Demystifying The North Coast Offense

"For a brief moment, the Kentucky Wonder was alone at his locker and the media wasn't gathered around him like a pack of 13-year old girls at an N'Sync concert. Couch was having none of it. My quest was to get him to reveal some of the innermost workings of the Browns' unique offense, but to no avail...."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Your faithful correspondent did the full 600-mile round trip from Michigan's untamed and exotic Thumb recently to bring you this trenchant piece of reporting. Nothing beats driving along Detroit's Gratiot Avenue at 4 a.m. on a sticky August night. A gauntlet of crack whores, junkies and pimps makes for interesting driving, and tends to keep one's senses attuned to the road – and the gas pedal. Anyway, we soldier on.

BEREA — Tim Couch just wouldn't bite.

For a brief moment, the Kentucky Wonder was alone at his locker and the media wasn't gathered around him like a pack of 13-year old girls at an N'Sync concert.

Couch was having none of it. My quest was to get him to reveal some of the innermost workings of the Browns' unique offense, but to no avail.

Instead, the 25-year old sat there and deflected specific questions with the skill of a much-older veteran. Clearly, he'd learned in his three seasons as the Browns' starting quarterback not only how to decipher an NFL defense, but how to deliver a lengthy and completely meaningless reply to a reporter's question. The filibuster would make Ted Kennedy proud.

Couch is no different from your average NFL player when it comes to interviews, especially in the locker room. And the reporters are no different, either. For the most part, Couch's mundane, trite and cliché answers were enough for the local media. They dutifully wrote down or recorded whatever he said. They did not press him for specifics or to expand upon anything.

Without being a regular in the locker room, I've no idea if the scribes have just given up on trying to get real answers, or if they're just lazy. Television and radio broadcasters, as a rule, are witless dunces that serve no real purpose in life, so they can be dismissed. But the newspaper reporters should press a little harder. It's disappointing when they don't dig because the newspaper format allow writers far more space to communicate the nuances of the game than your typical 30-second radio or television broadcast, which is predicated on the sound bite – and not substance.

Let's give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, none of them played the game, and the average reader likely doesn't understand what a player means when he sounds off about "Cover 2 Cloud" coverage or what "56 Stub-I Rex Change" means to the action on the field. My desire for information tends to be hijacked by my love of the game's tactics, and I have trouble remembering that Joe Newspaper Reader likely doesn't care as much as I do about who the third option was on a "Fox 2 X and Y Hook."

My goal of getting Couch to explain the intricacies of his offense was an utter failure, so I'm cutting the reporters some slack. I couldn't even get him to reveal a single play. He claims to have no one favorite play, or one he'll rely upon when he gets in trouble. A complete pack of lies, of course. I played quarterback a long time ago, and if you have the relationship with a receiver like Couch has with Kevin Johnson, you've got a play in mind that'll work every time.

But who can blame him for not wanting to tip his hand? Still, ever the media relations department's well-groomed trouper, Couch offered up such gems as "We've been pretty balanced" (which simply isn't true) and "There's no reason we shouldn't go out and be a good offense" (other than limited talent and recent history).

Not the stuff of which gripping journalism is made. Perhaps Couch fears the likes of Brian Billick has a BerniesInsiders subscription in hopes of gathering useful intelligence on the league's worst offense, this far, of the 21st century. Knowing the grasping and desperate Billick, that very well may be true.

With my questions falling Scud-like short of their mark, I honed in on getting a simple question answered: Does the Browns' offense have a name? After all, teams like the Packers, 49ers and Lions run the West Coast offense. There's been the Oilers' Run-and-Shoot, the Chargers' Air Coryell and the Redskins' Bunch. So what do the Browns run?

The best I could get was it's basically the same scheme offensive coordinator Bruce Arians ran when he was in Indianapolis, which is certainly not news.

Couch and backup Kelly Holcomb gave me very simplistic explanations of the philosophy behind Arians' offense, but both said it had no name.

"It's just the Cleveland Browns offense," Couch said.

"I don't think it has a particular name," Holcomb added.

He should know – he worked the offense in Indianapolis with Arians before the two came to Cleveland in 2001. Holcomb backed up Peyton Manning and Arians was the quarterbacks coach.

"(Last year) it was guys' first trip into the offense," Holcomb said. "Guys had no idea what they were doing last year."

For Holcomb, working for so long in the system, whatever it's name may be, has been beneficial. Given a full year to settle into his new surroundings and role, Holcomb has looked more than adequate as Couch's understudy. In two preseason games, he's completed 21 of 28 passes for 249 yards and three scores. He had an ill-advised throw Saturday night that was picked off by Detroit, but for the most part, Holcomb has looked like a good short-term insurance policy for Couch.

In his only action last season, he replaced Couch in the fourth quarter of the loss at Green Bay, and finished 7-of-12 for 114 yards and a score.

Holcomb said the key to success is the ground game.

"You're got to be able to run the football," he said. Again, he should know because against the Packers in 2001, Holcomb benefited from Jamel White's eye-popping performance on the ground.

Oops, we've veered from our quest to identify the Browns offense. No need for a soliloquy of Holcomb's talents.

Fine. Maybe it has no name. I couldn't track down Arians to find out more about the genesis of his offense, so we'll have to settle for what his very guarded quarterbacks had to say.

"It's a similar philosophy to the West Coast offense in trying to get rid of the ball in rhythm," Couch said. "We get our yardage through the air from our play-action."

He said the terminology is completely different than Chris Palmer's vertical passing scheme, which utilized more seven-step drops versus Arians' three- to five-step system. Without a true fullback or even a proper H-back, Cleveland tends to utilize plenty of single-back sets. Long gone are the days of Kevin Mack and Ernest Byner stacked up behind Bernie Kosar.

So Couch says the offense shares some things in common with the fabled, yet equally ill-defined West Coast offense. OK, how does the West Coast offense work? Let's let the man who accidentally gave the offense its name tell us. It was our own Bernie Kosar who coined the term in 1993. He's far more qualified than myself or even Couch to explain how the scheme works. These comments come from the December issue of BerniesInsiders.

"The West Coast Offense generally is defined as any offense that incorporates multiple shifts and formations, motion, 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."

He's referring, of course, to San Francisco/Stanford head coach Bill Walsh and his disciple, Seattle's Mike Holmgren, who won a couple Super Bowls with the offense in Green Bay.

Bernie continues:

"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 up field 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."

Sounds like every other offense in the league to me. But it is different than what the Browns operate each Sunday. Here's Bernie's explanation of the difference:

"(Arians) 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."

Rarely this easy is an understatement from the Cleveland perspective. The offense has rated nearly dead last in every major statistical category. Admittedly, victory on the field far overshadows categorical leaders, but teams at the bottom of every measurable statistics never win Super Bowls. Conversely, a team ranked at the top in most categories does not often win the Big One. Example: the 2000 and 2001 Rams.

But we're getting away from ourselves. Aside from statistical rankings, the Cleveland offense has been questioned on a personnel level. Do the Browns have the right characters on the field to make the system work? Maybe. After two preseason games, we can divine from the first-team's play that the 2002 squad looks more confident. Couch has shown poise and snap decision-making skills, the occasional lack of which haunted him the past three seasons.

As an added bonus, Couch's primary wide receiver was inked to a new long-term deal, and that should calm any lingering fears for the quarterback.

"Kevin Johnson is beginning to be a real crafty receiver," he said. "He's got some of the best hands in the league."

Wonderful. But let's get back to the West Coast offense thing for a moment. Here's something many fans don't know, a little nugget I dug out of our...

DON'T BELIVE THE HYPE DEPARTMENT:

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Despite the hype, the San Francisco 49ers never ran the West Coast offense, and nor was head coach Bill Walsh ever a guru of the scheme.

At least not the West Coast Offense its originator was talking about.

First, the name is a misnomer. Here is Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman's explanation from a

1999 story:

"How did the term get its name? From Bernie Kosar, when he was a backup quarterback with Dallas in '93. I was doing a piece on the Cowboys. I asked him what the offense was like.

"‘Oh, you know, the West Coast Offense,' Kosar said. ‘Turner and Zampese and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman. That thing.'

"I used the quote. It was picked up by a West Coast wire reporter, except that he got it screwed up and he attached it to the San Francisco attack that Bill Walsh had used in San Francisco's Super Bowl run of the '80s.

Kosar was talking about then-Washington coach Norv Turner, former New England offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, ex-Chargers coaches Don "Air" Coryell and Sid Gillman.

According to Zimmerman, the "real" West Coast offense is a system that relies upon a brutish power running game and intricate timing between receiver and quarterback, who threads passes as soon as the receiver makes his "break" or turns to catch the ball. It could be anywhere on the field, vertical or horizontal. That's what Bernie was explaining about the Browns above.

Its genesis lies in the deep-passing San Diego State and San Diego Charger teams of the 1960s-80s — coached by Coryell and Gillman. Older readers should remember Chargers quarterbacks John Hadl and Dan Fouts throwing down field all day, and Lance Alworth gracefully hauling in rainbow passes.

The West Coast offense of today is a scheme geared towards short passes to a variety of receivers, including tight ends and running backs, that "stretch" the field horizontally, or from sideline to sideline. The running game relies on finesse blocking.

Zimmerman says the St. Louis Rams – the self-billed Greatest Show On Turf – are the closest thing to the type of offense Kosar was talking about.

According to Zimmerman, Walsh was initially upset when the term was applied to his teams.

Zimmerman's story: "Call it the Walsh Offense, or the Cincinnati Offense," Walsh said, "but not the West Coast Offense. That's something completely different."

In the late 1960s, Walsh was an assistant coach with the Bengals, and ran the original form of the West Coast offense. The Bengals, Zimmerman said, threw downfield often. And that's not the hallmark of today's West Coast offense.

A change in quarterback – from the strong-armed Greg Cook to the weaker Virgil Carter – forced Walsh to shorten the passing attack, and what developed was the offense used today by Detroit, St. Louis, Green Bay, San Francisco and other teams.

But those teams aren't running the true West Coast Offense, no matter what the television commentators and so-called experts tell us.

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in Michigan's Thumb, where he's safe from knaves, fools and Ratbirds. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.


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