Defining the West Coast Offense (WCO) is a difficult task. The WCO is not merely a certain type of plays being run, but a total commitment to a different kind of offensive philosophy. Its roots go back to Bill Walsh who really first started to implement this attack when he was an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh later refined his system as head coach of Stanford University and the San Francisco 49ers (hence the catch-phrase “West Coast Offense”). Walsh’s “WCO disciples” now populate many coaching spots throughout the league — men such as Packer Head Coach Mike Holmgren, Viking Head Coach Dennis Green, Bronco Head Coach Mike Shanahan, Eagles Head Coach Ray Rhodes, and of course, Giants Head Coach Jim Fassel.
Traditional NFL dogma says that championships are won by teams who run the ball well and play very good defense. “Passing teams” are not likely to compete successfully at the next level because of the risks inherent in that type of offense. Unquestionably, passing is far riskier than running the ball. Not only is there a greater chance of turnovers, but a passing team runs the great risk of losing the battle for field position. Not to sound cliche, but football basically is a game of field position. A ten yard holding penalty or sack is not only a drive killer, but it costs valuable territory in the field position war. Moreover, incompletions can be just as deadly. An offense facing a 2nd-and-6 or 3rd-and-2 is far less predictable than one facing a 2nd-and-10 or 3rd-and-7. Most traditionalists thus argue that the key to offensive success is to run the football and stay out of those predictable situations and, at the same time, don’t lose the game of field position. They also argue that strong rushing attacks are not vulnerable like passing attacks to changes in weather conditions. This is the heart of the offensive philosophy that former Giants’ coaches such as Bill Parcells and Dan Reeves subscribe to.
However, to implement such a traditional strategy and win a championship, a team must be fortunate enough to put together a dominant offensive line (like the one the Cowboys assembled in the early 90′s), have an outstanding running back, and play great defense. Most teams are not that fortunate. Average NFL rushing attacks can be stopped by good defenses. Teams without more sophisticated passing attacks are too one-dimensional unless they are truly dominant in the ground game. In addition, without an outstanding defense, this type of offensive philosophy rarely succeeds at the next level because it cannot generate enough points on the scoreboard.
Bill Walsh said that there is another option. Traditional passing attacks focus more on getting the ball to the wide receivers down the field — to vertically stretch the field. This is the style of attack that the Oakland Raiders became famous for in the 1970′s. Walsh’s approach — the West Coast Offense — says there are other ways to attack a defense through the air that are far less risky than the traditional passing game. This approach is less risky BECAUSE it is less likely to cause turnovers, lose the time of possession battle (from three-and-out series), and lose the field position battle (from sacks and holding penalties) than a traditional passing offense. Walsh’s attack:
- Stretches a defense horizontally as well as vertically. A vertical passing attack stretches a defense down the field and attempts to expose deep coverage (the cornerbacks and safeties). A horizontal passing attack stretches the field from sideline-to-sideline and attempts to expose the underneath coverage (the linebackers and sometimes the strong safety). This is done primarily by using the running backs and tight ends in the passing offense. In the WCO, the running back and tight end position is not an afterthought. In the WCO, the running back and tight end are FEATURED receivers. Passes to running backs and tight ends are usually short, safe, quick throws for the quarterback. They are designed to take advantage of linebackers who in many cases are not strong in coverage. Now many NFL offenses pass to running backs and tight ends, but how many FEATURE the running back or tight end? An easy clue to find out if you are looking at a WCO is to look at the reception leaders for a ball club in terms of position. Are the running backs near the top of the list? The combination of a vertical and horizontal attack spreads the field out and makes defense difficult.
- Attempts to create mismatches or confusion on the defense. This can be done in a number of ways. First, a team can vary its offensive formation and present the defense with a wide variety of looks: 4 WR sets, 3 WR sets, 2 TE sets, etc. Secondly, an offense can attack a defense with more receivers than it is prepared to cover. A defense may not be ready for a pass to a halfback or fullback in certain situations, for instance. In the 2-WR, 2-RB, 1-TE base set, any of these five players can be THE PRIMARY receiver at any given time. Third, by using motion, an offense can force a defense to change in ways it doesn’t want to. For example, by putting a wide receiver in motion, a team can force a strong safety to cover rather than play the run and force a free safety to play the run rather than cover. By moving a running back out wide, a team can force a strong run defending linebacker away from the line of scrimmage. Varying formation and using motion can also isolate a particular defensive player on an offensive player. Do you remember the 1986 Giants-49ers playoff game and the play where WR Jerry Rice was running for a touchdown but fumbled the ball? How did Rice get so open on the play? Well, the 49ers used motion and formation to force the Giants to cover Rice with FS Herb Welch. That was clearly a mismatch and confused the defense.
- Throws the football on any down or distance. Passing becomes much easier when teams expect you to run in a certain situation. Play-action pass on 2nd-and-short can be deadly. This is how the Giants beat the Lions in overtime this year. On paper, running seems like the safer bet in this situation, but if the defense is loaded up to stop the run, a game winning play can result.
- Keeps possession of the ball by using the short and intermediate pass just like a team would do so by running the ball. Ball control offense can be obtained by passing the ball as well as running it. Again, short passes to the backs and tight ends are key. Intermediate passes to receivers are also important. Varying formations and routes help to confuse the defense. Shallow crossing routes, slants, and quick outs are common receiver routes in the WCO. So are screen and swing passes to the running backs.
- Attempts to maximize personnel strengths and minimize personnel weaknesses. Regardless of position, the best offensive weapon on the team often becomes the centerpiece of the offense. In SF, it is has been WR Jerry Rice, in Philadelphia, it is RB Ricky Watters, in Denver, it is TE Shannon Sharpe, in AZ under Jim Fassel, it was FB Larry Centers. On the Giants, Fassel had envisioned Hilliard and Barber, but injuries to those players has had him using Charles Way.
By doing all of these things, a passing attack become multidimensional and is therefore difficult to defend. By spreading out and confusing the defense, running the football also becomes much easier. Throwing short to running backs and tight ends may not at first result in big yardage, but by forcing a defense to play back on its heels and to react to what you are doing on offense, big gains will result from breakdowns in coverage and poor tackling.
Tempo and timing are very much part of the WCO. Since an offense wants to dictate to a defense, rather than the other way around, an offensive team can disrupt and confuse its opponent by working at a faster tempo. Call the play, get to the line of scrimmage quickly, snap the ball quickly, hurry back to the huddle. Don’t allow the defense time enough to think or catch its breath. Eventually you will see elements of the no-huddle in the Giants’ playbook.
Timing is vitally important. Since the WCO attempts to be a low-risk offense, the quarterback is most often called upon to get rid of the ball quickly so sacks and holding penalties don’t result. It is not unusual to see the quarterback take a quick 3-step drop and fire the football. The quarterback and the receivers must have their timing down. If the quarterback isn’t ready to throw or the receiver isn’t ready to catch at the proper moment, the play may break down. The system is very cerebral. Not just for the quarterback, but for everyone on offense. There are pre-and post-snap reads for everyone to make, including the wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. Solid pass protection is a must, though once the system is in place and working well, the quickness of the offense generally works to the advantage of the offensive linemen who, don’t have to hold blocks as long, and not always in obvious passing or obvious running situations.
The nice thing about the offense however is that (1) on any given pass play, a quarterback will have a variety of options, especially on the side of the field that the play is designed to go, and (2) because of this, a receiver is usually open. For example, on a pass play to the strongside, the flanker may be called to run deep down the field, the tight end may be called to run an intermediate out route, and the fullback may be called to run a swing pass. If the flanker and tight end are covered, the quarterback should be able to dump the ball off to the back. Do you wonder why the Giants sometimes pass to a back who isn’t past the first down marker on a 3rd down play? This is why. The other options are covered. Remember, football is a game of field position. At worst, the back picks up a few yards and the Giants punt. There is no incompletion, no sack, no interception. Positive yards are gained in the field position war (remember this is the same strategy a traditional running attack tries to accomplish). At best, the back breaks a tackle and picks up the first down. Don’t force the issue, don’t make mistakes. This is supposed to be a low risk offense. A complimentary benefit is that completions will raise a quarterback’s confidence level.
Because all five receivers (flanker, split end, halfback, fullback, tight end) are involved in the offense, a defense is less likely to be able to concentrate on any one threat. By utilizing the backs in pass patterns, the Giants can help prevent the undercoverage (linebackers and strong safety) from helping out on the flanker and split end. Using our example in the paragraph above, such a play not only stretches the offense vertically (the route of the flanker), but forces the undercoverage to focus on the tight end and fullback. Remember, this play is going to the right. Say furthermore, that the situation is 2nd-and-4 and the Giants pull their guards to the left and QB Danny Kanell fakes a hand-off to HB Tyrone Wheatley who is also running left. Defenders, especially linebackers, are often taught to follow the guards. If the strongside linebacker AND/OR the strong safety bite on the play-action, an easy completion should result to the fullback or tight end. At the same time, what if the play wasn’t a fake and Kanell did hand off to Wheatley? The linebacker and safety may hesitate to come up and help defend the run (knowing that they are facing a WCO). See how difficult the WCO can be to defend?
In a WCO, a
- quarterback must be a poised leader who manages a team well. He should be accurate and be able to throw all the different types of passes. He needs to quickly read defenses and get rid of the ball quickly. Because of the deception involved in the WCO, a good ball handler is a big plus. Most importantly, a quarterback’s teammates must believe in him.
- wide receivers must be good (precise) route runners. They need to be able to read defenses and adjust their routes during the play based on the coverage as it develops. They should have good hands, be quick in and out of their cuts (to separate from defenders), and be good runners after the catch (the WCO depends on yards after the catch).
- tight ends must be able to read defenses, get open, and make the clutch catch over the middle of the defense. Getting off the line of scrimmage quickly is critical.
- running backs must be good receivers, have good hands and be able to pick up the blitz. Elusiveness is also a big plus since the running back will be able to pick up big yardage after the catch if he can make one or two defenders miss.
All these players must be performers who make plays in key situations. They must be bright, competitive, hard working, and confident. These intangibles are difficult to measure, but they are often far more important to the success of the offensive football team than pure athletic ability. Key building blocks of Walsh’s offense: Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, and Jerry Rice, were NOT best available athlete-types. Montana was an averaged-sized guy with an average arm strength. Rice and Clark did not time well, but had what Walsh called great 30-60 yard speed and tremendous football smarts. Neither guy could break a 4.4 forty, but they knew how to create separation, get open, and once they saw daylight, they were seldom caught from behind. The Giants hope they have such a WR in Ike Hilliard.
When the various parts are all in place and healthy, the WCO operates like a well-oiled machine and the offense is virtually impossible to defend. Nevertheless, a team still needs a solid offensive line and running game. Jim Fassel has said that he intends to keep the Giants’ power running game and augment it with the WCO. There will be some limitations in doing so. For one, the Giants’ offensive linemen aren’t very mobile. Running sweeps and screens may prove difficult. But recent 49er history has proven that a team without a solid offensive line and running game will not be able to implement the WCO very effectively.
Because the system is so complicated and the options virtually limitless, it will take a few years for the Giant players to completely understand the system. Eventually, it will become second nature and new Giants will be weaned on it soon after they are drafted or signed. The WCO is constantly evolving as well as defenses in the league try to disrupt or defeat the system. Regardless, Giant fans should get ready for some truly exciting offensive football.
- Football’s West Coast Offense. Frank Henderson and Mel Olson. 1997. ISBN 0-88011-662-5.
- Building a Champion. Bill Walsh and Glenn Dickey. 1992. ISBN 0-31292-579-4.