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The West Coast Offense: Gameplanning and Play Calling

Much in the way that Bill Walsh wanted to make a QB's reads an algorithmic, automatic process, Walsh wanted to make as many coaching decisions as he could before the weekend. Human beings simply do not perform their best under pressure:

"Your ability to think concisely, your ability to make good judgments is much easier on Thursday night than during the heat of the game. So we prefer to make our decisions related to the game almost clinically, before the game is ever played."


The Denny's Menu

It looks like every coach in the NFL today is carrying a huge laminated menu from their favorite diner:


"I want two eggs easy, fork right, 95 ketchup zoom bacon on two".


While coaches might be trying to order up a big hit, they don't want the grand slam with eggs and bacon (corny pun very much intended). That laminated sheet is the playcall sheet and it is the tool that translates gameplanning to playcalling in any West Coast Offense (and in any NFL offense, really). The playcall sheet is organized so that choosing the next play is as smooth as possible on gameday and important coaching decisions are made earlier in the week.

Here's what you might find on a playcall sheet:

(click to enlarge images)


Many of the categories on the sheet are self-explanatory. In each category, coaches would list plays to call when faced with a given situation. They would install the plays that they believed would succeed for a given field position, on 3rd down, or against a certain defense. They would also have plays ready if they needed to milk the clock or run the hurry-up offense.

One category that isn't self-explanatory is "starters." "Starters" are plays that coaches have decided to run in a specific order to begin the game. This "script" of plays is one of the key elements of the success of the West Coast Offense.

Win the war, then fight the war.

-Military Strategist Sun Tzu, from The Art of War


Scripting "openers" or "starters"

The practice of scripting the opening offensive plays of the game is very important to any West Coast team and began when Walsh was under Paul Brown in Cincinnati:

"Paul would always ask, "What are your openers?" He wanted to know how we were going to start the game. He was thinking about two or three plays that he would start the game with"

After seeing success with scripting these openers, Walsh began to lengthen that list to 10-12 in San Diego, then 20 at Stanford, finally stopping at 25 plays in San Francisco.

"What we have finally done is rehearse the opening part of the game, almost the entire first half, by planning the game before it even starts."


Undivided attention on Tactics

With less attention needed for thinking about what to call next, Walsh could focus on tactical matters. He used the opening script tactically in order to:

  • Find winning matchups on the line. Which lineman should we run behind on 3rd an 1? Who can physically overpower their opponent?
  • Establish formations and gauge the defense's reaction. Can you get your 6'4" WR on their 5'7" CB? How are they dealing with motion? Can we get a situation where we have numbers in the box to run the ball?
  • Establish sequence. Often plays will be run as part of a series. This set of similar plays will be run in an attempt to make things develop the same way, get defenders to bite, and then burn them for being over-aggressive.
  • Set up the play-pass, draws, screens, or other constraint plays. Every team should have a play-pass off of every run. Calling those runs early helps set up big plays later.
  • Running "specials." Walsh always wanted to run "gadget" plays early;

"{Paul Brown} would always be terribly upset if someone would run a reverse before we did, or a run pass before we did. He would grab the phone and scream in my ear, ‘They did it before we did!'... I found that Paul was 100% right. If you run your reverse first, and you can make 5 yards or more, the other guy won't run his. If you have a special play of any kind, get it into the game quickly. How many of you have had a ball game and you have practiced two or three things that you thought for sure would work. The game is over and you didn't try them or you are so far out of it, it doesn't matter whether you try them or not."

  • Being ready for the second half. When scripting, you can hold certain things for the second half. Maybe there's a play that you love that will only work if the defense is in a certain coverage. With the information gleaned from the script, you might be able to force them into that coverage. Coaches can also self-scout against their script and plan for the adjustments the other team will make. Walsh:

"I will tell you this, I think we can do a better job with halftime adjustments on Thursday than we can at halftime the day of the game. It's that simple."


Calling the plays

To begin the game, West Coast coaches simply call the plays according to the script. They pay close attention to how the defense is responding to the script. Any time they find themselves in a special situation, say, "backed up" at their own 5 yard line, they would simply choose a play from the "backed up" section on their playcall sheet. Once they were out of that situation (say the play goes for 15 yards) they would resume the script.

Once they exhaust the script, coaches can do any number of things. They can start it again from a certain point, potentially including key changes (say, a play action pass instead of a run). They can have a set of contingency scripts similar to Walsh's "second half considerations" involving time and score, the defenses they have seen to that point, or expanding on plays the offense set up in the original script.

Even once the opening script has been exhausted, calling plays in a West Coast system is less about developing a plan on the spot and more about choosing which plan to follow.


Situational offense

Walsh believed a good coach should be prepared for all potential situations before the situations occur. For that reason, Walsh advocated preparing for situations involving time and score, penalties, and momentum. If we are up by 7 midway through the 4th, do we try to score aggressively or are we being cautious and killing the clock? After a big 1st down through the air, are we going for their throats (passing deep again) or trying to exploit their renewed awareness of our passing prowess (draws, screens)?

Such situations include:

  • after a big 1st down passing
  • after a big 1st down running
  • 1st and 5 after a penalty
  • 2nd and long after a sack or penalty
  • 1st down after a turnover

Coaches might have one play or a mini-script ready for each of these situations.



While trusting their plan to maximize their chances of success (sticking to the script), coaches also have to remain flexible on gameday. While is may sound counter-intuitive, having a fixed gameplan can actually facilitate flexibility.

With coaches' attention free to watch the defense, they can pick out tendencies to attempt to exploit later, or they could divert from the script immediately, perhaps in an attempt to burn a safety who is cheating up to stop the run. Without a script, coaches might miss these kinds of details while worrying about the next play.


Prepare, Win

This method of playcalling has made mere men into intimidating geniuses and in my opinion is one of the true lasting marks of The West Coast Offense. Though Walsh's system of passing the ball have helped transform the NFL, his method of preparation and gameplanning--his system of managing all of the details of the game--have left an impact on every team regardless of their preferred method of moving the ball.