Generally regarded as a finesse offense, its success is based on timing, discipline and execution. It's not so much about overwhelming an opponent at the point of attack as it is spreading defenses and isolating vulnerable areas.
Because the West Coast can be run from virtually any formation it is not readily identified by fans, plus so many variations have been developed over the last 40 years that elements of the WCO have become hybridized in most other systems.
Even the name is a bit of a misnomer since it started with Bill Walsh when he was an NFL assistant under Paul Brown in Cincinnati — an expansion team without an established offensive line or a strong-armed signal caller. What the Bengals did have was Virgil Carter a QB from BYU with good mobility, reading skills and a quick release. Carter also came from a pass-first offense and was taught to read defenses by the legendary Lavelle Edwards.
Walsh continued to refine the WCO after becoming the head coach at Stanford and later perfected it in San Francisco, where he had the skill players — Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones and Roger Craig and the O-line to maximize it's potential. It was during this time that Walsh began the practice of scripting his first 10 plays of the game to great success.
There were forerunners of the WCO with Sid Gilliam of San Diego Chargers and Edwards at BYU. In fact Walsh credits numerous contributors to offense he is recognized for fathering. Aong those is Marv Levy for whom he worked as an assistant coach at Cal. He also acknowledges individuals such as Blanton Collier, Al Davis, Don Coryell and Clark Shaughnessy all the way back to a Chicago Bear assistant named George Halas who brought the T formation to college and professional football.
Since its inception the WCO has had many incarnations. Joe Gibbs ran it with the Washington Redskins, adding the bunch sets with the wide receivers and the H-back. Mike Shanahan uses it in Denver with more emphasis on the vertical passing game and power run that doesn't count as much on mismatches. Most fans forget that the Dallas Cowboys' great run through the 1990's was fueled by the WCO. Super Bowl bride's maid Buffalo also used a form of the West Coast with the no-huddle wrinkle.
While the look has changed over the years the principles that make it popular and the ingredients that make it successful endure. It requires receivers who are strong enough to consistently get off the line cleanly and can catch the ball in traffic. The backs, whether it is a solo or twin set, should have good hands and be reliable receivers. The tight end needs to be both a rugged blocker as well as a good athlete with soft hands because many of his catches will come under tight coverage over the middle.
The quarterback must be an accurate passer with excellent anticipation skills and mobility. He should also be able to make good pre-snap and post-snap reads as well as make quick decisions. You also need a center who can make the correct line calls. Former UT All-American Bob Johnson was actually the first center to undertake that role with the Bengals.
Most of the big-plays in this offense are generated from YAC (Yards After Catch). Since the WCO utilizes a lot of quick throws with slants, curls, digs and hook routes in the middle, defenses are limited in how much blitzing they can do. To enable the quarterback to make quick reads the primary and secondary receiver often run routes on the same side of the field but at different depths. Ditto for the safety valve (RB) while a second safety valve often releases to the opposite side against the defensive flow after blocking.
As in any offense speed is important for the wideouts although full-stride speed opposed to track speed is preferable, as it allows the receiver to absorb contact while maintaining his balance and regaining his stride.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the type of WCO that UT will run is the blocking schemes. In it's original form the West Coast was built around a lot of trap blocking, misdirection blocking and influence blocking, but that was an expansion team without the size or experience in the front five to knock established teams off the ball.
Tennessee has five starters returning up front and will likely employed more of a zone blocking scheme which will allow the line to come off the ball hard and get some surge. For many years under Fulmer the Vols were considered the best zone blocking team in the nation.
It will be interesting to see how UT's offense unfolds under a new OC and new QB, but it might be difficult to tell a significant difference from how the Vols played last season in terms of look. Still a fresh start with new ideas and tendencies should help in SEC play.
Editor's Note: Much more on the West Coast Offense will be coming your way in the coming weeks.