clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The West Coast Offense: The Bill Walsh Offense

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

There is no "the" West Coast Offense.

Offenses at all levels--but especially the professional level--are not stagnant, unchanging entities.  If a coach sees a play or a formation that he thinks he can give his team the edge, he'll incorporate it in his offense. No one will lose games in order to stay true to a specific style (and if they make that choice, they won't be coaching for very long).

No one today runs the exact same offense as Bill Walsh did in San Francisco.  Defenses adapted to Walsh, and Walsh and his disciples adapted to the defenses, and so on. Don't believe me? Take it from Brian Billick. Still, there remains something that unites all "West Coast" offenses.

Andy Reid runs a west-coast offense. Mike Shannahan runs a west-coast offense. Mike McCarthy runs a west-coast offense. It could even be said that Mike Leach ran a simplified, bare-bones version of the West-Coast offense.

Next year the Cleveland Browns will run a West-Coast offense. In future posts, I will discuss what that offense is likely to look like based on Pat Shurmur's offense with the St. Louis Rams.

For now, I will compile a few posts about Bill Walsh's offense, about THE original West-Coast offense, and it's impact on today's game. First up: a general introduction and brief overview of Walsh's offense.

Efficiency and preparation

The Walsh Offense's real impact on the game has been a focus on on-field efficiency, as well as a preparation method that is in sync from the head honchos down to the equipment managers. This is Bill Walsh's real impact on the game, and these are the things that all West Coast Offenses share. But Walsh's approach is far too detailed to cover in this introductory post. At it's core and in the simplest possible terms, any West Coast offense is about attention to detail, efficiency and preparation.

Ball control passing

This topic also deserves a post of it's own (spoiler alert: it will get one) but Walsh utilized a pass-first offense that often ended up using a lot of short passes. The passing game in "The" West Coast Offense was based on timing and precision. What exactly does that mean? You'll have to tune in to my post tomorrow to find out.

Not all versions of the West Coast Offense are pass-first, however, and not all utilize short passes as their bread and butter. For instance, Mike Shannahan ran more than he passed in Denver in 2003, 2005 and 2006, as did Mike Holmgren in Seattle in 2005. Additionally, consider that both Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers were in the top 5 in terms of deep attempt % last year in West Coast offenses. West Coast offenses will beat you any way they can--as will every good pro offense.


Volume and Multiplicity

Part of being able to beat you any way possible is being able to do a lot of things.

Bill Walsh's 1985 playbook is very large, most NFL playbooks are. The West Coast Offense--the Walsh Offense--used a lot of different formations and shifts, forcing a defense to keep up. All of the formations and shifting were not done just to look fancy; Walsh wanted to gain a tactical advantage by systematically probing a defense to gain information.

How does a defense deal with motion?  Do they give away if they are playing man or zone when you move a receiver from one end of the formation to the other? How can we manipulate the defense to get a matchup we can win consistently?

If teams like to have certain players on the strong side of a formation--say a strong safety, a "power end," or SAM linebacker--motion can force them to play "out of position" so to speak, or to have to run across the formation and get set in time for the snap. The Stanford vs. Virginia Tech Orange Bowl game last year was a great example of this. Watch VT's defense; watch all the movement, pointing, and communication that has to happen on their end. One player screws up a run fit and it's a touchdown.

Walsh used formations and motion to garner information that would help him score points and win games.

One of the reasons that "the" West Coast Offense doesn't translate well to college is this size and complexity of the playbook. College teams simply don't have the same amount of time to install an offense and practice it. Simple offenses tend to win in college (see: Auburn), and "the" WCO is far from simple.


Common Formations

Very common in the Walsh offense, and much less common in today's NFL was the split back set with a quarterback under center. Today multiple WR sets are much more prevalent, and when two backs are on the field they are usually in some sort of I formation or split with the QB in shotgun.

Splitting backs to either side of the QB vs. lining them in an I formation makes it easier for them to pass protect and to get out in to their routes, but also weakens the downhill running game. NFL teams have used more shotgun in the recent past to add to these advantages in the passing game.


Balance in Playcalling

While the Walsh Offense used a large percentage of short, ball-control passes, Bill Walsh knew that an offense without balance is doomed to failure. Straight from the horse's mouth:

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense.

Bill Walsh knew that "contradicting the basic principles of defense" is imperative to beating opponents who are as talented or more talented than your team is. If all your offense does is pass short, the defense will catch on and they'll beat you. Offenses must present a viable, multi-dimensional threat. Walsh loved the play-pass, and the play-pass is only a valid threat if you can actually run the ball. Peyton HIllis will get his.

Balance for Walsh meant more than being able to run and pass: it meant keeping the defense "on it's heels" so that they didn't know what was coming next.


Play Naming

One of the areas where Walsh's offense is similar to today's offenses is the terminology of the playcalls.  Walsh's playcalls used a color and specific tags to describe a formation, and a number to denote the play.

"Wait a minute, that sounds familiar" you say?

It should, Browns fans. ("Red-Right 88"--so obviously this terminology has been around since before Walsh's glory days)

In Walsh's offense, "Red" means a split back formation and "Right" means a TE to the right. With no other tags, this formation will have the "X" receiver to the left and the "Z" to the right, along with the TE, HB, and FB. "88" would then be the play run from that formation. The first digit of the number typically denotes the back flow and the protection, with the second number being the passing concept being run.

In reference to Red-Right 88, Rutigliano's actual playcall sounds to me like "red stunt right, ::inaudible:: backs stay 88". So they had a split back formation ("red") with Ozzie Newsome to the right ("right"), and they made a specific adjustment to have both backs stay in for protection instead of releasing into their routes ("backs stay").

Many of these specific tags are team-specific. They might mean one thing to one coach and another to someone else. But most of the time this underlying structure remains the same. Check this playcall from Jon Gruden:

Green-right, Y counter motion 93 weak seal

My best guess would be a normal I formation ("green") with the TE to the right ("right"). The TE motions across the formation to the left, then back to the right ("Y counter motion"), and the play is an ISO run to the weak side ("93 weak") with "seal" being a special block/adjustment of some kind. There's another great audio clip of a playcall at 1 minute 19 seconds on that video.



The Bill Walsh offense was complex and detailed, and to complicate things further that offense has evolved in a plethora of directions since Walsh's time. Walsh was a genius and he broke ground in the NFL, and it wasn't because he simply decided to throw short passes.

Pat Shurmur surely has evolved his offense from Walsh's but it remains to be seen what specifics he will install with the Cleveland Browns. Some things are for sure: the Cleveland Browns' 2011 offense will be detail-oriented, and it will attempt to be in sync from Mike Holmgren all the way down to the water boys.

Up next in the West Coast Offense series: Timing-based passing