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Tuesday, 10 August 2010 , by : Chris Brown, SmartFootball.com
Is it possible to run the “West Coast Offense” — the offense credited to Bill Walsh and those of his “coaching tree” — at any level other than the NFL? The answer is not necessarily clear. Indeed, despite being the most prevalent offense in the NFL, the WCO seems designed to overwhelm any college or high school team attempting to install it, whether from the voluminous playbook, playcalls that sound like something from NASA, or the difficult throws that only NFL guys can make. Despite its wonderful aspects and results, there’s a reason that many a high school coach with the best of intentions has junked the West Coast Offense after a few miserable games to return to some simpler and more trusted approach that has the advantage of being something his kids can actually do.
One, two, three, throw.
Yet it must be possible to run the west coast offense at the lower levels, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the most important elements of the offense can definitely be applied to the lower levels, while Jon Gruden’s extensive call sheets can be left aside. The no is just that: you won’t be able to run every formation, motion, and play in Holmgren’s Packers playbook, but fortunately you don’t have to. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about installing the WCO. The wrong way is to download a WCO playbook and try to install Walsh’s verbatim. That approach is also known as suicide. Instead, to use the offense at the lower levels (including college) — or even to merely understand why the WCO and is such a good offense — it’s necessary to focus on the offense’s core principles.
1. Timing-based, ball control passing game. Routes are timed to match receiver steps and quarterback steps, with a healthy mix between 3-step and 5-step drops. It’s not about long bombs (though it has these too), but instead about efficiency. This is probably Walsh’s defining legacy. Most of Walsh’s plays existed before he came around — you can find Paul Brown and Sid Gillman using them, among others — but Walsh’s passing game exploded because he was essentially the passing game’s first risk manager. Although quarterbacks had long been able to sling the ball — for example, Joe Namath threw for over 4,000 in 1967 — Walsh’s quarterbacks became great by what they didn’t do: they didn’t throw incompletions (Walsh’s quarterbacks consistently completed over 60% of their passes, and occasionally closer to 70%), they didn’t throw
interceptions (the interception rate per pass attempt went way down) ; and they didn’t take sacks, owing to Walsh’s meticulousness about their not holding on to the ball too long. To compare this to the prior generation of signal callers, in 1977 the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl despite Ken Stabler’s 20 interceptions; in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite Terry Bradshaw’s 20 interceptions; and, in 1978, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and won more games … despite the fact that Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions. (In 2009, only three quarterbacks threw 20 or more interceptions: two rookies, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, and Jay Cutler, who had some issues in that department.) Moreover, if you roll the relevant passing stats together you get a useful stat called “Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt,” which averages how many yards are achieved per passing attempt (which usefully combines completion percentage and average yards gained per completion), with the adjusted part being the subtraction of yards to account for interceptions. Pro-Football-Reference.com has an in house version of Adj. YPA quite similar to what I’ve described, and the upshot is that Walsh’s quarterbacks, Montana and Young, average between one and a half and two adjusted yards per pass attempt more than Hall of Famers from an older generation, like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Stabler, Bob Griese, and so on. The difference was the efficiency, the careful approach, and the timing. All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that it’s really important to focus on the details. It’s one thing to say that the WCO “treated short passes like runs” and used a “ball control approach to the passing game,” but it’s another to make pass plays so routine that they really become as second nature to the players as a handoff off-tackle. You do that through intense drill-work and matching routes, reads, and drops.
2. Meticulous game planning. If his legacy is not about reducing the risks of throwing the ball through a disciplined approach, it is by revolutionizing how coaches prepare for games through simple organization: scripting plays, analyzing tendencies, self-scouting, probing defenses to look for weaknesses, and so on. As with his plays, none of Walsh’s innovations here were truly new, but his approach obviously worked because not only was his success outsized but so has been the success of those who coached with him — those that were able to observe his methods. Applied to the lower levels, it is about having a plan for game planning, designing practices around what actually happens in games and using as many “situational” or “game-like” scenarios as possible, and treating the creation of the scripted plan and playcall sheet as tools to be organized during the game (when you have the least time to think and things are craziest). You don’t need to produce 200 page scouting reports (like this one which Mike Shanahan and co. made for the Denver Broncos as they prepared for the Indy Colts in 2002) but the creation of a thorough plan will make you a better coach and will make your practices more focused on the things that matter.
3. “Balance” between running versus passing. Now, I have written a lot about notions of balance but and how I don’t think traditional notions — an equal number of runs or passes or an equal amount of passing and rushing yardage — is a useful way to think about the concept. But there is no doubt that the West Coast Offense wants to be balanced in a meaningful way: the defense must fear both the run and the pass. Now, again, the WCO is a pass-first offense, so I think the best way to think about whether your team has sufficient balance is to contrast the offense with offenses that don’t care about balance, like the Airraid teams or run-heavy option squads. And the best way I know of to determine that is to ask whether the play-action pass is a legitimate threat. For many pass-first spreads, the play-action pass is a non-starter because the run is an afterthought. But it is also the main source of the West Coast Offense’s explosive plays.
Indeed, Walsh as Walsh explained: “The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral part of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very firedup to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.” “In highly competitive football, it is very unlikely that you will be able to run the ball so effectively that you will not need to do anything else to move the football. There is no question that having the play-pass, as a part of your offensive arsenal, can allow you to get a key first down or big chunks of yardage.” And when do you need those kinds of play-action passes? When you’re in the scoring zone: “I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their placekicker, 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 their 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.” The bottom line is that you must be able to run the ball enough and well enough to make the play-action passes go. The rest is ball-control passing and getting the ball to the playmakers. If you use ball control passes, the draw play, base runs, and well-practiced play-action passes, you’ll know by the defense’s reactions (Is the safety flying up for the run? Are the linebackers respecting our slot receivers? Do the linebackers begin each play with their pass drops?) whether they are sufficiently respecting your run game or not. And you use those reactions to burn them.
4. Keep it limited. This is where you must differ from the Walsh offense, or the Holmgren offense, or the Sean Payton offense, or any other pro coach. At the lower levels — including college — you don’t need a thousand plays. You need a core set of plays that fit together. You don’t need 15 versions of the same flat pass and no good Cover 4 beater. My recommendation is to limit yourself when running the West Coast Offense at lower levels by picking around 10 or so pass plays and 5-6 run plays (along with screens, bootlegs, and other constraint plays). [Ed Note: I didn't mention protections -- you need one or two versatile protection schemes as well as some kind of roll-out or sprint out scheme; most WCO playbooks have way too many different protections.] You must then figure out a systematic way to mesh your playcalls, play-action, and so on in both a huddle and no-huddle environment, and then get your Vince Lombardi on and simply practice these plays repeatedly until you get unbelievable at them. Remember, it’s a waste of time to practice and install plays that will not get used, and I’d argue it’s just as much of a waste to practice plays that you only use a few times. Conceptualizing your offense makes the process of keeping the necessary and throwing out the unnecessary much easier.
5. Calling the game. If you’ve done all of the above, this part should be (relatively) simple, albeit stressful. The plays have been selected, they have been practiced repeatedly, the players know which ones are in the game plan, and the game plan itself is well organized and provides logical responses to the various threats the defense may present. Of course, during the game you get some unexpected blitz or other wrinkle you hadn’t prepared for, but the point is not to eliminate this risk but to instead reduce it. Soon you settle down and realize that it isn’t so different than what you’d practiced, and then you’re picking it up and getting big yards. Each playcall seems to indicate the counter and the following play; and the quarterback, insofar as you’ve given him freedom, is putting you in good position. In other words, the method works: it makes mortals into great play-callers, through the magic of preparation.
6. Personnel. I have purposefully saved this until late in the discussion. Not because personnel is unimportant — anything but — but instead because at the lower levels your control over it varies. In the NFL if you need a tight-end or fullback or wideout you draft or hire them; in high school you might not be so lucky. I personally think you can be “West Coast” with four wides, three wides and a tight end and running back, three wides and two halfbacks, or with the traditional personnel — a tight-end and a fullback. The key is to make sure your concepts are teachable across personnel groups and formations. It would be silly to have to reteach your whole offense every year because this season you’ll predominantly be using a slot receiver instead of a fullback or tight-end. The whole point of the West Coast Offense and all the “multiplicity” and formationing is that you can take advantage of your best 11 players every year. The related thought here is that one adjective used to describe the WCO is “multiple.” When people think of the offense they think of motions, shifts, and multiple formations. I haven’t discussed this much because I think it is a subset of the game planning and personnel discussion: all of that is only worth it if there is a point, or some specific matchup or numbers advantage to be gained. The other reason I haven’t mentioned it is because each team has to decide their identity: you can be “West Coast” and use few shifts or motions and a handful of formations and give your quarterback freedom to check, or you can be “West Coast” and use a lot of shifts and motions and so on to try to gain certain advantages on a given play. It’s a different discussion.
7. To mobile QB or not to mobile QB? The last consideration is old but has a modern twist: what type of run game will you marry the offense with? One reason the WCO has survived is because the running game has evolved from man-blocked schemes with some Wing-T influence to today’s uber-prevalent zone blocking schemes. The type of run scheme you choose will dictate your formations, though not necessarily your approach — i.e. it’s harder to use zone schemes with traditional splitbacks. But the more interesting question is whether you will adapt spread principles into your West Coast Offense. NFL teams are wrestling with this quite directly. The problem is that, by trying to do more, you risk being able to do nothing well. Yet I still think most (though not all) of the zone-read and related concepts are simple enough to fit right in with the rest of the WCO, with only marginal additional teaching required. Just make sure you spend enough time on the timing of the passing game first.
I’d love to hear additional thoughts from those seasoned in coaching the West Coast Offense, at any level. Below are some links to additional reading and watching: - The NFL Offense: What is it? Why does every team use it? And how does it differ from college? - westcoastoffense.com - Airraid Info (condensed, pass-first derivative of the WCO) - Mike Shanahan on Playcalling - Brian Billick on the West Coast Offense
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