|Thursday, October 17
Updated: October 25, 1:20 PM ET
An offense by any other name ...
By Len Pasquarelli
Were the history of the West Coast offense to be penned in Biblical style, it would certainly be heavy into "begats," an archaic verb but one appropriate to describe the lineage of a popular design used by a preponderance of NFL coaches and coordinators.
Right in the heart of Middle America.
It was Gillman, the Hall of Fame offensive innovator and renowned father of the modern passing game, who put down a foundation for the multifaceted attack out West. But it was Walsh, while an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals in the early '70s and desperate to concoct an aerial game that would dovetail with the talents of quarterback Virgil Carter, who took the blueprint to the next level.
The octogenarian Gillman, a keen student of the modern game but recently in failing health, once termed as "brilliant stuff" the basic mechanics of the West Coast offense as outlined by Walsh. Modesty forbade Gillman, who by phone would carry on hours-long tutorials for reporters he knew well, from accepting his just due for its origins. But he often allowed himself a good laugh over the fact the offense, in its best-known incarnation, was popularized while Walsh was a West Coast expatriate.
"Probably not sexy enough," said Walsh, the prolific progenitor of a band of disciples who tutor a passing game based largely on timing and precision. "There's not the same pizzazz to it. But it really is a misnomer, even after all these years, to call it the West Coast offense."
Credit the much-overused moniker to former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar, a history buff of sorts and enough of a student of the game to realize that the rudiments of the basic design merged concepts of masterful offensive visionaries like Gillman, Walsh, Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese. Yeah, you guessed it -- all guys with geographic ties to the West Coast.
Blame the conceptual germ of the West Coast offense, however, on the dire need of Walsh to overhaul a Bengals offense that sorely required makeover when quarterback Greg Cook suffered what amounted to a career-ending arm injury in 1969.
Under the marvelously gifted Cook, who might long ago have been inducted into the Hall of Fame had his promising career not been cut tragically short, the Bengals were the consummate upfield team. Remember, Walsh had been on the Oakland Raiders staff with Al Davis and bought heavily into the ideal of the vertical passing game.
Cook averaged a gaudy 17.5 yards per completion in 1969. Bengals tight ends Bob Trumpy and Chip Myers averaged more than 20 yards per catch. Even a modestly talented wide receiver like Eric Crabtree averaged 21.4 yards in the bombs away attack that Walsh stewarded. Then came the injury to Cook and the end of verticality in the Cincinnati offense.
The initial Walsh concept was for a standard pro-set offense -- two backs in split alignment, two wide receivers and a tight end -- designed to get the ball quickly from the quarterback to the skill-position players. The idea was to release all five of the eligible receivers at the same time, relying on three- and five-step drops by the quarterback to compensate for most blocking breakdowns, and to throw the ball crisply and on the break.
Perhaps the most revolutionary twists: Despite being groomed by Davis in a vertical passing game, Walsh decided to stretch secondaries horizontally as well, forcing slower linebackers and safeties into coverages. He believed in throwing on any down, with the simple four-yard pass replacing many of the rushing plays, and he understood that if bigger receivers were able to break just one tackle, one of those four-yard passes could become a 20-yard gain.
Precision timing, with receivers running hard into and out of their cuts, was a key. From multiple formations, there were myriad possibilities, multiplied even more by motioning players before the snap.
"Those things were kind of the linchpins," Walsh said. "We demanded that everyone be a good receiver and that everyone have great discipline. I think those are still the foundations of the offense."
Certainly those elements are the common denominators of any offense that is today dubbed a West Coast attack. But in the 30-plus years since Walsh devised the purest form of the West Coast offense, it has undergone many changes by coaches who adopted the basics and then tweaked them.
Indeed, the West Coast offense that Walsh created has seen more spinoffs than "Happy Days," which spawned an entire subset of sitcoms. Even in a league where coaches insist there is nothing new under the sun, the West Coast scheme is arguably the most bastardized offense of the modern game, a blueprint smudged by years of alteration.
"The very term 'West Coast' is kind of a rip-off, because there aren't a lot of (coaches) out there doing it the way Bill Walsh did it, to tell the truth," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden. "I mean, every reporter who sees some offense that looks like the West Coast hangs that handle on it, and it's not accurate. There are times, like when we used three tight ends, that we are about as far removed from a West Coast offense as it's possible to be. But yet I'm still lumped in as a West Coast offense coach."
The reason so many coaches and teams are misrepresented as West Coast in nature is because of their connections, no matter how convoluted, to Walsh. It is flattering, of course, to the Hall of Fame coach to be credited for much of the success of coaches and offensive coordinators who have taken some of his concepts and incorporated them into their own designs.
But in a sense, noted one coach, it's kind of like an NFL version of the "Six Degrees Kevin Bacon" game. Any coach who so much as shook hands with Walsh at some point, it seems, is immediately labeled (or, more often, miscast) as one of his legion of protégés. Detroit Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg, for instance, has never worked for Walsh. But one would think the two are bosom buddies, given some of the links made between the men, by the media or fans or even players.
"You know, I worked with Steve (Mariucci) and with Mike (Holmgren) ... and, of course, Mike worked with Bill, so that's close enough, I guess," said Mornhinweg. "People will try to make the connection (to Walsh) any way they can, I guess."
Over the years, though, coaches have made more disconnections to the West Coast offense. Observers who feel compelled to have a label for everything, or to pigeonhole designs, keep attaching the West Coast catch-all to any sort of offense that even remotely resembles it. In an era in which the horizontal- and timing-based passing game is so pervasive, it's a convenient marriage.
Except that the original West Coast offense is, at the very least, estranged from what it has begat.
Joe Gibbs years ago added the multiple tight ends and one-back formations, both anathema to the West Coast offense. He also put in a lot of "bunch" formations. Coryell began to flex the tight end, especially when he had Kellen Winslow at his disposal. Mike Shanahan in Denver uses many of the same traps, pulls and counters that the original West Coast offense featured but has tinkered a lot with the passing side of things.
Gruden prefers an I-formation or a one-back set to the standard split backfield that Walsh used and also relies on zone-blocking. In the classic West Coast offense, the blocking was primarily man-to-man, and the staple rushing play was the sweep.
"Really, how often now do you see split backs?" Holmgren said. "There is a lot more power stuff, strength-of-formation things, going on now. The West Coast offense, before all the motion and shifting, was more balanced."
Still, in a poll of coaches and personnel directors, Holmgren was frequently cited as one of the guys who adheres most closely to the West Coast primer as authored by Walsh and who best understands its principles. Norv Turner, Zampese, Brian Billick and Mike Martz were also named quite often. That was a bit of a surprise to Martz, who relies more on zone-blocking and the power running game than he feels Walsh did.
"But I did learn a lot from Ernie (Zampese)," Martz said, "and he knows the West Coast stuff inside out. I think what's happened is what always happens in the game. Guys pick and choose from things they like, and incorporate it into what they want to do, then give it their own spin. Yeah, I agree that the term West Coast, as it applies to the beginning of the offense, is overused. But the West Coast principles, especially, you know, in the passing game ... heck, everyone is using them."
Those principles, more than anything else, might be the legacy of the West Coast offense. Teams still are seeking mismatches on linebackers and strong safeties, just as Walsh did, and still demanding that minute details be followed. Former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen recalled recently how Turner, in his days as the Dallas offensive coordinator, used to criticize wide receivers if they went even a few inches beyond the seven-yard break required on many of the timing routes.
"No sloppiness, no rounded-off routes allowed, trust me," Millen said. "It came down to running everything full speed, in and out of breaks, and being at the precise spot you were supposed to be."
There are certain principles that remain consistent in the passing game: middle triangles, weakside triangles, strongside triangles, weakside floods, high-lows. There is a similarity in route distribution and maybe in the theory of progression in how quarterbacks make their reads. But not many of the new offenses are a precise mirror image of the old West Coast offense. Then again, as time has demonstrated, the NFL is nothing if not about evolution.
And if Walsh understands that much of what he sees anymore isn't quite the design he drew up on the blackboard in the old Bengals training facility, the fact so many coaches hang their hat on his West Coast hook is meant to be a tribute to his genius.
"There are a lot of sound plays that can be built on and used creatively for the personnel of each coach," Gruden said. "But to say we're all running the same West Coast offense is like saying we're all politicians, so we have the same views."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.