|Thursday, October 17
Updated: October 25, 1:20 PM ET
West Coast helps QB make good decisions
By Steve Young
Special to ESPN.com
Why is the West Coast offense so popular in today's NFL, more than 30 years after Bill Walsh introduced it? Because the quarterback can make good decisions with the football if his footwork is timed with the receivers' routes.
When I joined the USFL's L.A. Express in 1984, my first professional offensive coordinator was Sid Gillman, who was one of the primary influences on Walsh's West Coast philosophy. I remember what Sid told me: "How can you make a decision if you have no sense of timing? You are just waiting, waiting, waiting. Then you have to set your feet and throw the football. By then it's too late."
The first time Sid saw me, he said, "Look, your footwork is horrible." I had never cared -- and knew nothing -- about my footwork; I just got it done on the field. But Sid was the first coach to tell me that my footwork decided how I would play. If Sid could get a hold of most of today's quarterbacks, he would say the same thing: "Your footwork is horrible."
Sid also told me about Johnny Unitas' footwork. Even though there was no such thing as the West Coast offense when Unitas played, he was probably the original West Coast quarterback, because he and Raymond Berry tried to synch up their plays from a timing standpoint.
Because I played for Sid, I knew footwork was important when I got to San Francisco in 1987. I had gone to the best place to perfect it. Bill was essentially preaching the same things as Sid, knowing by my footwork when to throw the ball.
I remember Bill yelling at me, "Steve, no one knows where you are going to be. You've got to lock this stuff in so you can make reads, give the ball to people on time and make decisions about where to throw the football based on your feet."
On a typical pass play, I would drop back five steps, plant and throw immediately and on time to the primary receiver. But if I hitched, I would move on to the second receiver. Or I would hitch a second time and throw to the outlet. A third hitch told me I had to leave the pocket. Everything is tied together. In fact, I could watch a game film, cut my body in half, watch only the bottom half of my body and tell you how we played.
When a quarterback learns the West Coast footwork, he becomes more developed, because his feet help him with the reads. His mind is free to digest more things happening around him and more of the field, which increases the quarterback's degree of difficulty. I had reads where I would look toward one side of the field -- bounce -- look to the other side of the field -- bounce -- and then hit the outlet in front of me. But the more I played, the more I understood.
Although the West Coast offense has three- and five-step drops as its meat and potatoes, the offense becomes even more explosive when the quarterback can get more protection, drop seven steps and time his footwork with the receivers' routes. Then the quarterback can attack 20-25 yards downfield with timing.
Artists of the West Coast attack
Mike Holmgren is a stickler about footwork, and Favre has gotten a bit sloppy with his footwork since Holmgren left Green Bay for Seattle. Brett doesn't always have his feet locked in when he throws. But since the timing is so engrained in him, Brett can be erratic with his feet and still get the job done.
Donovan McNabb has great, fast feet and has learned to lock them in to run the Eagles' offense effectively. Although the offense requires disciplined footwork, it doesn't limit a quarterback with McNabb's athletic skills. Donovan is so talented that he can create all he wants if his footwork is trained in conjunction with the routes.
In Andy Reid's West Coast system, Donovan has found that he is getting rid of the ball quicker, he has a higher completion percentage, the Eagles' offense is scoring more touchdowns, and he can still run the ball every once in a while. That is when the offense gets good -- having a mobile quarterback with West Coast footwork.
Michael Vick doesn't run the West Coast offense in Atlanta, but he sounded like he was willing to learn it when I met with him in July. Although he should have a great NFL career regardless of what offense he runs, I can't imagine the things he could do in the West Coast offense.
It's more difficult for a veteran quarterback to learn it. Vinny Testaverde has had a hard time with the Jets' West Coast offense under Paul Hackett because Vinny was taught a different way. He played for a number of years dropping back, looking at the receivers and letting it go when they were open. It's like teaching an old dog new tricks. I can't describe how much work is involved. The footwork needs to be well-coached, and the quarterback has to be willing.
College: The perfect West Coast classroom
Detroit Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg, who was my last offensive coordinator in San Francisco, is a great teacher of the West Coast offense. Joey Harrington will benefit from Marty if he gets a chance to continue as the Lions' head coach. There are a number of coaches who have figured out how to teach it, and Mornhinweg is one of them.
The best West Coast coaching job I've seen was when Mike Shanahan left the 49ers, became the head coach in Denver and made it available to John Elway. Shanahan put in the shotgun (something we never did), figured out plays John could feel comfortable with, and amended the offense for an older quarterback who needed to learn it quickly. He told John, "Trust me -- I'll try to make it amenable to you, but trust me."
The best defense? Belichick's Giants
When I played for the 49ers, we loved to see man-to-man defense. I could get the ball quickly to the receivers. Over the 10 years Jerry Rice and John Taylor played together, how many slant routes did they catch and break for a long touchdown? Several -- and most came against single coverage.
The defense that gave us the most difficulty, however, was the New York Giants through the 1980s and the early 1990s under defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. The defense (generally a two-deep zone) wasn't tactically difficult, and we had the plays for it. But the Giants players -- Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Leonard Marshall, Pepper Johnson -- were together so long and ran it so well, they limited our explosiveness.
The Giants always had 11 eyeballs on the quarterback. They played zone, faced the quarterback, waited for me to throw the ball and tackled everything, forcing us to work our way down the field. No one was able to get free runs with the ball. Belichick also understood that he could affect the quarterback's timing if a defensive back got in the receiver's face.
Belichick's defense disrupted our timing much like Tony Dungy's, except Dungy added one more element -- Dom Capers' zone blitz. That was the defense I hated to see the most.
The late Fritz Shurmur, who was Green Bay's defensive coordinator from 1994-98, played a lot of zone and was tough and physical with the tight ends. Some of his players should have been arrested for how they mistreated our tight ends, particularly Brent Jones. But Shurmur knew he couldn't defend our offense unless he disrupted the timing.
ESPN analyst Steve Young played 15 seasons in the NFL, 13 of them with the 49ers and the West Coast offense.