Are We West Coast or What?

Bernie looks at the West Coast offense and how it differs from the offense that Bruce Arians runs. Bernie also talks through how Arians' offense works and the skills required to make it successful.

The West Coast Offense has its origins with the Bill Walsh-led San Francisco 49er teams of the mid-80's. Mike Holmgren, who was offensive coordinator for those great 49er teams, actually gives me credit for coming up with the name, "West Coast Offense."

Who am I to say differently? It is nice to have my name associated with an offense that has enjoyed so much success over the last decade and a half, even if it is by naming rights only.

The West Coast Offense actually has seen different variations over the years. In fact, just about every team in the league incorporates aspects of the West Coast Offense into their offense. The 2001 Browns under Tim Couch and Bruce Arians are no different. To understand this point and to better grasp why the Browns are not enjoying the same kind of success that Joe Montana and Steve Young experienced using this offense, you have to look deeper into what this offense is all about.

I wrote a reply to a post on my BerniesInsiders.com message board a few months ago regarding this topic. To those of you who have signed up for the INSIDERS EXTRA pass on the website and read my response, this may sound vaguely familiar because I took some of that post and applied it here.

The West Coast Offense generally is defined as any offense that incorporates multiple shifts and formations, motions, or plays that utilize precise timing routes in the 0 to 12 yard range. Typically this involves a receiver running through a zone or area and replacing him with a second receiver who runs a crossing route through the area just cleared out by the first receiver. This is the hallmark characteristic of the Walsh-Holmgren system.

Another characteristic of this offense is the QB taking short 3 to 5 step "drops," making quick reads and letting the ball fly before the open area closes. QB accuracy is imperative to the success of the West Coast Offense because receivers must be hit in stride so they can turn upfield and get additional yardage after the catch. When working well, the thought of Jerry Rice catching a quick slant pass from Joe Montana and running the length of the field comes to mind. When not working, images of Quincy Morgan's deflection in the New England game and Anthony Pleasant's subsequent interception are there instead.

Where offenses have gotten into trouble by trying to copy these plays is in blitz situations, especially the zone blitz. The zone blitz disrupts the passing lanes. Once this happens, the precision and timing which are paramount to success in the West Coast Offense are thrown off. As a result, the QB gets sacked, an incomplete pass occurs or worse yet, an interception is thrown. Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren and their offenses have consistently performed in these two areas of precision and timing. Other teams have just not been able to duplicate these qualities with the same level of consistency.

Take the Browns for instance. Let me first start by saying I think Bruce Arians has done a masterful job this year.

He runs a system which some people have confused with the West Coast Offense. Bruce runs a system known as "check-with-me." While this system incorporates some aspects of the West Coast Offense, it is by no means a pure Walsh-Holmgren system.

The "check-with-me" system allows Tim to approach the line of scrimmage with several options. Usually, this means Tim has three options at his disposal, two running plays and one pass play, and chooses the one which gives the offense the highest probability of success. This calls for Tim to look at the defense, and the safeties in particular, and determine where the offense has a tactical advantage based on where the defensive players are and which direction the play will go. An extra blocker on one side of the ball or the safeties playing 15 yards off the line of scrimmage would be a good example of what would dictate a running play being called. The safeties cheating up to the line of scrimmage would be a good example of a situation when the pass play might be called. Unfortunately, this is oversimplified and it is rarely this easy.

The right play being called does not guarantee success, regardless of the system. The human element is always there. Football is still a game of execution and it takes all eleven guys doing their part correctly to have success. One guy missing a block, a receiver running a wrong route, a breakdown in pass protection or a pass behind a receiver makes an offense break down. Tim has been doing a good job of surveying the defense and picking the right play at the line of scrimmage. However, clean execution by the offense after the play has been called is another story.

Breakdowns are magnified with offenses that utilize aspects of the West Coast Offense because of the precision and timing elements involved. The system is great when it is working and incredibly horrible when it is not. Brett Favre is having a career year this year in Green Bay. He has the West Coast Offense humming again. The last two years were a different story as he had to deal with a lot of injuries and free agent losses in the off-season. The timing and precision just weren't there.

The 2001 Browns have looked good at times, especially at the start of games. Bruce has come up with magnificent gameplans to take advantage of the opposing team's tendencies. However, as the games have wore on, the Browns offense has sputtered with inconsistency throughout the year. A great offensive coordinator can only come up with so many gimmicks to exploit a defense. Sooner or later, it comes down to the eleven guys on the field making plays, which we are not right now.

Like Brett Favre the past two years, injuries and personnel changes have taken their toll and are reflected in our limited offensive output of late. The New England game is a great example. After Aaron Shea went down with an injury, the Browns were forced to play guys at positions where they hadn't practiced. James Jackson and Jamel White were forced to alternate between the H-back and ruining back positions. Obviously, this negatively disrupted the entire flow of the offense and breakdowns occurred. The offense never seemed to click all day. The precision and timing that come with working together, not only day in and day-out, but also year-in and year-out wasn't there.

It takes years to develop a productive offense. Just putting a bunch of players on the field without practicing together for any length of time is asking for a lot. Until we can get the right personnel in place, especially along the offensive line, and develop the precision and timing that only comes from repetition and working together for an extended period of time, don't expect miracles to happen. Because they won't now that it is December.


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