Chalk Talk: West Coast Offense Part I

Legendary head coach Bill Walsh is given credit for being the mastermind behind the West Coast Offense. In reality, it pre-dates his San Francisco Super Bowl teams by a few decades and was not originally based on short passes. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz retraces the original steps of the West Coast Offense all the way back to San Diego during the Kennedy Administration.

"Sid Gillman brought class to the AFL," Raiders president Al Davis says of the man under whom he once served. "Being part of Sid's organization was like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of professional football."

As head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1961-69, Gillman developed a groundbreaking offensive philosophy that took the NFL by storm. The scheme was pass-first-run-second and focused on pushing the ball downfield with precise timing routes between the quarterback and his receivers. At times his offense was unstoppable, as evidenced by the 610 total yards the Chargers racked up in the 1963 AFL Championship game. This overwhelming passing attack was punctuated by a punishing running game that utilized zone blocking. Gillman's offensive masterpiece laid the foundation for what is now referred to as the "West Coast Offense."

Most NFL fans associate the West Coast Offense with Bill Walsh's 49ers teams of the 1980s. But the seeds of Walsh's system in San Francisco were planted 20 years earlier by Gillman and in a much different form. Any team that presently runs an offense that is predicated on short timing patterns is tagged with the West Coast label. But unlike Walsh, Gillman had no use for short passes. His philosophy involved a more vertical attack, similar to Mike Martz's 'Greatest Show on Turf' offense while with the St. Louis Rams.

"I was a San Diego high school kid in [Gillman's] days," Martz recalls. "I used to love to sit in old Balboa Stadium and watch [his] offense at work. It was an awesome experience."

Martz witnessed first-hand the potency of Gillman's offense. He took that knowledge with him into his coaching career, which eventually landed him the offensive coordinator position in St. Louis. His high-octane attack helped lead the Rams to a Super Bowl championship in 2001.

Traditional NFL theory states that an offense must first establish the run in order to open up the passing game. In essence, by moving the ball on the ground, the defense is forced to bring men closer to the line of scrimmage which opens up the deep part of the field for play-action passes. Gillman reversed this line of thinking and developed a pass-first attack. His system involved sending multiple receivers to every part of the field early and often using timing patterns.

"It's such a timing-oriented system," Martz says. "You want to get the ball downfield, yes. But you want to get it out quickly, and the timing portion is critical. There are no shades of gray. You've got to run in and out of your break – boom, like that – and you've got to be exactly where you're supposed to be."

George Rose/Getty Images

Defenders are then worn down early by having to constantly chase speedy receivers, making the defense vulnerable to the power rushing attack that comes later in the game.

"You've got to be able to run the ball when you go to a three-wide-receiver set," Martz adds, "and you've got to run with power. By that, I mean behind zone blocking. The good thing about zone-block running is that you can keep pounding away. You don't have the negative yardage plays."

The recipe was simple: multiple receivers, multiple sets, push the ball downfield, work the seams, and hit the receiver on the break. Everything is timed perfectly – every step carefully charted – with the QB and receivers all working together. Augment the passing game with a zone-blocking ground attack, and the offense was guaranteed to score a lot of points.

It was during Gillman's days with the Chargers that San Diego State head football coach Don Coryell began frequenting the Bolts' preseason camps with his two young assistant coaches, Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese. They loved what they saw of the offense and began developing it further for their Aztec teams. Coryell began adding his own innovations and building on what Gillman had started. By the time Coryell took the head coaching position for the Chargers in 1978, his scheme had become known as ‘Air Coryell.' In nine years with the Chargers, Coryell's offense led the NFL in passing yardage seven times.

Joe Gibbs then took the offense with him to the Washington Redskins in 1981. His tinkering with the system involved adding the bunch formation – three wide receivers lined up together, each darting off in confusing patterns – and the two- and three-tight end alignments, resulting in two Super Bowl championships. Zampese installed the Gillman/Coryell system first with the St. Louis Rams and later in Dallas with Jimmie Johnson's Super Bowl teams of the 1990s.

Success has followed every coach who has ever embraced the philosophy, yet Gillman almost never receives the credit he deserves for his brilliant creation. This, unfortunately, came about by accident. In 1993, Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated interviewed Bernie Kosar, then the backup quarterback for Dallas. When Zimmerman asked him what offense the Cowboys were running, Kosar responded, "Oh, you know, the West Coast offense. Zampese and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman. That thing."

Soon thereafter, a West Coast wire reporter picked up the quote and erroneously attached it to the much-altered offensive philosophy of San Francisco's Super Bowl teams of the 1980s. Many attempts were made to clear up this discrepancy, but the term West Coast Offense somehow stuck to the 49ers and their head coach, Bill Walsh.

Next week, Part II: Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

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