Chalk Dust X’s and O’s: The History of The West Coast Offense

Welcome to another edition of Chalk Dust X’s and O’s, this time examining the revolutionary offense coined, “The West Coast Offense,” largely credited to a singular face in Bill Walsh.

The Background
Bill Walsh was the offensive coordinator under longtime Cleveland and Cincinnati head coach Paul Brown, whose own offense had lit up both the AAFC and NFL during his tenure. In 1969, Greg Cook hit the NFL by storm throwing for 15 TD and 1,854 yards in just 11 starts. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury that would ultimately end what is one of the greatest, ‘what if?’ careers before it could start. As a result, Cincinnati and Bill Walsh were tasked with designing an offense around a quarterback with a below average arm strength wise but good accuracy in the short and intermediate area: Virgil Carter. In 1970 and 1971, Walsh started to create the initial outline of what would come to be known as the West Coast Offense which became full swing by the time Ken Anderson was named starter in 1972.

The offense was an immediate impact with Carter completing 62.2% of his 222 pass attempts in 1971 and Ken Anderson completing 56.8%, 54.4%, 64.9%, and 60.5% of his passes from 1972 – 1975. Walsh, miffed at not being a head coach in Cincinnati and believing Paul Brown was undermining his chances with other NFL clubs, headed to the San Diego Chargers for the 1976 season. In his lone season there, Dan Fouts would complete 57.9% of his 359 pass attempts. After a couple years as head coach at Stanford, Walsh would set the NFL on fire with the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 – 1988 before ending his career as head coach at Stanford again from 1992 – 1994.

Walsh had an uncanny knack for distilling the primary goals of his offense towards his quarterbacks, namely following progression and getting the ball out quickly, while demanding player fits as well. Although his wide receivers were not necessarily burners, they had to have good height and an ability to display ‘field’ speed: Freddie Solomon was 5’11, Dwight Clark was 6’4, John Taylor was 6’1, and Jerry Rice was 6’2. Every offensive player down to the fullback and tight end had to prove they could handle catching the ball as well.

Joe Montana is inextricably linked with Bill Walsh in large part because he was the prototype for the West Coast Offense. He was considered “small” standing at just 6’2″ 200 and had an average arm for throwing downfield. What he made up for it were with his leadership, his intelligence and drive, and his incredible ability to read the defenses and accurately find the open receiver.

Although Montana is the absolute “face” of the West Coast Offense, next to Steve Young under the leadership of Head Coach George Seifert, Walsh was able to ride multiple quarterbacks to success in San Francisco if Montana happened to miss games: Matt Cavanaugh, Jeff Kemp, Mike Moroski, Steve Young, and Bob Gagliano.

Equally dominant during Walsh’s tenure as head coach were running back Wendell Tyler, fullback/running back Roger Craig, and fullback Tom Rathman. Tyler ran for almost 3,000 yards from 1983 – 1985 while Craig became the first player in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards and get 1,000 yards receiving in the same year. From 1983 – 1988 Craig ran for over 5,500 yards and had over 3,700 yards receiving. Rathman was equally instrumental from 1986 – 1988 with 85 catches over those 3 years.

The Coaching Tree
Just as strongly tied to Walsh is his coaching tree and the numerous branches that have spun off as a result of his offensive system in San Francisco. The following coaches eventually became head coaches, nearly all installing the West Coast Offense, with many winning Super Bowls on their own and further cementing the WCO and the best offense in the NFL. Sorted by last name.

– Dennis Green: WR Coach for San Francisco from 1986 – 1988.
– Jon Gruden: Assistant for San Francisco in 1990 and Green Bay in 1992. WR Coach for Green Bay from 1993 – 1994 under Mike Holmgren.
– Mike Holmgren: QB Coach for San Francisco from 1986 – 1988. Offensive Coordinator from 1989 – 1991 under George Seifert.
– Gary Kubiak: QB Coach for San Francisco in 1994. Offensive Coordinator under Mike Shanahan in Denver from 1995 – 2005.
– Steve Mariucci: QB Coach for Green Bay from 1992 – 1995 under Mike Holmgren.
– Mike McCarthy: QB Coach for Kansas City from 1995 – 1998 under Marty Schottenheimer.
– Andy Reid: Assistant for Green Bay from 1992 – 1994 and OL coach from 1995 – 1996 under Mike Holmgren.
– Mike Shanahan: Offensive Coordinator for San Francisco from 1992 – 1994.
– Sam Wyche: Offensive Coordinator for San Francisco from 1979 – 1982.

Coaches since Bill Walsh have continued to tinker with the offense, putting their own spin on terminology, route combinations, and read progressions. From a 1999 article written by Mike Preston for the Baltimore Sun, several coaches added wrinkles to the West Coast Offense, “Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren, now with the Seattle Seahawks, likes to use a lot of I-formation running plays and screen passes. The Broncos’ Shanahan has added the shotgun and more seven-step drops by the quarterback. Billick has his own wrinkles, too. Like Shanahan, he has a shotgun and various pass-protection schemes. Billick also incorporated some of former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs’ running plays — traps and counters — into the Vikings’ offense.”

One interesting insight offered by Brian Billick relates to the use of personnel, “He (Bill Walsh) thought defenses picked up on tendencies based on down, distance, and personnel, and if you maintained the same personnel, then you take away one of their keys. Plus, you have your best players on the field at all times.” This is interesting to note given the modern day usage of ever expanding role players designated to provide maximum efficiency for their skill in pass protection on 3rd down or their receiving ability to allow a running back to be used as a wide receiver.

What Makes It So Successful?
At its basic core, it is a very simplistic offense, especially on the passing side of the offense. Most plays are designed to be quick hitting predicated on 3 or 5 step drops with a maximum of 3 reads on any given pass play. Therein, the reads themselves are kept usually to just one side of the field to allow for quicker decision making usually working long to short. The routes are also pretty simple ranging from shallow crosses to square-in to the popular slant route inside.

The biggest issue and one that recent coaches have tried to curtail or get around, with varying degrees of success, includes the sheer volume of given plays overall. Quarterback Brett Favre, coming off a very good 1994 season, made the remark on its difficulty, “It takes a long time to learn it,” he said. “There are five receivers, over 100 different formations, and 20 different pass protections.”

The use of shifting also helped to declare defenses and whether they are playing man coverage or zone coverage as well as allowing more favorable match ups to both the receivers as well as clearing out areas underneath for the running backs to leak out to catch the ball.

Here is an example of a 5 step drop timed pattern. Take note of the read progression being primarily 3 reads (out to in) or 2 reads (deep to short) depending upon coverage. Note the “play” after which is considered an altogether different play yet has nearly the exact same read progression with the only alteration being the routes the running backs take.

An absolutely great video from Oakland Raider at Youtube highlights the 2000 NFL Season of the Oakland Raiders under then head coach Jon Gruden, whom had learned the West Coast Offense at both Green Bay. Despite the plethora of defensive clips and the length of the video, it is worth watching to get a feel for both the timing needed as well as the bevy of weapons utilized.

The mid 1990’s were the unofficial glory years of the West Coast Offense with several successful teams then helmed by Bill Walsh influenced disciples. As much as the offense was lauded for being a pass happy system or leaning heavily towards the pass, as Bill Walsh had initially decreed to pass to get the lead and run to win the game (in comparison to the old fashioned run to set up the pass belief), the running game was no slouch either. Especially with the Denver Broncos where Mike Shanahan had married the WCO with the Zone Blocking scheme made famous by Alex Gibbs. As an example of how dominant the West Coast Offense was becoming, let us take a look at the notable teams using it during the 1996 season. From 1994 – 2000, the West Coast Offense was the offense to run and many teams clamored to join the bandwagon.

– Denver Broncos (HC Mike Shanahan): QB John Elway threw for 3,328 yards with 26 TD. RB Terrell Davis ran for 1,538 yards and hauled in 36 passes. FB Aaron Craver hauled in 39 passes.
– Green Bay Packers (HC Mike Holmgren): QB Brett Favre threw for 3,899 yards with 39 TD. RBs Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens combined to run for 1,465 yards and haul in 62 passes.
– Minnesota Vikings (OC Brian Billick): QBs Brad Johnson & Warren Moon threw for 3,868 yards with 24 TD. RBs Robert Smith & Leroy Hoard combined to run for 1,112 yards and hauled in 17 passes. Amp Lee hauled in 54 passes as the 3rd Down running back.
– Philadelphia Eagles (OC Jon Gruden): QBs Ty Detmer & Rodney Peete threw for 3,903 yards with 18 TD. RB Ricky Watters ran for 1,411 yards and hauled in 51 passes.
– San Francisco 49ers (OC Marc Trestman): QBs Steve Young & Elvis Grbac threw for 3,646 yards with 22 TD. RBs Terry Kirby & Derek Loville combined to run for 788 yards but hauled in 68 passes. FB Tommy Vardell hauled in 28 passes.

The Beneficiaries of the WCO
One of the biggest beneficiaries in the West Coast Offense were the running backs and fullbacks and it is easy to see with such plays as the following. Another quick timing pass with 2 quick reads based on the play of the opposing defense. With such a quick read, it also makes it more difficult for the defense to have sufficient time to get into the backfield and sack the quarterback.

More overlooked were the quarterbacks themselves. Now, you could draft a shorter quarterback who may have only stood 6’1 or 6’2 and lacked the above average arm needed to throw the ball 55 yards through the air downfield or throw a quick out 20 yards down the field. With the reliance on mobility, intelligence, and accuracy, the West Coast Offense in many ways was a forerunner to the modern day offenses such as the Air Raid that rely on quick passes to get positive yardage. One argument could be made that the Air Raid is the natural evolution of the West Coast Offense except greatly simplified down to a mere handful of pass plays and running plays.

Such late round “finds” at quarterback such as Matt Hasselbeck have had success while running the West Coast Offense because it doesn’t rely on the prototype skill set. From 2003 – 2007 while playing under Mike Holmgren, Matt completed 61.1% of his passes with 118 touchdowns to just 66 interceptions. Aaron Brooks was enough quarterback whom was seen as athletic but lacked an elite arm, falling to the 4th Round of the 1999 NFL Draft. From 2001 – 2004 he would complete 56.4% of his passes but throw 98 touchdowns to 61 interceptions.

Credit to Seattle Times

Michael Vick is another ‘prototype’ West Coast Offense quarterback despite his lack of innate accuracy. He stands just 6’0 but was productive under Jim L. Mora in Atlanta (11 more touchdowns than interceptions in a 3 year span) and carried that to Philadelphia under Andy Reid completing 62.6% of his passes in 2010 with 21 touchdowns despite only starting 11 games. The next year, he completed 59.8% of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns.

Arguably the most overlooked position is at wide receiver, where the bigger body size can transform into superstars or even very solid players in their own rights despite the attention lavished onto the quarterbacks (and running backs depending upon the team).

During his “West Coast” tenure from 1996 – 2005, first with San Francisco then Philadelphia, Terrell Owens helped usher in the prototype size/speed receiver after the heyday of Jerry Rice and prior to the era of Calvin Johnson in Detroit. He had over 10,000 yards receiving and 101 touchdowns.

Credit to m3lomanUP for the video displaying just how dominant both Terrell Owens and the passing system were in 2003.

Many fans forget but Cris Carter was 6’3 and over 200 pounds himself, appropriately peaking in Minnesota with Brian Billick serving as the offensive coordinator of the Vikings from 1995 – 1998 which saw Carter get 5,870 yards receiving and 59 touchdowns. Carter’s hands in particular were on display including back to back seasons with 122 catches and 96 catches in 1996.

Tim Brown also flourished under Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan despite reaching his mid 30’s in the West Coast Offense. Brown in 1999 and 2000 had yard per catches of 14.9 and 14.8, totals not seen since his physical prime in the early 1990s. Jerry Rice too saw an improvement as he jumped to 1,139 yards and 1,211 yards receiving upon joining the Oakland Raiders under Gruden.

Brett Favre helped turn nearly any Green Bay Packer wide receiver into a superstar in the mid to late 1990’s after a career ending injury ended Sterling Sharpe’s career.

1995: Robert Brooks has 102 catches for 1,497 yards.
1996: Antonio Freeman has 56 catches for 933 yards. Don Beebe has 699 yards on just 39 catches.
1997: Antonio Freeman tops 1,200 yards and Robert Brooks tops 1,000 yards receiving.
1998: Antonio Freeman has 84 catches for 1,424 yards.
1999: Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder each top 1,000 yards receiving.

The West Coast Offense had a way of turning ordinary wide receivers into breakout stars including Darrell Jackson in Seattle (whom had 3 1,000 yard years) and Joe Horn in New Orleans (whom had 4 years over 1,250 yards receiving).

The Biggest Beneficiary
The tight end became the downfield receiving threat as a result of this offense and nearly every great receiving tight end since the mid 1980’s has this offense to thank for the explosion of receiving statistics.

Tony Gonzalez learned the offense in 1996 at the University of California under Steve Mariucci and refined himself in the NFL while with the Kansas City Chiefs. Shannon Sharpe became a Hall of Famer largely as a result of the introduction of the offense in Denver thanks to Mike Shanahan.

Alge Crumpler became a household name at tight end in the mid 2000’s thanks to the West Coast Offense including 3 straight years over 770 yards receiving from 2004 – 2006.

Credit to Atlanta Journal Constitution

Wesley Walls was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but bounced around before latching with the Carolina Panthers. He turned into a capable receiver but peaked in 1999 under WCO coach Gil Haskell with a career year: 63 catches for 822 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The reason Walls never got his career going in San Francisco was thanks to Brent Jones, whom was busy becoming a rival of Jay Novacek in Dallas, while getting attention for his own receiving prowess. In the early 1990’s, Jones had 4 seasons with over 620 yards receiving and added 595 in 1995 while playing through injury.

Fans looking at the ‘new breed’ of tight ends such as Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, and Rob Gronkowski only need to look back nearly 20 years to realize this is not a revolution but rather a continuation of the template largely started and fine tuned throughout the 1990’s as West Coast Offense coaches molded and utilized the athletic tight ends more and more.

Where Do We Go?
The West Coast Offense has continued to be relied upon with a consistent reputation throughout NFL circles and there are still a handful of teams utilizing the offense even as the era of the Spread Offense and Read Option attack make their own waves at the highest level of football.

The teams to follow this season in the NFL if you want to see the West Coast Offense in action. Several have spun off their own tweaked iterations but still remain close to the core philosophy.
– Chicago Bears: HC Marc Trestman, OC Aaron Kromer
– Green Bay Packers: HC Mike McCarthy, OC Tom Clements
– Houston Texans: HC Gary Kubiak, OC Rick Dennison
– Indianapolis Colts: HC Chuck Pagano, OC Pep Hamilton
– Kansas City Chiefs: HC Andy Reid, OC Doug Pederson
– Miami Dolphins: HC Joe Philbin, OC Mike Sherman
– San Francisco 49ers: HC John Harbaugh, OC Greg Roman
– Washington Redskins: HC Mike Shanahan, OC Kyle Shanahan

Credit to Oregon Live’s blog for the main feature image


Written by David Hunter

David Hunter enjoys writing about wrestling, sports, music, and horror!

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