The Pac-10 and the West Coast Offense
Like a virus, it has infected most teams
Updated 24 January 2004
The West Coast Offense
is like a computer virus. There are many variations of it, and it has
infected most teams in the Pac-10. At Washington, coach Keith Gilbertson is no Peter Norton; he's
not into scrubbing viruses.
As the Huskies' fortune-cookie has crumbled amidst the
competition for 5-star recruits, their offense has gone south--literally, towards San Diego,
the home of the West Coast Offense, where it was fashioned by Sid Gillman of
the NFL Chargers and Don Coryell of the San Diego State Aztecs/NFL
According to Tom Ramsey, former UCLA/ NFL
quarterback, almost every team in the Pac-10 runs a version of the WCO. In
my estimation, as a fan, the Washington Huskies are no exception.
Ramsey quarterbacked the Bruins in 1980-’82 and played
in a variation of the WCO as it was designed by Offensive Coordinator Homer
Smith, who borrowed bits and pieces of it from Coryell and the Chargers.
Ramsey says, “The
Bill Walsh era with the 49ers added a whole new dimension to the WCO,
incorporating RB's as legitimate receiving threats all over the
field...Also, they used more 3-step drops for the QB, allowing less
opportunity for a QB sack."
Because it has become tougher to run the ball
in the Pac-10, the WCO, with its concept of stretching the field
horizontally as well as vertically, has become de rigueur among
offensive coordinators. It’s easy to see why, for it’s a worrisome task they
have. There are those eight defensive men in the box, with their propensity
for stuffing the run or sacking the quarterback. The defensive
linemen are huge, and speed is the hallmark of REBS, SAMS, MIKES and WILLS.
To make matters worse for an offensive coordinator, there are cornerback
blitzes and zone blitzes to zap his sleep at night.
Because of the 85-player scholarship limitation imposed
by the NCAA, most teams in the Pac-10 don’t have the dominating offensive
line, outstanding running back, and dominating defense to make an offense
designed around the running game excel.
Furthermore, the traditional passing game, which stretches the field
vertically, can cause turnovers, lose the time of possession battle (because
of three and outs), and lose the field position battle (because of sacks and
The less risky way to face these defensive problems
embraces the concepts of the West Coast Offense.
Hence, most teams in the Pac-10 use bits and pieces of
the WCO, as Tom Ramsey says.
USC is now “Quarterback U” rather than “Tailback U.”
Norm Chow and 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, stand up and take a bow.
At Pullman, the Cougars have as many eligible receivers
on pass plays as Elizabeth Taylor has ex-husbands. Well, almost.
In 2002, Washington, a 7-6 team, finished second in
the conference in time-of-possession and led the conference for its lack of
penalties incurred, stats that are in keeping with a WCO. Although its
passing offense led the conference and was fourth in the nation, its failure
to run the ball effectively accounted for its losses.
During that season, deep passing routes at the UW were replaced by
Pickett’s short drop and quick release and by precise timing routes run by his
Elsewhere in the conference,
teams were dumping the ball off to a receiver in the hope that he could gain
those extra yards (Run after Catch).
At Arizona, WR Bobby
Wade, not the fastest of the fastest, burned cornerbacks and safeties
because of his elusiveness after catching the ball. Against California, Wade
caught 11 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, as the Wildcats upset the
coordinators in the Pac-10 are looking for tailbacks, flankers, split ends,
fullbacks and tight ends that can catch the ball and then put some moves on
a would-be defender. Many passing formations have as many as five potential
receivers. There are 4 WR sets, 3 WR sets, and 2 TE sets, all of
which intend to attack a defense with more receivers than it is prepared to
cover. Short passes to the tight end and running backs are key to ball
At this juncture, it
is more important for the Huskies to have the soft hands of a Jerramy
Stevens at tight end rather than the blocking skills of a Kevin Ware. For
the coaches, it's a matter of getting the right personnel on the field to
fashion their version of the WCO.
attempt to angle in or slant in on the blocks of the offensive linemen, zone
blocking has become standard for an offensive lineman. Offensive linemen are double teaming
defensive tackles, during the course of which, one of them breaks off to
block a linebacker. Instead of creating holes big enough for a Town and
Country, linemen are looking for ways to open holes for a PT-Cruiser.
Man-to-man blocking is as unfashionable as being a Hippy.
Coaches are looking
for the passing game to set up the run, the reverse of what it used to be.
That is not to say that a team must not run the ball well in the WCO--just
not as well as it did in its run-oriented days because of the nature of
Teams are looking for
touch passers--a Dan Fouts or Joe Montana--instead of a strong-armed
behemoth, although a John Elway, who comprises both entities, would be
acceptable. Mobility and smarts for a quarterback are prime requisites of
virus is infecting teams from other parts of the country. Bill Callahan,
formerly the coach of the Oakland Raiders, is bringing it to Nebraska of all
places. At Notre Dame, former Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham is replacing
an option attack with a WCO implementation; however, it's complex to
install. Offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick estimates that it is less than
25% of what it was at Stanford.
Due to the
complexity of the WCO, UCLA (6-7 this season) struggled with its full
implementation, as it was brought
to them by Karl Dorrell of the Denver Broncos.
Due to player
losses each year, college teams may transition from the WCO to other offensive schemes
based on the personnel at hand. Due to Pickett's graduation, for example,
the Huskies, without too much perturbation, could transition from their
version of the WCO to the Spread Offense used by Urban Meyer at Utah.
They've hired Brent Myers, assistant coach at Utah last season, to coach the
offensive line. The Huskies have two mobile quarterbacks (another one
committed), each of whom fit the mold of a spread-offense quarterback, and
Myers will have some definite input as to the offensive scheme the Huskies
On Internet message
boards, fans are discussing the current state of Pac-10 football versus that
of the good old days--when reaching the Pantheon of greats was simply a
matter of being better at blocking and tackling. For most teams, being
better than others in those fundamentals, requires an infusion of 5-star
athletes inside their recruiting mix. And, for most coaches in the Pac-10,
seeing five stars in one package is as nebulous as seeing them in a nebula
inside the Milky Way.
As football is played
in the Pac-10, we fans have Don Coryell, Sid Gillman and Bill Walsh to
thank. Really, without them and the WCO, we’d have nothing to argue about.
Indeed, football would be a boring game.
According to Bill Walsh, in the ideal setup, the wide
receivers would catch 15 passes a game, the running backs would catch 10
and the tight ends would catch five. A team is looking for 25 first downs
Short-to-medium-range passing attack. Receivers are
expected to "Run After Catch.
Players must have more discipline; they have little
opportunity for freelancing.
Use the pass to set up the run. The most successful
WCO teams run the ball well.
If a team gains 7-8 yards per run, it can run as
little as one out of four plays; otherwise, the WCO calls for an equal
number of running and passing plays.
He must throw on rhythm
and timing. As Steve Young says,
"In contrast, the West
Coast offense as it originated with Bill Walsh is any play or set of plays
that tie the quarterback's feet to the receiver's route so there is a
sense of timing."
The quarterback must be mobile, be able to throw a
touch pass with accuracy, and be intelligent.
In the 2-WR, 2-RB, 1-TE base set, any of these five
players can be the primary receiver at any given time.
Defenses are given a variety of looks, with an
offense attacking a defense with more receivers than it can cover.
Mismatches and confusion are created on defense by using 2 TE sets, 4 WR
sets, and 3 WR sets, etc.
Using motion forces a defense to cover players with
inappropriate players for coverage, i.e., it creates mismatches.
Throw the football on any down or distance.
To maintain ball control, short passes to the tight
end and swing passes to running backs are key. Use tight ends who can
catch better than block if there is a question of personnel. Tight ends
are key to a red zone attack.
The quarterback must be able to release the ball
quickly and accurately on timing after a 3-step drop. Receivers run
precision routes. The offense is designed to keep the quarterback healthy.
After the QB drops 3-steps back, one of the receivers
should be open to catch a pass if necessary. Ron Jenkins calls him the HOT
Power running behind zone blocking to minimize
negative yardage plays. This is a departure from the 49ers version of the
WCO that used man-blocking and cut blocks and misdirection.
“Coaching the Multiple West Coast Offense,” Coaches Choice, 2001.
Walsh, Bill with
Glenn Dickey, “Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the
49ers,” Saint Martins Press, 1990.
can be reached at