What is the West Coast Offense and How Does it Work?

Not too long ago, NFL legend Bill Walsh passed away. He left behind a staggering legacy of accomplishments, innovation and success. On top of that list lies the West Coast Offense, the offensive system he installed that saw players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young flourish as Hall of Fame players, winning championships along the way.

The Start of the West Coast Offense


Sid Gillman and Don Coryell had coined the term “West Coast Offense” at least as far back as the 1960s. The name stemmed from the teams in the NFL that were using the system, the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. Two west coast teams running a similar offense, why not just call it the West Coast Offense. However, that original West Coast Offense is now referred to as the “Air Coryell” offensive attack. Today, West Coast Offense refers to the offensive system and style that Bill Walsh implemented as head coach of one of the greatest football dynasties of all time, the 1980s' San Francisco 49ers.

Explaining the West Coast Offense


Traditional football coaching and strategy says that the most important offensive element is the running attack. If you can create an effective running attack you can control the time of possession and play the game at the tempo and physical tone that you desire. Once that running attack is really kicking in, the defense then needs to adjust their schemes accordingly. Maybe they bring their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, for instance. Once that happens, more holes open up down the field that the offense can take advantage of. The team can now alternate throwing and running, keeping the defense off balance and taking advantage of whichever area they choose to leave open. A typical offensive game plan using this style might run the ball 50-65% of time, and sometimes even more than that.
Well, the West Coast Offense turned all of that upside down. Take everything you just read, and switch it around. In a West Coast Offense, the team will end up passing at least 60% of the time. A coach, such as Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles, may end up passing upwards of 70% of the time.

How Does the West Coast Offense Work?


In the NFL today, the West Coast Offense is used out of nearly any formation you can dial up. When Bill Walsh was first putting it into practice, he tended to lineup with two running backs in the backfield, each on one side of the quarterback and at an equal depth, with two wide receivers and one tight end. The three receiving targets, the receivers and the tight end will all run separate passing routes. In addition, the running backs will migrate to the flats and occasionally a short distance up the field to become additional targets as the play continues to develop.
That leaves five offensive targets that the offense can choose to go to. Five is a lot for a defense to handle, and often times they are left in inappropriate schemes to handle so many players in such various spots of the field. Just like an NFL offense that establishes the running game, when an NFL offense establishes this kind of passing attack the defense has to respond by bringing people to the line of scrimmage. However, in this instance, the defenders at the line of scrimmage have to cover all of the many passing targets and are spread all over the field as opposed to focused in the center of the field. Now, not only is the defense left vulnerable to a run up the middle of the field, but the defense is also susceptible to a deep, vertical passing play. With the West Coast Offense, you create several different holes in the defense that you can exploit on any given play.
To really utilize a West Coast offensive scheme, you have to put a focus on great timing between the quarterback and the receivers, pristine route running by the receivers and excellent accuracy by the quarterback. A quarterback must be able to release the ball before the receiver is open and in the spot where he will catch the ball. There must be anticipation so that the play can run seamlessly, not allowing the defense – spread all across the field – a chance to react to the developing play.
With the defense spread so thin, all it takes is making one defender miss, and you have all of the open field in front of you that you could dream about. That is exactly how Jerry Rice was so successful in the West Coast Offense, piling up those YACs. YACs? Yards After Catch, and Jerry Rice in the West Coast Offense was the perfect example of taking full advantage of the opportunity. Make one guy miss, and boom! He's gone.
The West Coast Offense is also directly responsible for a player such as Jerry Rice sustaining his greatness over such a long period of time. That's because the West Coast Offense is not strictly based on raw athleticism and game breaking speed. Of course, those attributes help, but the West Coast Offense is based on timing and carefully designed running routes that create small and quickly disappearing assign lanes. Even when Jerry Rice lost his athletic advantages, he was still able to thrive with intelligence and experience in the West Coast Offense—and a couple of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

More Notes on the West Coast Offense


In place of the standard ground game, a West Coast scheme will throw in lots of short passing plays. Screen passes and dump offs to the flats get more players involved, while keeping the defense spread over the width of the field, as opposed to clogging up the middle with an extra man in the box. The West Coast Offense is also perfectly suited to an agile and mobile quarterback. A player such as Steve Young, or Donovan McNabb, can exploit the thinly spread defense and run the ball as another option.

The offensive innovations of Bill Walsh didn't stop with the adaptation of the West Coast Offense by a majority of teams across the NFL. It spawned entire new defensive schemes. The Tampa 2 Defense, developed from the original Cover 2 Defense, was created for the direct purpose of combating the West Coast Offense. For more information on the Cover 2 Defense and other offensive and defensive strategies in the NFL, check the other articles in the Strategy Guide.