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Football 101: What is a West Coast Offense?

Recently, I was asked by a member of the site if there was a way, during the offseason, to put together a kind of Football 101 guide, breaking down some of the common terms that are used around the game, but may not be fully understood. Let's start with the West Coast Offense.

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Welcome to the first day of school.  Throughout this offseason, we will be holding class here on The Phinsider, giving a look at some of the more common terms around the NFL - and especially around the Miami Dolphins - that you may have heard, you may even use, but you may not really understand.

Some of you may fully understand these topics, so these articles are not for you.  But, not everyone fully understands what some of these things mean.  We will try to make this series into something that you can (1) read now and learn a little bit more about the game and (2) refer back to later in the year.  We will organize the posts and have a link to them in the nav bar up above.  Watch for that link when we get to the second post in the series.

Our first post will take a look at the basic offensive system the Miami Dolphins use, assuming they stick with it under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.

West Coast Offense

The West Coast Offense, at least as we now know the system, derives from the "nickel and dime" offensive system of Bill Walsh.  However, that was not the only "West Coast" system.  The term also referred to the "Air Coryell" system, but when it was used by Bernie Kosar to describe this system, a reporter mistakenly thought he meant the Walsh system, and the name stuck.

Walsh initially developed the "West Coast Offense" when he was the quarterbacks coach and offensive play caller for the Cincinnati Bengals.  The Bengals had rookie Greg Cook at quarterback in 1969, only to see him tear his rotator cuff in Week 3 of the season.  Walsh completely redesigned his offense, removing the vertical passing attack that Cook's shoulder could no longer support, and inserting the "nickel-and-dime" plays.  Rather than running the ball to set up deep passing attacks, Walsh would now turn to his running backs and tight ends for short, ball control passes, using the short pass to spread the defense before taking the longer shots.

Walsh's quarterbacks would stay under center, using three- or five-step drops to quickly deliver the ball on slant and swing passes.  His offense was based, primarily, on two running backs on the field, along with a tight end, and the quarterback distributing the ball to multiple receivers throughout the game.  Walsh would use motion to set up matchups and allow the passing game to control the tempo of the game, rather than simply using a power running game, as most other teams did through the 1980s and early 1990s.

The West Coast Offense has obviously evolved since Walsh's inception, with the shotgun formation and a more advanced running game entering the plans.  Where Walsh was more concerned with protecting the quarterback by having more players in the backfield, today's West Coast Offenses are spreading out more, with three- and four-wide receiver sets much more prevalent than the Walsh system.

The keys to the West Coast Offense are still apparent today, just as they were under Walsh in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  Teams running a WCO-based system will look to spread a defense horizontally across the field, typically inside 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, before attempting longer passes in the open lanes caused by the defensive adjustments to the shorter, wider passes.  The receiving routes will be dominated by slants, crossing routes, comebacks, and flat passes.  The offense will look to control the ball through the short passing game, using the pass to set up the run, rather than run to set up the pass, and they will throw the ball in any down-and-distance situation.

Key Player Types

Typical players in a WCO are:

Quarterback: Mobile, accurate passer who makes good decisions.  Does not have to have the strongest arm, since short passes are the key.

Linemen: Mobile, agile blockers who can roll a pocket with a mobile quarterback.  The WCO is not a power running game, so zone blocking is more prominent.

Wide receivers: Accurate route runners, with good timing with the quarterback.  Needs to be able to separate himself in traffic and make a play after the catch on shorter routes.

Running backs: Need to be a receiving threat, with good route-running skills.  Also needs to be able to pass block, protecting the quarterback on 5-step drops.  The offense will look to break longer runs later in a  game, so a home run threat running back, who can step up and pass block, is ideal.  Does not necessarily need to be the biggest, power runner.

Tight ends: Needs to be a blocker, as well as a possession receiver.  Has to have good hands, able to catch a ball in traffic, especially over the middle as a progression target.

[Hat tip to miamimaniac for the concept of this series.]

Keith Beebe contributed to this article.