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Summer School: Breaking down the West Coast Offense

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We go deep on how first-year head-coach Ben McAdoo's offense works.

The New York Giants are heading into their third year with the West Coast Offense. While the team as a whole has yet to improve their winning ways, the performances of individual players on offense has noticeably improved. Let's take a look at what makes this scheme special and what makes it work.

Origin

The West Coast Offense was born in 1970 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Its father, Bill Walsh, was a quarterbacks coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, and acted as play-caller for head coach Paul Brown. When the Bengals' quarterback, Greg Cook, tore his throwing arm rotator cuff in Week 3 of the 1969 season. Cook was a rookie at the time, but the Bengals had invested the No. 5 overall draft pick to get the Ohio native, so keeping him on the field was important. Cook was the Andrew Luck of his day, the Bengals were 3-0 and it was decided that Cook's talent was too valuable to waste on the bench, injury or no injury. Unfortunately, 1970s medicine was nowhere near the super-human recovery systems we see as routine for athletes today. After just one season, Cook's arm was shot. Three surgeries later, Cook retired from the NFL.

The following year, the Bengals traded with the Buffalo Bills for Virgil Carter to act as an immediate stand-in. Cook was a generational talent. You can't just replace someone like that and hope to achieve the same results. For starters, Cook's arm was second-to-none at the time. He was the 1969 equivalent of Matthew Stafford, and Carter, well, he was a bit more of an Alex Smith. You can see the problem here. Without the ability to efficiently throw it deep, Carter had no chance of replicating Cook's production with the Bengals.

Together, Walsh and Brown worked to develop a new game plan that worked within the confines of Carter's skills rather than pushing him past what they thought was achievable. Using elements from Brown's old Cleveland playbooks and Walsh's own ideas, they replaced the vertical downfield concepts with a system designed to spread the receiving options horizontally. They were still stretching the field, just doing so in a different direction. Walsh's thinking was that short passes could get first downs, and if they got 25 first downs in a game, they were likely to win. With roll-outs, quick releases and short passes, the offense could generate a lot of completed passes regardless of QB talent. Famously, Walsh's slogan was; "When you gain four yards on the ground against a defense, they think you're kicking their ass. When you gain four yards in the passing game against a defense, they think they're kicking your ass. Four yards is four yards."

Concepts

Lateral spacing

Stretching a defense vertically and horizontally does the same thing. You are asking them to cover more space than they would like. However, lateral routes require a more accurate throw than those which target receivers downfield because of the likelihood of coming across another defender. If you are running a straight 9 route, you likely have to beat the cornerback and worry about the safety. That's one player extra. In a West Coast scheme, the receiver could beat his defender on a slant or crossing route, then hit a lot of traffic. Linebackers, slot corners, and defensive linemen are all possible obstacles to throw between to get it to your receiver. The QB doesn't need to have a big arm to play in this system, but must be accurate.

The prototypical player for this scheme is Alex Smith. He was widely panned as an abject bust until Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman got to San Francisco and decided to work within his limitations rather than attempting to stretch the player past them. He was their Virgil Carter, and it worked like a charm. Now, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith is teamed with head coach Andy Reid and they operate one of the most extreme examples of a modern WCO. It's short passes all the way, and it gets the job done.

Dropback

Much like any scheme, the WCO as we see it today incorporates many ideas and concepts that were not originally designed. Every team runs a hybrid of multiple styles because consistently sticking to one type will put you at a disadvantage. While many WCO teams today will utilize any variety of dropbacks and QB alignments, the traditional WCO snap took place under center.

From there, the QB would take either a 3-step drop or one of two different 5-step drops. There was a "Quick 5" and a "Long 5." The "Quick 5" would require the QB to throw once his fifth step touches down. The "Long 5" would allow the QB to reset and work back up through the pocket, with the offensive line pushing pressure past him and into the backfield, generating a cleaner throwing window.

Roll out and run

Defenses will crowd the box a little more against a WCO. In jamming up running lanes and throwing windows with an extra safety or linebacker, they can massively disrupt the timing of the play. In order to combat this, the offense will "roll out" the QB after the snap. By running to one side of the field, the offense moves the pocket and the play to where they want. You effectively cut the field in half, but when done correctly, the shift will catch the defense off-guard and let the offense complete a simple throw. If this breaks down and the defensive play develops onto the side of the field you have targeted, a QB with the ability to run can diagnose this problem quickly and compensate by picking up a few yards on the ground.

Motion

In Walsh's original plan, motion and shifts were important parts of the pre-play action. Walsh was always scheming towards getting more offensive players than defensive players on one half of the field and using that numerical advantage to make the play work.

Here is a quote from his book 'Building a Champion' on how this came about;

" In the third quarter [against the Raiders], Bob Trumpy lined up on the wrong side by mistake. He had to shift over quickly to the other side, and all hell broke loose. At that time, the Raiders had very specialized people. They had a weak-side linebacker, they had a strong-side linebacker, they had a defense end who only played on the tight-end side, and they would shift their two inside linebackers. So, when Bob shifted, they all ran into each other in the middle of the field, trying to adjust."

Pass first, run later

One of the key concepts in Walsh's thinking was that you pass to set up the run, not the other way around. This makes sense in the context of his "Four yards is four yards" thinking, but also in terms of physicality. Defenses get slower as the game progresses. If you can wear them out early with a storm of passes and an early lead, you can take the pressure away later by running the ball on a weary opposition.

Strategically, this makes sense. Passing is a statistically riskier play than running, and if you can do more of those at the beginning of the game rather than the end, then you give yourself more time for recovering from costly mistakes. An interception when you're down by a touchdown in the first quarter and the same problem in the fourth quarter are very different animals.

Running backs

The original WCO used a zone-blocking scheme for their run plays. The zone system suited Walsh's idea of finesse football. Running backs weren't the kind of ground-and-pound type normally valued in that era, and were instead replaced with shifty multi-purpose players who could speed through a gap on a zone run, pass block effectively and add something as a receiver.

Given the nature of the quick passing game, the QB needs a receiver to "check down" to when things don't work out. Walsh's playbook always assigned that role to either a running back or a tight end so that the QB didn't have to waste the play. Every effort was made to get a few yards regardless of the situation. Walsh frequently described his style as a "nickel and dime" offense. In football, every penny counts.

The YAC

The ideal WCO receiver is someone who can generate yards after the catch (YAC). Walsh would much prefer a 4-yard throw with six yards of YAC than a 10-yard throw. The risk is smaller and the shortened distance increases the likely completion rate for the QB. If you can get any yardage after that catch, then it's the same as having a QB with higher downfield accuracy.

Much has been made of Odell Beckham's ability to make spectacular catches, but the real value he presents is after the catch. While his total yardage decreasedi n 2015 from his rookie year, his game was actually more economical. Last year, Beckham ranked ninth in the NFL in total YAC with 516 yards. As a rookie, he was just 21st overall with 427 yards. Given that Ben McAdoo runs a WCO, if Beckham is having to make super-human catches on every play and then fall down, then the QB is not doing his job. Causing the receiver to fall during the process of the catch is only acceptable when you're taking downfield throws. In every other circumstance, you should be throwing to a place that lets the player keep running.

Example Play

WCO playcalling is falling out of favor in the NFL. It's a long and complicated system that simply doesn't mesh well with the high-paced game of today. Coaches and players alike have moved to a more efficient style that uses just a few words. The old WCO style is tough to learn and tough to use.

Yes, there are advantages. It distributes a lot of information, so it makes it easier for some to remember their assignments because they just pick out the relevant parts of the play call. However, sometimes your assignment is not in the play call, and that's when you need to remember yourself what your job was based on this complicated assortment of terms for other people. Sometimes your information is there and sometimes you just have to remember. You can see why it's widely criticized.

Let's look at our example play. This is a play taken from Walsh's 1985 San Francisco 49ers playbook. The call in the huddle is "Red right 26 fullback flat Y choice on two". Everyone is given a beat to understand. If you do not understand, you yell "check" and it repeated, then the QB yells break and you line up. I'm guessing everyone here yelled "check". That's okay. Let's break it down.

- "Red" refers to the formation. This is a split-back set with neither aligned directly behind the QB.

- "Right" means the tight end is aligned to the right side of the formation.

- "26" is our protection scheme. Every number in the 20s is a pass-protection scheme, so we know it's a pass.

- "Fullback flat" gives specific instruction to the fullback runs to the flat.

- "Y choice" means there's an option route for the Y-receiver (the TE), who is our primary receiver on this play. The primary receiver is always told their assignment, and it's usually one of the last pieces of information in the play call. The option route will be decided based on how the defense aligns in coverage. Both the QB and the receiver need to read the defense the same for this to work.

- "On two" is our timing for the play. The center will snap the ball on the QBs second call ("Hut hut") rather than the first ("Hut"). This gives the offense a chance to call a false "Hut" once, which may cause the defense to jump or show their true intentions on the play, such as possible blitzers or a disguised coverage.

- As you can see, the outside receivers and the halfback all need to simply memorize their routes based on other present information. This is tricky, and can result in a lot of mistakes if the players don't have an intimate knowledge of their playbook and scheme.

- The QB needs to remember all of this on top of his own information not given in the play call; i.e. the five-step dropback, the read progression and all possible alerts, counters and variations.

Talking points:

Is Eli Manning ideally suited to the West Coast offense?

What personnel would you put on the field for to maximize the WCO potential for the Giants?

Is there an element of the WCO that you would like the Giants to utilize more?

Further reading:

'Breaking down the West Coast Offense' by Alen Dumonjic - Bleacher Report

1985 San Francisco 49ers Playbook (356 pages) - FootballXOs.com

'Can the West Coast Offense be taught anywhere besides the NFL?' by Chris Brown - Smart Football

WCO terminology - WestCoastOffense.com