The origins of what eventually came to be known as the West Coast offense began in Cincinnati in 1970. It was out of necessity.
The Bengals’ starting quarterback, Greg Cook, suffered a shoulder tear the previous year in a game against the Chiefs and would not be ready for the season.
After coach Paul Brown traded for Virgil Carter, a player who lacked Cook’s arm strength but possessed intelligence and mobility, Brown and offensive assistant Bill Walsh devised an offensive scheme featuring a short, horizontal passing game and rollouts that took advantage of Carter’s strengths.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star's Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
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The Bengals finished 8-6 that year and though they fell to 4-10 in 1971, Carter led the NFL with a 62.2 completion percentage. Brown and Walsh believed they were on to something, and the offense grew from there, in terms of success and popularity.
By the mid 1970s, BYU coach LaVell Edwards had adapted a similar offense — in which current Chiefs coach Andy Reid played in from 1978-80 — while Walsh took it to the San Francisco 49ers, where he used the West Coast offense to build a NFL dynasty.
The passing portion of the offense was heavy on short-to-intermediate timing routes that often put defenders in tough positions by forcing them to make choices in short areas. And the quarterback’s drops — three, five or seven steps — depths of the receivers’ routes and the offensive line’s protection scheme were designed to help the quarterback throw the ball in a specific timed sequence.
Quarterbacks, then, were charged with making their reads based on the type of coverage the defense was playing, and delivering the ball quickly, accurately and in rhythm to whoever is open, even a fullback. They had to be on the same page with their receivers, who were often charged with changing their route to best adjust to whatever coverage the defense was playing.
“With any true West Coast offense anywhere, you have a progression read,” Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel said. “And these progressions are based off the type of coverages the defenses might give you.”
Thirty years later, all teams use some of the core concepts of the offense, to varying degrees. But the Chiefs, Seahawks and Packers hardly look like the two back-heavy teams Walsh used to win four Super Bowls in San Francisco.
“It has never been the same,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “The new West Coast offense is similar in concepts, passing-wise, but the running game is nowhere near where it was. And that’s what made that such an extraordinary offense.”
Carroll attributes the 49ers’ running game back then to the mastery of one of the league’s best offensive line coaches, Bobb McKittrick, who retired in 1999 — the same year the league outlawed the specific type of cut blocking his teams were known for.
Compare that to today, when most teams don’t even use a fullback, which was an every-down staple in Walsh’s offense. Reid attributes this to Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, a Walsh disciple.
“We were kind of in that part of the evolution when we went to Green Bay,” said Reid, a Packers assistant from 1992-98. “All of a sudden, we were going with one-back sets … (or) two tight ends and a back or two backs and one tight end.”
Another change, Reid added, was the use of the shotgun snap, something Holmgren and Walsh never used. Reid didn’t start using it until after the 2004 season, when he finally tired of teams trying to disrupt the offense’s timing by blitzing the “A” gaps to the left and right of the center.
It’s all just part of the evolution of a scheme that two legendary coaches came up with 45 years ago out of necessity.
“Football’s always moving,” Reid said. “I always say ‘If stand there long enough, it will come right back to you.’”
The Mesh Pattern
This play is an old-school concept from LaVell Edwards’ West Coast playbook.
The formation features a fullback, once an every-down staple in this offense. But the first option is the “Z” receiver, who is positioned off the line of scrimmage and to the right. If the post route isn’t open, the quarterback can look to his “X” receiver, who is running a shallow cross. The fullback is option No. 3.
“Mesh” refers to what’s happening between the “X” receiver and “Y” tight end, who is essentially setting a pick for the “X.” This play is an excellent man coverage beater, and it’s good against zone coverage by linebackers because the “X” and the “Y” can settle into holes in the zone after they cross paths, and the quarterback can either find them or check down to the fullback.
| Terez A. Paylor, email@example.com
The Shallow Cross
Here’s a play the Chiefs used to score a touchdown in their 34-19 preseason win over Arizona on Aug. 15. Facing first and goal at the Arizona 4, the Chiefs sent the “Z” receiver, Da’Ron Brown, in motion.
After the snap, quarterback Chase Daniel had a three-person read in a short area, and his progression depended on the way the Cardinals defended — a West Coast offense staple. With the blitz on, Brown was the first read, and he ran a shallow cross over the middle while the fullback ran a slant route from the backfield and the tight end ran a curl route.
Brown did a good job getting across the formation and locking eyes with Daniel, who threw before the blitz got home. Touchdown, Chiefs.
| Terez A. Paylor, firstname.lastname@example.org