Bill Walsh’s initial reaction to his name being attached to the West Coast Offense was far from celebratory. In fact, he was quite upset by the misnomer.
“Call it the Walsh Offense, or Cincinnati Offense,” he said, “but not the West Coast Offense. That’s something completely different.”
Whether the label was accurate or not should not belie the fact that Walsh was an indirect descendant of the original West Coast Offense created by Sid Gillman. Al Davis, who spent three years as an assistant under Gillman in San Diego, was the first to show Walsh the brilliance of the pass-happy system. It was 1966, and Davis wanted to add a fresh new face to his Raiders coaching squad. Not far away at Stanford, the 35-year-old Walsh was developing a reputation as a burgeoning offensive mind. Davis took notice and gave Walsh his first NFL coaching job.
In one season as an assistant coach under Davis, Walsh learned the intricacies of the nearly unstoppable offensive system. He moved on to Cincinnati in 1968, where he looked to further develop the downfield offensive attack he learned in Oakland. Luckily for him, the Bengals used the fifth overall pick in the 1969 draft on a strong-armed quarterback from the University of Cincinnati named Greg Cook. Cook’s cannon of an arm made him the perfect fit for the overwhelming passing system Walsh was installing.
In 1969, Cook averaged 17.5 yards per completion – a rookie record that still stands to this day – and was named AFL Rookie of the Year. Walsh was headed down the same path as Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, and Norv Turner – coaches who had found great success using the Gillman offense.
But then something unexpected happened. The following offseason, Cook was diagnosed with a career-ending shoulder injury. When asked to describe what his offense would have been like had Cook’s career not been cut short, Walsh replied, “Completely different. It would have been down the field.”
His new quarterback, Virgil Carter, was smaller and more agile than Cook yet did not have nearly the arm strength as his predecessor. But Carter was a quick thinker and very accurate with his throws. Walsh’s challenge was to develop an offense that fit Carter’s physical makeup. His only choice was to forego Gillman’s vertical attack and exact a more horizontal approach.
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The philosophy of Walsh’s new system – and the system a number of head coaches currently run – was similar to the West Coast Offense of old. It was pass-first-run-second and still relied on timing patterns. “Those things were kind of the linchpins,” Walsh said. “We demanded that everyone be a good receiver and that everyone have great discipline.”
Where Gillman and Don Coryell directed their receivers deep downfield, Walsh sent his pass-catchers into much shorter patterns. He utilized Carter’s ability to quickly read the defense, sending out numerous receivers on underneath routes. Three- and five-step drops were the norm, with quick 4-yard passes replacing many running plays. This meant the offense could throw on any down, not just those typically designated as passing downs. The main concept was to flood the underneath zones that slower linebackers and strong safeties are forced to cover. Creating a mismatch between a speedy back or receiver and a 250-pound linebacker gives the offense a better chance of turning a 4-yard catch into a 20-yard gain.
In 1979, Walsh took his new version of the West Coast offense to the San Francisco 49ers. One of his main priorities as head coach was to find a smart, accurate quarterback to lead his team. He struck gold when Joe Montana fell to the 49ers in the third round of the draft. Montana did not have a big arm, but his decision-making skills and overall football smarts were unquestionably strong. With ‘Joe Cool’ leading his new horizontal pass attack, Walsh created an offense for the ages.
In his 10 years with San Francisco, he compiled a 92-59 record and led the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships. To this day, many teams still seek mismatches on linebackers and strong safeties, just as Walsh did, and constantly demand that every detail of the offense – no matter how minute – be followed.
What is truly amazing about the history of Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense is that one bum shoulder was the catalyst for a passing scheme that has been mimicked more often than Elvis in his Vegas jumpsuit. One has to wonder if a turned ankle or sprained knee might be the trigger for the next big thing in NFL offensive philosophy.
|Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.
Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey