The 'Real' West Coast Offense

Ryan FallerAnalyst IOctober 31, 2008

 A geographical nomenclature rather than a one-man design

To deny the late Bill Walsh the title of creator of the West Coast Offense is like refusing to acknowledge the legendary Vince Lombardi as a god in Green Bay.  Uncomfortable for me to write as it is for you to read, the claim is nonetheless true.

The fact of the matter is that while Walsh was, indeed, the creative genius that many of us revered him to be, he never once got the urge to slap his historically efficient offensive schemes with the sexy-sounding moniker that has become to a staple in the NFL lexicon. 

He was merely a victim of his own geographical location. The sheer magnitude of Walsh’s gridiron prowess seems almost diminutive when tracing the impressive lineage in which it was cultivated. 

A native Californian, Walsh began his career idolizing Sid Gillman, the man who many consider responsible for ushering in the dawn of the modern passing game as the coach of the AFL’s San Diego Chargers in the 1960’s.  Walsh was amazed at the precision of Gillman’s offense, one that was predicated upon its receivers having the ability to run razor-sharp routes as much as it required pinpoint accuracy from the quarterback.  When his scheme was run correctly---and a majority of the time it was---the members of Gillman’s offensive arsenal convincingly exploited others teams’ weaknesses and ripped vertical passing seams in the defense consistently throughout the game as a means to opening up future running lanes. 

Walsh made it a point to take notes.

Around the same time Walsh was undergoing his West Coast-inspired education, a handful of other able and ready pupils were attending virtually the same classes, only they were taught by a different tutor. 

Taking up post across the street from Gillman was Don Coryell, who, at the time, was the coach at San Diego State and a frequent observer of Gillman’s practices.  Like Walsh, Coryell admired the idea of a vertical passing game and relished the opportunity to not only adopt a similar philosophy, but make it his own by adding slight modifications. 

The end product was an offense that would ultimately bear Coryell’s name during his coaching days in St. Louis and San Diego and, in time, help cement his place among the game’s greatest offensive minds.

Meanwhile, waiting in his wings, were Coryell’s two assistants, none other than Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese.  Equipped with Coryell’s imparted knowledge to which they would make their own modifications, both Gibbs and Zampese rode the same offensive scheme to NFL success. 

Gibbs would win three rings with the Washington Redskins and enjoy a lengthy Hall-of-Fame career.  Zampese went on to flourish as the offensive coordinator for the Rams in Los Angeles, where he turned a young Norv Turner into the latest WCO prodigy.  After leaving L.A., Turner played a major role in securing multiple championships in Dallas as Jimmy Johnson’s offensive coordinator.  Interestingly enough, Zampese succeeded Turner in Dallas, where he helped cap off the Cowboys’ three-ring dynasty in 1995.

It was plain to see the roots of the ‘real’ West Coast Offense were now firmly embedded in the California soil and slowly beginning to spread out all over country.  However, it was in the Midwest where the seeds that produced what we have now mistakenly become accustomed to labeling the WCO were planted.

After being entrusted to run the legendary Paul Brown’s vertical passing game in Cincinnati in 1968, Walsh quickly saw his past teachings and own genius come to fruition. 

Bengals quarterback Greg Cook served as the fuel that drove the engine and was the first in a long line of signal-callers that would thrive under Walsh.  Cook fit the gameplan perfectly, possessing the athleticism needed to make all the downfield throws with the precision and timing that Walsh desired.  But shortly after a season during which his offense made it a habit of lighting up the scoreboard, Walsh saw his main man go down with what would prove to be a career-ending injury.

Walsh was now forced to devise a scheme that accommodated his next capable, albeit less-gifted, leader.  This sudden twist of fate would test Walsh’s mettle and, ultimately, define his future reputation for cognitive brilliance.

Virgil Carter started the 1970 season as the Bengals’ starting quarterback.  While his arm strength was considerably weaker than that of Cook, Carter had the savvy to take Walsh’s timing concept to a new and revolutionary level.  He was able throw the ball on a dime and fit passes into tight spaces, in addition to being a highly effective decision-maker.

In order to maximize Carter’s assets, Walsh scrapped some of the lessons he had learned from Gillman’s down-the-field approach and opted to stretch defenses horizontally.  Walsh saw an opportunity to create mismatches on linebackers and defensive backs with shallow crosses, slants and a plethora of other underneath routes. 

With his precision and timing-based offense intact, Walsh was still able to use the pass to set up the run in the same manner as Gillman and Company.  The only difference was that Walsh would take advantage of defenses laterally, not vertically.

Habits and inclinations that eventually made Walsh famous in San Francisco started to develop.  He featured a split-back formation in which he required his ball-carriers to possess the same prowess to run precise routes that he demanded from his receivers.  The members of his offensive line, considered undersized by modern standards, had to be nimble enough to perform the necessary pull and trap blocks that highlighted his protection schemes. 

It was during this time that Walsh became renowned for his meticulous attention to detail in practice, sometimes forcing his players to run the same play multiple times in succession until it was done correctly.  Practice was where Walsh developed the idea to script fifteen particular plays that were to be used in the opening possession of each week’s game, regardless of the results each play rendered.

Walsh had begun a chain reaction that is still active in the copycat nature of the modern NFL.  He had taken an innovative concept that was bred on the West Coast, adopted it, and subsequently modified it to suit his own needs; much like Gibbs, Zampese and Turner would do years later. 

Walsh is not responsible for creating the West Coast offense.  He merely took a localized idea and expanded it.

Simply put, the West Coast Offense is bigger than Bill Walsh. 

The concept upon which he left his indelible mark is too vast to claim just one creator.  This offense is the product of multiple influences working on multiple generations, and it will continue to do so as it continues to evolve. 

As fate would have, its earliest successes took place along our country’s western shoreline.

It wasn’t until after Walsh achieved unimaginable success, where else, in northern California with the Niners that the West Coast Offense received its now popular label.

Renowned Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman paid a visit to Dallas Cowboys camp in 1993, several years after Walsh left the Bay Area.  Then backup quarterback Bernie Kosar was asked to define the Cowboys offense, the same championship-winning offense led by Turner. 

“Oh, you know, the West Coast Offense,” Kosar told Zimmerman.  “Turner, Zampese, and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman.  That thing.”

And so the West Coast Offense was officially born.  The concept that had captured the imagination of so many throughout the years now had a name.

Later, when Zimmerman used the quote for his story, Kosar’s statement was immediately picked up and misconstrued by a reporter who assigned the label to Walsh’s offensive scheme in San Francisco.  It was geographically convenient, after all, especially given Walsh’s coaching upbringing.  The name stuck, and the rest is history.

Walsh adamantly dismissed the notion that he was responsible, but his impact on the game itself as well as those around him is undeniable. 

Like the legacies of those who preceded him, Walsh’s spirit has been kept alive through a slew of imitators, if not direct descendants of his football heritage.  Mike Shanahan, Mike Holgrem, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci and Ray Rhodes are just a few of the disciples who have dotted the NFL landscape and gone on to achieve Walsh-like success. 

And, thus, the legacy lives on.  As long as the teacher-to-pupil relationship exists in the game of football, the offense tied to the late Bill Walsh, no matter how erroneously, will live on in some way, shape or form.        

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