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Avoiding Pitfalls in the Language of the West Coast Offense

NFL: Preseason-Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Every offense has its strengths and weaknesses.

As we continue this series on the West Coast Offense language that new head coach Kevin Stefanski is likely to use, let’s take a closer look at the Air Coryell language used by former coaches Freddie Kitchens and Hue Jackson.

The strength of the Coryell system of terminology is that the 3 digit system tells receivers exactly what to do, and that the combination of digits gives you literally 1000 plays you can run without even considering the backs.

Or at least, it seems to. A downside of the system is that while it appears to give you a flexibility, many of the possible 3 digit combinations don’t really make sense. In other words, the Coryell system gives you options you don’t need.

974: this play makes no sense
Red Right 974: this play makes no sense

It would seem on the surface that new receivers could be brought up to speed quickly, taking a “do your job” approach to internalizing only their route tree in the Coryell system.

But in reality, there are many nuances to routes that are based on the overall route concept. Take a look at the inside receiver’s “8” route below:

The 8 route above isn’t just “plug and play”.

Whether a team views them as variations of the same route or totally separate routes, receivers do more than 10 things in a given game. And with the Coryell system limited to 10 digits per receiver, that’s a problem.

Concepts, not Trees

This is where the West Coast language can be a little more efficient. With just one word (“Texas”, for example), the receivers understand what to do conceptually. Y understands his job is to get vertical in a hurry, forcing the Mike to choose between him and the back underneath. He doesn’t just mindlessly run a “3” route hoping for the best. There is more memorization up front in the West Coast system, but once receivers have internalized the concepts that work can pay dividends.

How Much is Too Much?

Both sets of terminology have a strength that can also be a weakness: either set of language can get excruciatingly complex in a hurry.

That complexity has a benefit: these languages can truly describe anything on the field. Motions, shifts, tweaks to formations, modifying specific routes, etc. are all possible with a wordy playcall.

That description comes at a cost, however. First, it “costs” a lot of practice time to install all of the things either language could refer to. Just because you could potentially run every play and motion under the sun doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

If the entire system relies on memorizing and internalizing concepts (as the West Coast terminology does), increasing the memorization for players increases the likelihood that someone screws up on the field. The more you try to do, the fewer reps you have in practice to actually get good at doing those things. As tempting as it can be to draw up the perfect play for every situation, the best play is always one the players understand thoroughly and have practiced.

Coaches need to strike a balance between using new plays to create solutions and flooding their players with too much complexity.

I Just Couldn’t Spit it Out

The second issue with complexity is that the actual calls themselves get really tough. To quote Cam Newton, Simplistic = Fast. And, well...

Just check out this sequence involving Jon Gruden’s West Coast language:

That’s Chris Simms, who had played enough football to start for the University of Texas Longhorns, set multiple passing records, and then get drafted to play in the NFL. Currently, he is literally paid to talk. And he can’t even spit these out in camp.

Its hard enough to make these kinds of calls in a practice setting, let alone on a big 3rd down with TJ Watt on the other side of the field, thousands of terrible towels waving in Heinz Field, and millions of people watching on TV.

The best playcall is the one you can relay into the quarterback in the huddle and to the rest of the players on the field.

Solutions: Looking to the Air Raid

If the strength of the descriptiveness of the West Coast language is also a potential pitfall, how can teams maximize what the language can do?

The Air Raid terminology is helpful here, because it evolved as basically a stripped-down version of the West Coast Offense. By simplifying some aspects of the offense, limiting the amount of offense, and focusing the playbook, the Air Raid was able to evolve to a much simpler language.

Here is Mike Leach’s call for his 4 Verts play at Oklahoma: “Blue Right 6”. That’s it.

“Blue” means a split back formation with one wideout to each side, “Right” means that F and Y align to the right, with H to the left. “6” encompasses the entire route concept.

If you want to go to a lightning-fast hurry up offense for either a 2 minute drill or just to put the pressure on a defense, Leach could stay in “Blue Right” for an entire series and call the entire play with one number.

But the Air Raid isn’t really a playbook, it is an attitude.

The idea of boiling an offense down and solving problems with as few plays as possible is part of that attitude. Do one thing, and do it well.

When you’re stripping down your playbook and keeping only what is necessary, something good typically happens: you run multiple plays that start off the same to a defense but end up changing. Here are the next two pages from Leach’s playbook:

Same exact start to the play, but if the defense’s answer to 4 Verts is to play soft and take away the deep areas of the field, now you can call 60 or 66 and take what they are giving you underneath.

The offense has two distinct advantages in football: they know where their people are going, and they know when they will go there. Keeping a defense honest and maintaining those advantages is critical for a successful offense, and the (good) Air Raid teams do it by keeping things simple and only running what they need–as many plays as possible look the same at the start.

Stefanski’s Challenge

As skeptical as I am of the NFL’s supposed playbook superiority, I think that a college offense dropped verbatim into the NFL would need to change. Recruiting is not the same as the draft and free agency, players are generally much more experienced and smarter, and there is a higher concentration of incredibly talented game-wrecking players in the league.

Coaches get to spend their entire in-season lives dedicated to football, they don’t have to recruit, and you have to play your division rivals twice per year. Heck, even the playing field itself is different.

New head coach Kevin Stefanski will be tasked with achieving balance between the verbose language and overstuffed playbooks of old school NFL teams and the hyper-streamlined college playbooks that might not provide enough answers.

He can best accomplish this by reducing unnecessary items from his offense, and making plays look the same to the defense, which he seems committed to:

I know what that feels like when you have a run that looks like that pass and a pass that looks like a run. I can tell you in putting our scheme together last year - it was very comforting when you had a player like [Vikings S] Harrison Smith come up to you and tell you, man, that is a tough scheme that you are running. This is really hard on the defense.’ That gave us great confidence knowing that we were down the right path.”

–Kevin Stefanski

By keeping a focused, concise playbook that “marries” the different phrases of the game well, Stefanski can keep his players focused on the on-field execution that actually matters, instead of simply spitting out the plays.