Chris Humphreys/USA Today

Understanding Gary Kubiak's West Coast Offense Variant

Join Doc Bear as he breaks down what makes Gary Kubiak's offense tick.

The Denver Broncos have undergone a huge change following the Super Bowl 50 victory. Their quarterback situation is still fluid. They lost two starters and a former special teams captain and talented dime safety in David Bruton, as well as Omar Bolden. It’s a common issue for Super Bowl winners. The situation is, well, interesting. There’s an old Chinese curse:

"May you live in interesting times."

The Chinese character for crisis is made up of two lesser characters — one for danger and the other representing opportunity. The danger aspect is obvious — Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan were key pieces on one of history’s best defenses.

David Bruton was becoming a bane for the tight ends on third downs. Replacing them all is both crisis and opportunity. But there’s an aspect that will affect the Broncos as a team even more strongly.

The advantage of having Peyton Manning as your QB is that you really don’t have to game-plan certain situations. Your struggle is to always have to find the balance between Manning doing what he’s always done and any quirks or strengths for that season. 

Then Manning struggled with season-long plantar fasciitis. Although called an ‘itis’ it’s not an inflammatory disease. It degrades the tissue. The tear he suffered was inevitable. 

At the same time, head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison had to find what Manning could do within their system. It wasn’t easy on either side. Such were the dangers in 2015. 

Both the path to the SB50 Lombardi Trophy and the inevitable need that soon follows to replace players has required a constant adaptation by coaches and players alike. Perhaps the most interesting of all the issues is going to be watching the descendant of the West Coast Offense that Coach Kubiak is going to be running in 2016.

Wade Phillips doesn’t seem to need much help on the defensive end of the team. Coach Kubiak is no longer limited by the issues around Manning. We’re going to get to see what Kubiak has and hasn’t kept of the original WCO. 

Although archetypes like the WCO will constantly change, certain aspects will always be useful. Each coach keeps aspects of a former system intact. There are good reasons for it. 

Every team studies film incessantly. If you kept to a certain system, the defense would have a leg up. Every year brings new and different players as well. Good coaches have certain players that they have to find a way play them.

Each time, the system has to change as well. The coaches also have their own twists and turns, based on the changing league — as well as their own experience. It creates a certain ‘drift’ to the original system. 

Nearly any system takes two seasons to install — one to get the players familiar with the terminology and the basis of the system — then one to move the players from thinking in the system to automatically reacting within any play. The Broncos have an advantage this season. Last year, Coach Kubiak installed his terminology. This season, the players will have to take the step of reacting automatically. 

Here are some things to look for:

1. Complexity. The WCO lineage is famous for the vast, encyclopedic playbook.

2. Deception. The WCO lineage likes to run many plays off a single formation and will use many formations to run a single play. It’s hard to stop — its use earned Mike Shanahan the nickname ‘The Mastermind’. He used Bill Walsh’s system in ways that even Walsh hadn’t considered — but he also stuck to many of the plays and principles.

3. The WCO has three key concepts. They are:  creating mismatches, overloading zones and creating and exploiting holes in the defense. While common to many systems now, when Bill Walsh installed them they were completely innovative. The fact they are still used speaks to the depth of what seem simple such simple considerations.

4. Among the concepts that Bill Walsh made famous was the ‘long handoff’ — the short pass. Walsh wasn’t unaware of the vertical game and he used it more than he’s credited for. But he was the master of the horizontal game. In his mind, incompletions were unacceptable, interceptions a disgrace. He proved that using the deceptive complexity of the WCO also permitted him to make a very high percentage of completions — with very few INTs.

5. It is a ball-control offense without the ‘smashmouth’ approach that had been used up until them. Its detractors — and there are, surprisingly, still many — sneer that it’s a ‘dink and dunk’ system. It is. It’s also won several Super Bowls with multiple teams. The proof is in the record books. 

6. Walsh never used less than 3 receivers, and often went up to 5. It was part of the deception. Only 2-3 of those receivers were ‘live’ — the rest were decoys. That’s something to watch for in 2016 — has that aspect survived?

7. Coach Kubiak likes to use a fullback — if he has one. As 2015 showed, he’ll work with whatever the football universe gives him that year. However, the FB is an aspect that he’s already said that he’d love to restore — if he can find the right player. Used properly, fullback is one of the most complex positions in football. They’re hard to find. Kubiak is also one of the WCO proponents who loves his tight ends. Walsh regarded tight ends as the linchpins of the passing and running games.

8. That’s survived since Coach Sid Gillman said that with two good tight ends, he could control the entire middle of the field. Modern play is proving that to be true. As was often the case, Walsh was just a bit ahead of his time.
Among Walsh’s innovations and applications were the timing route — which he raised to an art form — the ‘rub’ routes that created at least one open receivers per pass play and the importance of yards after the catch. It hadn’t been emphasized that much until Walsh expanded on Sid Gillman’s work and made it a central issue. The receivers should love this — getting yards after the catch is actually designed into many of the WCO route patterns.

9. Last for today — Pass to score, run to win. Walsh believed in getting ahead in the first half (including the third quarter if needed) and then run out the clock. This has led to a misunderstanding that Walsh wasn’t ‘in favor’ of the run game. Actually, he loved it. He just used it differently.

A chance to see what variations Coach Kubiak has kept or expanded excites me. Walking into the draft with fistfuls of picks doesn’t hurt. The players they take will be taught the WCO variation that Coach Kubiak has drawn up. 

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. 

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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