Understanding the True West Coast Offense: A tried and tested system is getting a bad rap due to Detroit's lack of success.
By Doug Warren
I find it funny when I hear people knock the "West Coast Offense." Most of the time, it is clear that the knockers have little to no idea what they are knocking, nor do they have a true understanding of the origins of an offensive system whose roots trace back to the late 1940's. So to help those who are interested, and to maybe even help those who aren't, here is a crash course in a philosophy which I believe is to offensive football, what the 4-3 defense (which also originated in the 1950's) is to defensive football.
With little exception, there are really two types of offensive systems used in the NFL today and both of those systems were essentially hatched from the minds of the three true fathers of the modern passing game, Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Don Coryell.
After his playing days at Miami of Ohio, Paul Brown was a legendary head coach in Ohio at Massillon High School. For there, he moved on to lead Ohio State from 1941-43, winning a National Championship for the Buckeyes in 1942. Brown of course gained his greatest fame as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, first in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) from 1946-49, and later in the National Football League (NFL) from 1950-1962. In 1968, Brown returned to coaching when he became the first skipper of the expansion Cincinnati Bengals, where he remained before leaving the sidelines for good in 1975.
Gillman played college ball at Ohio State and for a season the NFL for the Cleveland Rams. He was head coach at Miami of Ohio before and for a short stay at The University of Cincinnati. From there he moved into the professional ranks as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1955-59. Then, Gillman coached the San Diego Chargers of the American Football Conference (AFL) from 1960-69. Gillman returned briefly to coach San Diego for a portion of the 1971 season, and later coached the Houston Oilers from 1973-74.
Paul Brown was a master innovator and administrator who truly brought football into the modern era. He was the first coach to have his linemen form a "passing pocket" of protection around his quarterback. He also developed the "draw play," and was the first coach to extensively use game film to systematically grade his player's performances.
"Paul Brown brought organization into pro football," Gillman recalled years later. "He brought a practice routine. I always felt before Paul Brown, coaches just rolled the ball out onto the field."
The revolutionary Gillman pioneered the concept of stretching the defense vertically. He also was the first coach to extensively utilize his running backs in the passing game. Both Brown and Gillman were pioneers of the timing pattern, still a staple of the modern passing attack.
In an era of pro football best characterized by the Green Bay Packers and their famed "Power Sweep," Gillman's concept was unorthodox, yet simple, use the passing game to set up the run.
"We're going to spread you out horizontally and stretch the perimeter, and were going to stretch the perimeter vertically by establishing the deep pass," Gillman said. "They say if you run well, you can throw well, but I think it's the reverse. If you can throw well, you're going to be able to run. The pass creates a degree of looseness that enables you to run."
"Sid Gillman brought class to the AFL," Oakland Raiders managing general partner Al Davis once said of the man he served under as an assistant coach in San Diego. "Being part of Sid's organization was like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of professional football."
It was in San Diego where Gillman first came in contact with a then unknown coach who had an offensive laboratory of his own on the campus of San Diego State University. The man's name was Don Coryell, who was the head coach of the Aztecs at the time. Coryell would often bring his entire Aztec team over to watch Gillman's Charger practices. Coryell of course would later gain fame in the NFL as the head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973-77, and the San Diego Chargers from 1978-86. Gillman and Coryell would frequently compare notes during their time together in San Diego, so it was no surprise that when Air Coryell took off in the 1970's, it looked much like the old Chargers' offenses of Gillman a decade earlier.
The coaching lineage from these three men stretches into the modern era, as do their many innovations and imprints on today's passing game. However, it was Bill Walsh who took the theories and innovations of these three men to new heights after he became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. Before becoming a head coach in the NFL, Walsh served on John Rauch's Oakland Raider staff in 1966, and then later became offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968-75. He left Cincinnati after the '75 because Brown skipped over him for the head-coaching job and instead went with line coach Bill Johnson. Walsh spent the 1977 season with San Diego as their QB coach under Tommy Prothro, where he had a great influence on the development of a young budding star named Dan Fouts. From there he went on to serve as the head coach of the Stanford Cardinal for two seasons before taking over the reigns of a struggling San Francisco Forty Niner franchise in 1979.
From that point as they say, the rest is history.
Below is an explanation of the Walsh system, written by Bill Walsh himself while he was still head coach at Stanford. While parts of the article maybe dated, as it is now 25 years later, it is still the finest and most understandable explanation of his offense philosophy that I have ever read. This excerpt is taken from the book, Football Coaching Strategies, which was published by the American Football Coaches Association and Human Kinetics Publishing in 1995.
Controlling the Ball With the Pass
My philosophy has been to control the ball with the forward pass. To do that we have to have versatility - versatility in the action and types of passes thrown by the quarterback.
We like the dropback pass. We use a three-step drop pattern, but more often we will use a five-step drop pattern of timed patterns down the field. From there we go to a seven-step drop. When our quarterback takes a seven-step drop, he's allowing the receivers time to maneuver down the field. Therefore, we will use a three-step drop pattern when we are throwing a quickout or hitch or slant which, by and large, the defense is allowing you to complete by their alignment or by their coverage.
The five-step drop pattern for the quarterback calls for a disciplined pattern by the receiver. He runs that pattern the same way every time. He doesn't maneuver to beat the defensive back.
Too often in college football, either the quarterback is standing there waiting for the receiver, or the receiver has broken before the quarterback can throw the ball. These are the biggest flaws you will see in the forward pass. Now when the receiver breaks before the ball can be thrown, the defensive back can adjust to the receiver. Any time the quarterback holds the ball waiting for the receiver to break, the defensive back sees it and breaks on the receiver. So the time pattern is vital.
You can't just drop back pass. You have to be able to keep the defense from zeroing in on your approach. That's why the play pass is vital. By and large, the play-action pass will score the touchdown. The drop back pass will control the ball.
For play-action passing, we have certain blocking fundamentals that we use. We will show different backfield actions with basically the same offensive line blocking. We will go to the play pass as often as we can, especially as we get to the opponent's 25-yard line.
The third category of pass that most people use is what we call the action pass, where your quarterback moves outside. There are a couple of reasons for moving outside. One certainly is to avoid the inside pass rush. For a drop back passing team we'll sprint-out "waggle" as we call it-outside to avoid blitzers who approach straight up the field on us. The other advantage is to bring the quarterback closer to the potential receiver.
We'll get outside to throw the ball and get ourselves closer to the man we want to throw to. When you can get outside, the trajectory of the ball can be flatter because normally there isn't a man between you and the receiver.
The versatility also includes changing your formations. We continuously change receiver width and spacing. We seldom will line up our receiver with the same spacing on two or three plays in a row. If we want to throw the ball to the outside, we will reduce the split of the receiver. We need running room to the outside. We don't want the ball in the air very long. If we want to throw inside, we will extend the split of our receivers, so that there is more maneuvering room to the inside, and spread the defense. Our backs, as many teams know will cheat to get where they have to be. We know that if we throw to backs, the first thing on their mind is how to release out of the backfield. We are quite willing to move the man to get the release and sometimes telegraph what we are doing. We are quite willing to do that with the idea that when we want to break a given tendency, we simply line them up there and run something else.
We will vary the split of the receivers according to the pattern and the coverage and, of course, to add versatility. The biggest problem you will have in the forward pass is when you have to throw the ball a number of times and, with a very limited inventory, you begin to throw the same pattern over and over. You get into trouble.
The argument that you will throw the interception has to be qualified with how much you know about the forward passing game versus the running game. In our last game, our opponent fumbled five times, and we threw no interceptions. That might have been the difference in the game.
One of the factors involved with our success years ago with the Cincinnati Bengals was that we would begin to set a game plan for the opening of the game. We continued that at Stanford. In a given game, say, for instance, against Southern California, we ran the first 12 plays we had decided on in order. Of course, we ran out of lists because the first 12 worked and none worked after that. But the point is we went 12 plays in order, right down the line. We went eight straight games scoring the first time we had the ball. By the time we have completed 8 to 10 plays, we've forced the opponent to adjust to a number of things. We've kept him off balance with the type of thing we were doing, and we pretty much established in a given series what we would come to next.
That's a good approach to offensive football. It forces you to go into that game with a certain calmness. You know where you're going, rather than having to say, "What in the hell do we do now?" Occasionally planned plays don't work, but we keep going. We don't change; we don't worry about it. We try to create an effect on our opponent. The effect is that he feels he has to adjust. We present different looks and dilemmas. We run the ball right at him. We throw the ball over his head. Meanwhile, because we know what the play is, we readily see what their adjustments are. We try to get a line on their first down defenses, but we take it from there.
In Scoring Territory
I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their place-kicker, because right at that point defenses change, the field they can operate in changes, and suddenly their basic offense goes all to pieces.
My contention is that if we are on there 25, we're going for the end zone. Failing at that, we will kick a field goal. In an evenly matched game, I don't want to try to take the ball from their 25 to the goal line by trying to smash it through people, because three out of four times, you won't make it, unless you are superior. Of course, if you are vastly superior it makes very little difference how you do it.
Why? First, every defensive coach in the country is going to his blitzes about right there. The pass coverage, by and large, will be man-to-man coverage. We know that if they don't blitz one down, they're going to blitz the next down, automatically. They'll seldom blitz twice in a row but they'll blitz every other down. If we go a series where there haven't been blitzes on the first two downs, here comes the safety blitz on the third down. So we are looking, at that point, to get into the end zone.
By the style of our football, we'll have somebody to get the ball to a little bit late - just as an outlet to get 4 or 5 yards, to try to keep it. But from the 25 to the 10, we're going for the end zone.
Between our own 10-yard line and the opponent's 25, we operate our field offense. We know that on first down our ball-control passing is vital. By and large, on first-and-10 you'll get a 2-deep zone - zone-type defense. We can drop the ball off to a back late and still make 4 to 5 yards. Those 4 or 5 yards are as important to us as some other team making the same on an option play.
You often will see us run with the ball on second-and-l0, because we want 5 yards. If you run a basic running play, you can get your 5.
At third-and-5, we are right back with a ball-control pass, dumping to a back, and we're making it. If we can make 30 first downs a game, we'll win.
We have standard passes to throw against a goal-line defense. Too often people try to go in there and butt heads with good linebackers on the goal line. Too often they don't make it.
If we get inside that 5-yard line, half the time we are going to throw the ball. Now, if you're marching through somebody, you can just close your eyes and hand the ball off. But when it's very competitive, that goal-line pass is vital. So we have a series of those. We never call them anywhere else on the field.
When we are around their 35-yard line in a short-yardage situation, if we don't see somebody standing deep down the middle, we're probably going to go for the six points.
To make it on third-and-1 we will often throw to a back out of the backfield. Third-and-3 is the toughest of all to make. We have a certain list of runs and a certain list of passes. When we have a third-and-3, we don't grope. We go to it.
Don't isolate throwing the forward pass to a given down and distance. If you are going to throw the ball, you must be willing to throw on first down, not a token pass hoping for the best, but a pass that is designed to get you a certain amount of yardage.
In our ball-control passing, we will use the five-step drop pattern on first down, because we know through the drilling of our quarterback, that we can get 4 or 5 dropping the ball off to a back, who is an outlet, or to a tight end. So we are quite willing to throw a ball-control pass on first down, and then go to our seven-step drop-maneuvering pattern on third down. As you can see, most of our offense is based on ball-control passes, no matter what the situation.