The West Coast Offense. A history lesson.

The West Coast Offense


Bill Walsh  and Paul Brown created parts of the West Coast Offense when Walsh was an assistant to Brown in Cincinnati. As San Francisco 49ers head coach, Walsh developed it further to help battle an ailing running game. It allowed his Quarterback, Joe Montana, to move the ball down the field with short passes and a mixture of runs.  The WCO has changed some over the years.  As Walsh’s coaching tree continues to branch off, the WCO continues to evolve. In some instances, Walsh might not even recognize it.

Jon Gruden added the “bunch” to his hybrid variation of it. Many of the teams that currently use a variation of it, run a lot of shotgun from it and that was rare, if not unheard of, with Walsh’s WCO in the purest form. Montana, and later Young’s short passes were considered long, airborne handoffs.

It’s not to be confused with the other system that was once known as the “West Coast Offense”, the Don Coryell system, was also coined as a “WCO” early on, but now reigns under the nickname “Air Coryell”. With San Francisco’s success, the name stuck with Walsh. The two systems are entirely different beasts that share some early Paul Brown concepts. Bill Belichick once asked the following question.

Q: Is what [Don] Coryell ran considered the west coast offense?

BB: No. I think there are elements of it, yeah, but it was a much more downfield passing game and less replacing runs with those drive routes, the underneath crossing patterns, the wide routes by the backs, a lot of slants, the plays that come with a high frequency in the west coast offense. A lot of those are really replacements for runs. The Coryell passing attack is much more of a downfield passing game.

The formations below are a few of the basic formations that Walsh was running throughout the 80’s.

  1. 21Set 2RB 1TE 2WR Pro Set
  2. 21Set 2RB 1TE 2WR Far/Weak (TE/RB Opposite Side)
  3. 21Set 2RB 1TE 2WR Near/Strong (TE/RB Same Side)
  4. 21Set 2RB 1TE 2WR FB in a Wing Left position
  5. 22Set 2RB 2TE 1WR Double Tight

No teams are really running the pure Walsh model today, Mike Holmgren in Seattle was likely the last version that was the closest to Walsh.  The Walsh model was mainly posed of 21 & 22 sets. 2RB1TE2WR or 2RB2TE1WR.  Today, most of the of teams that are built from WCO concepts are running 10/11/12 sets with shotguns.  You’ll see Twins, Trips, Quads, Bunch sets with a lone setback.  In a way it’s like regional dialects. Soda, vs. cola, vs pop. Depending on where you were raised, you might call that 12 ounce can of Coca-Cola one of those 3.

These modern WCO’s are the same way. A coach grows up learning it as a position coach, then when he is promoted, he adds a little twist, he steals something from another concept and it keeps growing and evolving.

Mike Shanahan installed a variation of it when he came back to Denver, but he modified it a bit. Maybe the first hybrid of the WCO when he combined a lot of the passing concepts, but added a Zone Blocking System coached up by Alex Gibbs. It was a system that capitalized on both the running game and the passing game. He had the men up front to run it and a string of backs starting with Terrell Davis that could flourish in it. Unfortunately, that is likely one of the things that has been argued against Davis and the Hall of Fame, simply because other backs also had success in it. Thankfully, that has been put to bed. Shanahan was able to extend the concepts a bit further down the field because Elway had a better arm than Joe Montana, but the core was still in place. * editor note, a LOT better arm*

West coast offense
San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh gets a lift on the shoulders of his players after the 49ers defeated the Miami Dolphins to win Super Bowl XIX in 1985. (AP Photo)


For years, it was beat into the heads of football players that you have to run to set up the pass. Walsh’s system was more pass-first,  to set up the run, while Shanahan’s was more balanced. He could run Davis, or put the ball in John Elway’s hand and let him rifle it across the field.  Walsh/Montana had more dinks and dunks in the game plan and Jerry Rice broke a lot of those into big plays. Shanahan/Elway relied more on Elway’s arm driving the route tree deeper and Elway’s athleticism with bootlegs and play-action passes.

Mike Holmgren (also from the Walsh coaching tree) did the same thing with Brett Favre for a number of years, though Favre would drive him crazy with the gunslinging mentality. Coaches begat coaches, and at times literally. Figuratively speaking Andy Reid, Jon Gruden were spawned from Holmgren. Kyle Shanahan was literally spawned from Mike.  Kyle’s 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense was one of the better hybrid WCO’s out there, but it doesn’t resemble what Walsh ran much at all.

When Gary Kubiak returned to Denver, the idea was to mesh his WCO that he’d used since he was the Broncos OC under Shanahan with a lot of the ace/shotgun/passing game concepts that Peyton Manning had used in his previous three years in Denver under Mike McCoy and Adam Gase. Plus his previous tenure in Indianapolis with Tom Moore. That didn’t happen.  This will not turn into a bash Gary Kubiak post, but that didn’t happen.

I’ve always viewed the WCO as an offense that in most cases makes the most out of a quarterback. It  can adequate/decent QB good, a good, QB great, and a great QB phenomenal. That obviously didn’t work with Peyton Manning, but I view that as more of Einstein being taught by an 8th grade science teacher. I will however say this. If Manning had suffered the same injury during the McCoy/Gase years, I’m not sure that Brock Osweiler would have been been able to guide the team like a kid sitting on Daddy’s lap. It’s a bad metaphor since Brock is 6’8″ but he would have been like a little kid not being able to see over the steering wheel had he been given the keys to Manning/Gase offense.

So having that structure of the Kubiak WCO allowed him to tread water without sinking. To go back to the initial premise of adequate/decent into good, Alex Smith,  or even Mike Vick fit this bill. Vick was a better QB when he was with Reid in Philly, some need that hand holding. Good/Great  would be someone like Donovan Mcnabb, Jake Plummer or Rich Gannon who at times shined in the WCO.  Great/Phenomenal  would be the Elway, Favre, Montana, Young, or Aaron Rodgers/Matt Ryan in recent years. You also have the Elvis Grbac’s and Brian Griese’s of the world that struggle and struggle.  Those that have flourished in it, have usually spent years growing with it. Which is one reason Steve Young/Aaron Rodgers were able to replace Hall of Fame Quarterbacks and arguably exceeded them in it.

Today’s Game:

Three out of the four teams in the NFCE (NYG,PHI, & WAS) run a variation of it. It’s still fairly popular even though a lot of the variations look far different from the Pro Set look (scenario 1) above that Walsh dialed out on a weekly basis.  Green Bay & Seattle run a hybrid variation of it.  Atlanta did in ’16 might continue to do so and San Francisco will this season with Kyle Shanahan taking over as HC. Buffalo will run a variation with Rick Dennison finally getting to be a legitimate Offensive Coordinator.  Andy Reid has feasted on it (literally) since his days as a Packers assistant and Eagles HC, he continues to  use it in Kansas City. Indianapolis has used it for the last four years since Bruce Arians took the HC job in Arizona (Thankfully, the Colts would have been a much better team had Arians been promoted to HC in Indy).

Most any offense, whether you are talking about the Erhardt-Perkins (New England), Air Coryell (99-04 Rams, Manning’s Colts/Broncos, Gibbs/Washington 80’s/90’s), or the WCO will share some conceptual components, there are only so many ways to do things, but they will differ in how they attack. Both the EP/AC systems attack more down the field, while the WCO works with the short passing game. Now both the EP/AC have modified versions because we’ve each seen Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (more post injury) dink and dunk down the field, and we’ve seen John Elway throw plenty of deep passes from Shanahan’s WCO, so there are concepts that are similar yet a bit different.

If I were hired as an NFL OC, my first request from the Video/Film/Tape department would be to get me digitized copies of every play run in the NFL over the past 10 years. Here is “lingo”, convert all of it to my language, and if you have any questions let me know. I’d have my current playbook/system,  then I’d review and  take some for my own playbook, tweak something from someone else and then say here is my offense.  That likely happens more than we think.

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