Can half of the offense coordinators in the NFL be wrong? Yes, and not just in the NFL. Several college and high school programs are making the mistake of running the West Coast Offense. Here is why.
Before I tell you why the West Coast Offense has some serious flaws, I should probably nail down the identity of this offense (which is not always easy). The West Coast Offense has had, and still has, many incarnations. Also, the lineage of this offense is not crystal clear, as it started popping up in college and pro teams around the 70’s but usually Bill Walsh gets the credit for developing it (admittedly the West Coast origins are more complicated than that). Whatever the history may be, I would define a West Coast scheme as one that utilizes a lot of short-to-medium passes, especially to the middle, with an emphasis on obtaining RAC yards and QB’s possessing proper footwork.
The West Coast system is not that bad. I know that may sound like back-peddling but this system can work. Bill Walsh admitted he came up with his system as an ad hoc system to help a Bengal’s offense that just lost a good QB (Greg Cook). Several teams have won games, even championships with it. So, what is my beef with it?
To start with, I am from the school that there is no one scheme or play that is the end-all-to-be-all. Great players, and great teams, win championships and they will do so using different systems. The West Coast system in 1980 was the anti-thesis to the traditional drop-back and throw passing styles that existed. Now it is the thesis and everything non-West Coast is seen as unorthodox. I believe the West Coast system was successful do in large part because it was unorthodox for its time (and why it should go away at least for awhile). Half the teams in the NFL run it; that should be reason enough to make one think twice about adopting this style. Defenses from high school up to pro are starting to become accustomed to it and that is even more so if a team’s own offense runs a version of this scheme. Many coaches use this system simply because it’s the only system they know. This cop-out is true of other systems as well, but it is no good reason for keeping this offense around.
The West Coast Offense is demanding of its personnel. You need a QB with fast feet and an accurate arm. He needs to have great timing as well. Receivers have to be great, or at least good, to make this system work. At least one physical running back, who can fill multiple rolls (think Roger Craig) must be present. Oh yeah, and a line that can pass and run block well. What offense wouldn’t do well with players like that? Let’s be honest, does anyone really believe that this system would not be as famous and beloved as it is, had not a certain superstar athlete named Jerry Rice been a 49er? Again great players and teams win games and often times the system is ancillary.
The West Coast Offense is fraught with all kinds of problems. The running portion within this system is relatively simple and thus easy to figure out. Usually, a West Coast team is content to pass until players get fatigued or they want to sit on a lead. If you can force this offense to run, more times than not their running game is not strong enough to bail them out. Often times the run is employed to keep defenses honest, and cannot sustain an attack.
The West Coast Offense is almost designed around having the QB throw into “traffic” which creates a lot of interceptions. Defenses that run a lot of zone (especially cover 2 teams) frequently jam up the passing lanes that are within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. One could get away with numerous, short slants thirty years ago. However, defenses have evolved both stylistically and physically. Man coverage and simple zone was much more popular 30 years ago; the West Coast could do better against those defenses. Also, defensive players (especially cornerbacks) were much slower. Now there are cornerbacks who can run a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. Many pro cornerbacks were receivers in high school and/or college. Now an interception is not just an interception but it can easily turn into seven points for the other team. Does anybody remember Super Bowl XXXVII where the Buccaneer’s Cover 2 defense routed the Raider’s West Coast Offense?
There is an old football saying that “when you pass, three things can happen [incomplete, complete, and interception] and only one of them is good.” The West Coast philosophy gets the disadvantages of passing without as much of the upside as other passing systems. Oftentimes defenses do not have to generate a sack, interception, or even an incomplete pass to thwart a West Coast style offense; they just have to prevent receivers from getting run-after-catch (RAC) yards. How many times have you seen a QB check down twice, miss one throw, then call in the punter on 4th down?
The West Coast Offense is complex which can be a problem for high school and college programs that try to implement it. When the West Coast goes bad . . . it really goes bad. Sometimes inexperienced players are better served by just being physical and going with what they do well.
Lastly, chart depth is an issue in this system more so than in other systems. Timing is a big part of this system and that gets worked out at practice. Often times the starters do the majority of the drills with the QB (and not the second string) because they are the starters. If a starting player is unable to play due to whatever, then a cog in a fragile machine is missing. This is especially true if that starter is the QB.
So, that’s generally why I do not like the West Coast Offense. I agree with those who say the term gets used too frequently, and there are some versions of this system that have been so heavily modified that they are not really “West Coast”. I am not saying it’s as failed as, or should go the way of, the Single Wing Offense . . . but current football teams of every level would be better served by another system.