

Smash Concept.
Smash Concept.

As Roman states, the offenses nowadays are utilizing the same principles, such as the Smash concept and a plethora of Hi-Lo concepts, but out of different formations and personnel groupings.

Walsh did use multiple receiver sets, specifically three-receiver sets, that are seen today but not to the same extent as with the four-receiver sets. Walsh was much more quarterback-protection oriented in his offense and more balanced opposed to what we see in today's pass-driven league. 

Despite the formation and conceptual changes in today's game, the West Coast offense still has a great impact on every offense in ways that sometimes go unnoticed. 

These include the significant use of motion, ball-control passing game (see spread offenses), timing drop-backs executed by quarterbacks and option routes that have up to 20 different patterns built in based off of the leverage of the defender. These characteristics are being executed at a very high level in the place where hey once reached their pinnacle, San Francisco. 

Aforementioned play-caller Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh spent a significant amount of time studying Bill Walsh's offense by ordering tapes of team meetings and installations from years past as well as sitting down with the man himself for years.

Further, Harbaugh's athletes do a great job of executing the fundamentals and techniques of each position because of the great coaching they have received from the staff.

The 49ers head coach has also used an abundance of shifts and motions that have helped the offense gain the advantage at the line, much like Walsh's offense. 

As Walsh said, "Nickel-and-dime offense? It works."


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