Beauty & The Balance
The Walsh-designed 1978 offense kept everyone involved
The late Bill Walsh's extraordinary offensive effectiveness at the college level can be attributed to many factors, including his ability to recognize exceptional athletic talent, the design of his plays to take advantage of an opposing defense, the knack for identifying potential mismatches, and the ability to put support players in a position to succeed. Critical to maintaining his advantage over an adversary was his insistence on providing his quarterbacks with a multitude of options, and then using those options to keep opposing defenders guessing. To set up his key threats to make big plays, Walsh knew he had to spread the ball around. Involving each and every skill position player in the offensive game plan not only rendered his offensive schemes difficult to defend, but the sharing of the wealth also helped maintain positive team morale and kept everyone from future NFL stars to minor role players feeling as though they were important contributors and able to help their team achieve success on the field. There were no decoys, no unused chess pieces. Every player kept the defense honest. If you failed to account for any of the options, you could expect that option subsequently to be chosen, and probably on the next play. By designing a beautifully balanced attack, one that not only represented a healthy mix of running and passing, but also an extraordinarily wide distribution of the football through the air, every back, wide receiver or tight end became a viable threat on every play.
Much attention was called to the outstanding 1977 Sun Bowl team last year on the 30th anniversary of that talented squad, but a solid argument can be made that the 1978 team that will be honored at half-time of today's WSU game, was even better. Stanford finished 8-4 in 1978 and while that year is certainly remembered as highly successful, few will recall that the Cardinal was just a handful of plays away from a truly spectacular season. The Cardinal lost by just six to the final AP Poll's #1-ranked USC, by six to the final AP Poll's #3-ranked Oklahoma, by just one point to #12 UCLA, and finally by three to Washington, 34-31, on a field goal with 14 seconds left. All together, that meant William Walsh & Co. were just 16 points away from an undefeated regular season and a couple of field goals away from a trip to the Rose Bowl that year! And you wonder why we at The Bootleg wax so frequently nostalgic about the glorious second year of "Walsh I"? No matter the opponent that year, Stanford was a credible threat to win, each and every week!
Let's take a closer look at that remarkable second season of "Walsh I". The 1978 Stanford offense was indeed pretty amazing, remarkably productive for its time. There are so many measures that point to the team's success, but let's begin with the fact that the Cardinal led the newly-constituted Pac-10 Conference in passing and total offense at 267.9 and 435.5 yards per game respectively. Yards-per-attempt that year were a satisfying 7.35, not bad for a ball-control offense! Flanker Ken Margerum, halfback Darrin Nelson, and versatile fullback Phil Francis would finish 1-2-3 in the conference in receiving in 1978, the only time that the same team has produced a season's top three receivers in the history of the Pac-10 conference.
Previously unheralded fifth-year senior quarterback Steve Dils, who will be in attendance at the game today, entered the season having attempted just 42 passes in his college career (completing 27), but under the Walsh system he would become the official 1978 NCAA passing champion, at the time based on average completions per game. Statistically, Dils put up comparable if not slightly superior numbers to those produced by his much better-known predecessor, Guy Benjamin, who had not only won the 1977 NCAA passing title, but had also been selected as a consensus All-American.
Dils was not just a "dink n' dunk", "move-the-chains" guy. He put up a then-school-record 430 yards passing against Washington State that year, a record that stood for 20 years until Todd Husak dropped 450 on Oregon State in 1998. Dils finished his remarkable senior season with what were then school-record marks of 243 completions and 2,943 yards through the air. His completion percentage of .632 and 22 TD passes (still 4th all-time) were also new Stanford single-season records at the time. He remains Stanford's all-time career completion percentage leader at .633 and it is not surprising that Dils crashed the gates of the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, getting inducted in 2003.
Free-spirited wide receiver Ken Margerum, a former Orange Country Athlete of the Year and another Stanford Athletic Hall of Famer, would gain consensus All-American honors in both 1979 and 1980. Some, including the editorial staff of The Bootleg Magazine, feel he really deserved All-American honors in 1978 as well. The Associated Press honored #28 with Honorable Mention All-America, but there was not a more effective and elusive receiver on a Division I roster. He had 300 more receiving yards during the 1978 regular season than the next-best effort in the entire Pac-10 conference…and he was just a sophomore! Including an outstanding Bluebonnet Bowl performance, Margerum had 58 catches for 1,029 yards, and 11 TDs for the season. Not bad.
Electrifying halfback Darrin Nelson, who would put up his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and became the second player in NCAA history to run for 1,000 yards and catch 50 passes in the season, repeating his incredible accomplishment from the previous season and going a step further, upping his touchdown tally from six in 1977 to 10 in 1978! To put things into perspective, please note that Stanford has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher during the past 16 seasons. In modern Cardinal football history, only Vincent White, Brad Muster and Glyn Milburn have ever even been in the same ballpark when it comes to representing that type of consistent and credible dual-threat. Adding Nelson and tackle Brian Holloway, that makes four members of the 1978 offense who today grace the membership of the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.
Walsh really knew how to keep his entire team involved. First of all, throw the damn ball. Back in the late 1970s, run-oriented teams routinely used to feature a star running back 25-30 times a game, turning most of the remaining players on the team into full-time blockers and glorified cheerleaders. Case in point: In 1978, USC's highly-regarded Charles White, who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year, rushed for 1,760 yards, but did it on a body-battering 342 carries, a 28.5 carry per game average. White averaged just 5.1 yards per carry compared to Darrin Nelson's remarkable 6.4, but Nelson only carried the ball an average of 15 times a game. Hey, clearly both approaches can work well! The point is that Walsh's balanced attack, further enhanced by his employment of three solid tight ends, generated excellent production from every position and kept players fresh and relatively healthy. Between them Nelson, Dils, Margerum, and Francis missed a combined total of just two starts!
To understand the beauty of balance Walsh crafted in 1978, let's take a look at some of the notable numbers, in fact, please look once and then look again!: " 53 catches for Kenny Margerum, a split end (the same number James Lofton had in 1977, but with 942 regular season yards to Lofton's 931, Kenny posted the second-best season of any receiver in Stanford history to that point! " 50 catches for Darrin Nelson. Unheard of for any halfback not named "Nelson" " 49 catches by Francis, a fullback! 106 carries, just two yards lost! Remarkable. " 54 catches from three TEs, with a combined nine TDs, none of them with less than two! " 45 catches combined by the other receivers including Vince Mulroy, Gordon Banks, etc. " A school record-shattering 251 team completions, spread out unbelievably evenly!
In fact, just for fun, let's take a quick look at the percentage breakdown of Walsh's first two seasons, the 1977 and 1978 ("Walsh I") regular season offenses, as well as his final two seasons in football, the 1993 and 1994 (Walsh II) offenses and compare them to the last two years under Walt Harris in 2005 and 2006. Sure, he came back in 1992, but let's face it, 1992 was a defense-centered coaching transition year and we wanted to do direct two-year comparisons.
1977 Walsh Offense Rush/Pass Yardage: 1,894/2,856 = 39.9%/60.1% Total Completions: 235
22.5% Halfbacks (53) Darrin Nelson redefines the tailback as a receiver, sets records 17.9% Fullbacks (42) Phil Francis demonstrates that indeed, a FB can catch the ball too! 10.2% Tight Ends (24) Marty Smith and Pat Bowe, Sr. have yet to fully emerge 20.9% Split Ends (49) Bill Kellar is 5th in the conference in receptions 28.5% Flankers (67) James Lofton is a 2nd Team AP All-American and fairly fleet of foot
More than 40% of the balls went to backs coming out of the backfield. Overall, pass-catching duties are shared equally between the traditional wide receivers group and the backs and tight ends. Opposing defenses (other than USC's), couldn't key on anyone in particular and couldn't stop the Cardinal. One problem - the defense was still giving up more (264) than the offense could put on the board (261), which was impacted by a brutal 0-49 showing against the Trojans. Nevertheless, in his first year on the job, Walsh completes an unbeaten, untied home season, Stanford's first in 37 years! (Talk about "Our House"!) The 1977 regular season was punctuated with a 21-3 win over rival Cal, which finished off the regular season at 8-3. Stanford subsequently appeared in the school's first ever "non-Rose Bowl" bowl game and chalked up a 24-14 win over favored SEC power LSU! Surprising little Stanford ended up 15th in both wire service polls. The players were pumped. The alumni were thrilled. Bill was happy. After the Sun Bowl win, Walsh couldn't wait for year two, where with some fine tuning, he knew his offense could be even better, despite losing a consensus All-American quarterback in Benjamin and a couple of first round draft picks in flanker James Lofton and offensive tackle Gordon King.
1978 Walsh Offense Rush/Pass Yardage: 1,844/2,947 = 38.5%/61.5% Total Completions: 251
22.7% Halfbacks (57) Nelson is 2nd in Pac-10 in receptions, breaks more records 21.5% Fullbacks (54) Senior Phil Francis catches 49 balls! Extraordinary for a fullback! 21.5% Tight Ends (54) All three TEs (Marty Smith, Mitch Pleis, Pat Bowe) are heavily involved 21.1% Split Ends (53) Sophomore Ken Margerum is Honorable Mention AP All-American 13.2% Flankers (33) Vince Mulroy and Andre Tyler split time and are solid
Ahhhh, there it was in all its glory, what would later become known as the "West Coast Offense". It was truly a balanced thing of beauty. One couldn't spread things out much more evenly using a computer. Senior QB Steve Dils could and would pick from a menu of choices, all of them good. Almost exactly 2/3 of the balls went to backs and to a terrific trio of tight ends! The halfback (Nelson) and fullback (Francis) were second and third in the conference in receiving, behind an emerging star in Margerum. Cheat up with a safety and you would be left trying to cover Kenny one-on-one, would have a linebacker trying to hang with Nelson, or would have to watch one of our tight ends turn it up the field.
After the Bluebonnet Bowl Walsh was comfortably certain that no one could consistently stop his offense. Time to take it to the next level, which he would do with the San Francisco 49ers.
1993 Walsh Offense Net Rush/Pass Yardage: 700/3,709 = 15.9%/83.1% Total Completions: 308
15.3% Halfbacks (47): Ellery Roberts & freshman Mike Mitchell combine for 37 balls 23.1% Fullbacks (71): FB Ethan Allen team's top receiver with 52 catches, Comella on the rise 13.6% Tight Ends (42): Tony Cline produces every catch at the position 27.9% Split Ends (86): Justin Armour has another big season, Mark Harris is the #3 receiver 20.1% Flanker (62): David Shaw and freshman Brian Manning provide balance and big plays
Bill was back, but even he couldn't win with this kind of a mix. Stanford would average > 400 yards of total offense, lead the conference in passing, average 337 yards a contest, and score 26.5 points per game, but the Cardinal couldn't run the ball, averaging a conference-worst 63.6 yards per game. The bent and broken defense would give up an appalling average of 465 yards, 228 of which on the ground, would allow 47.7% conversion on 3rd downs and surrender 35.4 points a game. But man, some of those games were mighty fun to watch! The 96th Big Game, however, was not one of them. While Stenstrom airs it out for another 346 yards to extend his many conference passing records, the gross imbalance of the offense comes back to bite Stanford in the butt. Daring the Cardinal to run, California stacks the box, limiting Stanford to negative five yards of net rushing. Ellery Roberts "leads" Stanford with 12 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the defense gives up 295 on the ground. Walsh has no balance and is really not happy. It is his first loss to Cal, a humiliating 46-17 home defeat after previously winning each of his first three Big Games in dominant fashion (21-3, 30-10, 42-21). The tough loss, as would always be the case for Bill Walsh, really didn't sit well with the brilliant, but self-critical coach.
1994 Walsh Offense Net Rush/Pass Yardage: 1,522/3,358 = 31.2%/68.8% Total Completions: 255
08.6% Halfbacks (22): RB Anthony Bookman is not as frequent a receiving target 20.0% Fullbacks (51): FB Ethan Allen is huge again, Greg Comella's knee injured in opener 14.1% Tight Ends (36): Tony Cline provides all but one catch at the TE position 32.6% Split Ends (83): Armour earns 1st Team All-Pac-10, Harris is a year away from stardom 24.7% Flanker (63): Brian "You the Man"-ning becomes a big-play deep threat
Stanford would once against lead the conference in passing and total offense, but with better balance also produced a league-high 29.7 points per game. Nevertheless, the team posted a miserable 2-7-1 record primarily due to a porous young defense that surrendered 32.6 points per game. If senior quarterback Steve Stenstrom doesn't get injured against the University of Washington in Game 9, Stanford very likely beats Cal and Walsh probably doesn't send himself into premature retirement after the season. Without the "SuperSwede" out, Stanford managed just 11 completions and two INTs in 27 attempts against a relatively undistinguished Bear defense. The Card defense surrendered a whopping 301 yards on the ground, including 205 from a random guy you probably won't or won't want to remember (Tyrone Edwards) and almost won anyway, coming up empty on a failed two-point conversion. Walsh couldn't take it any more. Scott Frost transferred to his home state University of Nebraska where he eventually quarterbacked the Huskers to the 1997 National Championship, primarily running rather than passing the football.
2005 Harris Offense Rush/Pass Yardage: 1,015/2,463 = 29.2%/70.8% Total Completions: 207
22.7% Halfbacks (47) Evans, Lemon, Kimble by committee 08.2% Fullbacks (17) Please, please throw the ball to the fullback! Nick Frank is open! 16.9% Tight Ends (35) We have three pretty good ones in Traverso, Horgan, and Danahy 15.5% Split Ends (32) Evan Moore's severe hip injury costs us a bowl game, Crochet fills in 36.7% Flanker (76) Bradford showing signs of star potential, McCullum a solid #3, emerges late
After fullback Nick Frank show nice hands, catching six balls for 45 yards in the opening win at Navy, frustrated fans rightfully question why the fullback position averages just one catch per game thereafter. If it ain't broke, don't fix it! In the final three games of 2005, there is all of one pass completed to a fullback. One.
2006 Harris "Offense" Net Rush/Pass Yardage: 781/2,002 = 28.1%/71.9% Total Completions: 167
21.0% Halfbacks (35) Anthony Kimble & Toby Gerhart can both catch, but are underutilized 5.4% Fullbacks (9) Nick Frank neck injury hurts the position, which disappears from the offense 14.4% Tight Ends (24) Redshirt freshman Jim Dray deserved a lot more balls! 20.4% Split Ends (34) No offence, but Austin Yancy & Mike Miller can't replace injured Moore 38.9% Flanker (65) Bradford out early. Frosh Richard Sherman gives team an occasional prayer.
Last year, fullbacks and tight ends were hardly involved in a predictable offense, putting too much pressure on a banged up and inexperienced wide receiving corps. 60% of the completions are to wide receivers, which after a rash of injuries were clearly not our team's strength last year. No balance. No offense. Would perhaps have been a good time to start throwing a lot more swing and flat passes to the backs, which might have moved the chains a lot better. The Cardinal averaged less than a touchdown in five home games. For the second consecutive season, Stanford failed to place a single offensive player on the two-deep all-conference team. "Buh-Bye!"
Lesson to be learned: When you don't have brutes, go for beauty of balance. It didn't take a "genius" to figure that out….or did it?