Basic tenets of the West Coast Offense

Hi folks,

The following is a bit of a primer on WCO principles. The information is NFL-centric, obviously, but the timing issues re QB footwork and pass route depth have application to any form of football.

"Tenets of the West Coast Offense

-- 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 5. A team is looking for 25 first downs a game. These quantities are referred to as "Walsh's numbers."

-- 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.

-- The quarterback must be mobile, be able to throw a touch pass with accuracy, and be intelligent. 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."

-- 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 receiver.

-- 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.

Figure 1. The defensive nomenclature used in this document. (This figure is patterned after Diagram 3-1, Chapter 3, "Coaching Football's Spread Offense," Tim Sowers, Barry Butzer).


[Smith]. Smith, Brian, "Defining Utah's Spread Offense," September 15, 2003.

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at


Steve Young, "West Coast helps QB make good decisions",

Len Pasquarelli, "An offense by any other name..."

One more article is revealing re the importnace of QB footwork in the WCO scheme:

It's all about the feet

  • Steve Young

"The best way to define the West Coast offense may be to start with what it isn't.

The traditional passing game, which NFL teams ran for years, is based on deep drops, quarterbacks bouncing and waiting for receivers to come open, one-on-one matchups and throwing the ball downfield.

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 offense cannot be taught or run based solely on a playbook. If a coach has no history in the West Coast and wants to teach it based on a playbook, he wouldn't get it. Timing and choreography, not plays, are what make the West Coast offense.

My definition might include a number of teams that aren't generally thought of as West Coast offense teams. In fact, most of the league uses some of the West Coast philosophy and perhaps even the Walsh tree of plays. For the most part, the system and the plays are intersecting, but they don't need to be. The quick slant is considered a staple West Coast play -- dropping three steps, planting and throwing on time and in rhythm with the receiver. But there are tons of ways to design West Coast plays, even if they didn't originate with Walsh.

Two weeks ago I visited the Patriots and met with quarterback Tom Brady. When I asked him about his drops and his reads, he said everything is about finding space, zone routes, man-zone reads, short drops and timing. Brady's footwork tells him when to throw the ball. So, while offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has no West Coast history or ties to Walsh and the 49ers system in his coaching background, the Patriots essentially are running the West Coast offense.

Meanwhile, based on how Kurt Warner and the other Rams quarterbacks throw the ball, Mike Martz does not run a West Coast offense in St. Louis. He uses a more traditional passing game in which the routes are not tied to the quarterback's feet.

Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who worked under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, will say, "We're not running the West Coast offense. I'm running my offense." Well, that's fine, Jon. And sure, he and other coaches may feel they don't run the West Coast, because they don't run Walsh's plays from 1980.

But I disagree. Although Gruden may run different plays and have different names for certain aspects of his offense, his plays are designed with the quarterback's footwork in mind. And that is the West Coast offense."

-- Steve Young

I'll have more on this later, but I think this is a good start!

P.S. The best website on the WCO, appears down at the moment. If and when it is accessible again, I'll give you a head's up.

Oski Wee Wee,

UREEKA!! I think you have hit on something. Now I know why things aren't working - The Cats are running the West Coast Offense, but we live on the East coast (more East than West).
Maybe we should tell Charlie he should be running the EAST Coast Offense...

The Eagle - :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

I already coined it the “North Coast” offense, Eagle… :smiley: :wink:

[url=] ... ic&t=16821[/url] ;)

Oski Wee Wee,

More like the Just Coast offence...which is what Maas seems to be doing.
Me thinks that Chang is better suited. Maas seems to respond better coming off the bench anyway. I think coach Taafe is just trying to not bruise Maas' confidence. Or maybe he likes him because he also has 2 aa's in his last name?

Hmmm… dropping back 3 or 5 steps, then releasing the pass AT A CERTAIN TIME… Does that mean that we had a WCO QB in Danny Mac?

Thanks for picking up on my suggestion
to discuss the WCO, Russ.

Here 2 cents worth from

The popular term “West Coast Offense” as a general concept
is more of a philosophy and an approach to the game
than it is a set of plays or formations.

Traditional offensive thinking argues that a team
must establish their running game first,

which will draw the defense in and open up
vertical passing lanes downfield

(passing lanes that run perpendicular to the line of scrimmage).

Walsh’s “West Coast Offense,” on the contrary, stipulates that

a defense must first be stretched with a short, horizontal passing attack

that features precisely-run pass patterns by the receivers,
this makes up about 65- 80% of the offensive scheme
with the rest more downfield throws ( 14 yards +)

The majority of these routes take place 15 yards and under.

3-step and 5-step drops by the quarterback
to take the place of the run and force the opposing defense
to commit their focus solely on those intermediate routes.

Contrary to popular belief, the offense also uses the 7 step drop
for shallow crosses, deep ins and comebacks.

Watch the Michigan Wolverines, they utilize
the 5 and 7 step drops about 85% of the time…

If the WCO only utilized the 3 and 5 step pass game
the offense would be ineffective with the speed today.
The defense would be squatting and breaking hard
on those short to intermediate throws
with no fear of a downfield pass.

Once the defense is focusing on one area only,

this will then open up running and passing lanes
for the backs and receivers to exploit.

In theory, this makes the offensive play calling
unpredictable and keeps a defense’s play “honest”

because most down and distance situations can be attacked
with the pass or run in Walsh’s “West Coast Offense.”

Beyond this basic principle of passing to set up the run,
there are few rules that govern Walsh’s “WCO”.

Originally the offense used two split backs,
giving it an uneven alignment

in which five players aligned to one side of the ball
and four players aligned on the other side

(with the quarterback and center
directly behind the ball).

Although Walsh-influenced “WCO” teams now commonly use
formations with more or fewer than two backs,

the offense’s unevenness is still reflected
in its pass protection philosophy

and continues to distinguish it from single back passing offenses.

Throughout the years, coaches have added to,
adjusted, modified, simplified, and enhanced

Bill Walsh’s original adaptation of the Paul Brown offense.
Formations and plays vary greatly, as does play calling.

Another key part of the Walsh “WCO”
was “pass first, run later.”

It was Walsh’s intention to gain
an early lead by passing the ball,

then run the ball on a tired defense
late in the game, wearing them down
further and running down the clock.

The San Francisco 49ers under Walsh
often executed this very effectively.

Requirements and Disadvantages

The West Coast offense requires a quarterback
who throws extremely accurately, and often blindly,

very close to opposing players hands.

In addition, it requires the quarterback to be able to
quickly pick one of 5 receivers to throw to, much quicker
than previously used systems.

Often, the quarterback cannot think about the play,
but instead reacts instinctively–and thus is often
the offensive coordinator, calls the plays for him.

The West Coast offense requires sure-handed receivers
comfortable catching in heavy traffic.

receivers must follow precise, complicated routes
as opposed to innovation; so subservient, intelligent players
are valued more than independent, less-intelligent pure athletes.

A West Coast offense thus requires a willing, accurate passer
and sure-handed receivers with intelligence.

Finally, the West Coast offense, with
its emphasis on quick reactive skills,

can be seen to further develop
the running quarterback motif,

where extremely fast running quarterbacks (Michael Vick,
Jake Plummer, Steve Young) are valued if they are good passers,
because, in blitz or short-yardage situations,

when the West Coast offense’s value is negated,
the running quarterback can make up this difference
by posing a threat to make the first down himself,
paralyzing an aggressive defense.


A Walsh innovation in his “WCO” was scripting
the first 15 offensive plays of the game

( Walsh went as far as to scripting
the first 25 plays but most teams stop at 15).

Scripting had several valuable assets.

First, the offensive team knew that the first 15 plays
would be run as scripted no matter what,

allowing them to practice the plays to perfection,
minimizing mistakes and penalties.

Success of the offense could establish momentum
and dictate the flow of the game.

Scripting added an element of surprise,
since a defense who had a 3rd and long

could be caught off guard by a scripted play
that had no relationship to the current situation.

It also gave the coaching staff an opportunity
to run test plays against the defense

to gauge their reactions in game situations.

Later in the game, an observed tendency in a certain situation
by the opposing defense could be exploited.

Well, Danny in his prime could have been an excellent candidate simply because of his quick decision-making and release.

However, given the design of RD Lancaster’s offensive scheme (mostly shotgun-based), I would classify it more as a spread offense.

Danny was a one-bounce and fire kind of gunslinger when most effective.

Barresi’s offense had more I-sets, 2 TEs, swing passes, and the like, but given how Danny threw deep when he did (again often from the shotgun), I don’t think the routes were linked to Danny’s footwork. It was certainly a short-passing offensive approach, but it was not WCO-driven from what I could tell.

Mind you, probably the most successful play in the arsenal during the 2005 season was the quick slant underneath to Yeast!

Oski Wee Wee,

The defense would be squatting and breaking hard on those short to intermediate throws [b]with no fear of a downfield pass.

I think this is the most SALIENT point, as it relates to the Tiger Cats, and Jason Maas.

This is the CRUX of the Maas issue ... WHEN the team is running on all cylinders ... will Jason be CAPABLE of keeping the defenses HONEST !!

Until the engine is FINE TUNED ... we'll just have to bear WITNESS to the BACKFIRING.

With the MECHANCIS in charge, however, it shouldn't be too long before the team is on CRUISE CONTROL.


Thanks Meanstreak, for a while there

I thought I was wasting my time

casting pearls of wisdom at the feet of swine.


Actually, I thought I was wasting Russ's time.

It was me who asked for someone to educate us
about the West Coast Offence.

No, sigpig.

Danny and Darren learned their choreography
from some Palooka named Knobby Walsh

who was a dance instructor in Vancouver
at the Arthur Murray School Of Dance.


SHEEESH...Might as well join them.

It is a system that takes time to master. MS, you're right to point out the "cruise control" aspect since it works like a fine-oiled machine when it runs correctly.

It takes time for receivers to buy into the design of any WCO-derived system. Receivers must not freelance in terms of route depth. A seven-yard out IS a seven-yard out because the ball will be going into that window.

Zone check-offs are built into the mechanics of the system. Finding holes in zones AT THE CORRECT DEPTH and getting in them to be an open target. Darren Flutie was the best at making these kinds of adjustments that I've ever seen in a Ticat uniform -- and it made Mac-to-Flutie a lethal combo!

Tom Clements was perhaps the most ideal QB that the Ticats have had to run this kind of offense: excellent mobility, great accuracy, and the ability to stretch defences vertically AND horizontally. I fully expect Timmy Chang to develop into a star QB given time in this kind of approach because he has the tools and systems pedigree in Hawaii's offense to run rollout-based timing schemes.

Maas has the advantage currently of being able to read CFL defences because of his experience. The question as this season develops is whether he has the arm strength and endurance to stretch defences vertically and whether he can develop synchronicity with a yet-to-be-stabilized receiving corps. If he can't by the end of July, I have no doubt it will be Chang Time simply because the kid will be able to improvise whenever plays break down.

Taaffe is the figure most responsible for A.C. becoming an elite QB in Montreal, IMO, and I see that happening with Chang, barring injury.

Time will tell. That timetable is linked to what Jason Maas can do in the next few weeks.

Oski Wee Wee,

Great thread Russ!

Kerrr Bump!

It sure seems like a very complex and timing based system but the entire ideology of it seems to be about timing. Its not that challenging for a defensive back to mess up a receivers timing.. its called bumping off the line or jamming. Remember Coris Ervin? he was a master at jamming.

to add to that.. wouldn't man to man bump and run cover be very effective against this style of O?

Thanks, David!

One other aspect that I think fans should understand re the transitional aspects of applying the WCO to a CFL context is that the pre-snap motion rules place some challenges on the timing aspects of a WCO "CFL-sized." Slotbacks in particular need to maintain focus in their rhythm as they approach the line of scrimmage (the Ralph offside error being one notable exception last game) and that the "launch point" of their routes must conform to the general rationale behind the play design.

It simply does not help the timing of the play for a receiver to be two strides behind the line of scrimmage if the play has timing specific to when the receiver crosses the LoS. You cannot have plays where the receiver screws up the timing by being late into his cuts and reaching the design route depths!

This is the bane of all timing approaches as far as QB-slot interactions go. What made Danny Mac and Flutie so brilliant (read Clements and Crawford and Kerrigan to Rocky as well) is that although they may not have had a WCO-stamped playbook in use, these combos shared a synchroncity where the slots got to where they had to go to get the ball in the window the QB intended to place it.

So much of our receiving problems in recent years I believe is that accountability to running precise routes simply hasn't been the priority it has to be. Credit the Cats for getting a receivers coach (Dennis Goldman) to instruct the receivers into becoming better thinkers on the field.

It will take time, but I believe the kind of magic of Dickenson-to-Simon and Dickenson-to-Clermont we see weekly from the Lions will eventually percolate into the Cat offense with the right perseverance and accountability.

Oski Wee Wee,

The point I made just above yours kind of touches on this. If the DB’s can bump and run well I imagine that would be very effective vs a WCO.

Absolutely, zenstate! The Tampa-2 system of Tony Dungy (and Bucs DC Monte Kiffin) is precisely that: a bump-and-run system in its base Cover-2 shell, with the CBs applying press coverage to wideouts within the five-yard contact area.

It is the Kryptonite to the Superman of the WCO in terms of zone approaches. Zone blitzing a la the "Blitzburg" schemes of the Steelers under Dick LeBeau has also come into vogue to throw off QB reads and thereby disrupt the timing.

3-4 defences tend to have greater success re pass-incompletion percentages against WCO opponents. Steve Young has identified the "Big Blue" 3-4 Giants defences of Parcells and Belichick as the toughest he ever played against.

The CFL's contact area, in contrast, is only one yard. Hence you can jam wide recievers, but it is a chore to try the same against slotbacks approaching the line of scrimmage in full flight.

A defensive back can defend his space, but cannot impede a receiver from running his route by contacting the receiver who is going away from him.

For me, the best bump-and-run CB in history was the Raiders' Lester Hayes: an intelligent, physical, and agile defender who personified the concept of "shut-down" corner through his use of press coverage.

Rod Woodson in his Steeler prime was a very close second in the "bump-and-run hall of fame," IMHO.

Deion Sanders would be my choice as a "total package" corner, particularly for his speed and guile in any coverage context.

Oski Wee Wee,

Another good article that discusses the Gillman-Coryell-Zampese WCO tree can be found here:

[url=] ... _football/[/url]

And the piece de resistance, a primer on basic American football strategy at ... menclature

Oski Wee Wee,

That Wikipedia American Football Nomenclature website
sure is a thorough piece of work on the basics, Russ. WOW!!

It hurts my head just skimming through it.

Great thread Russ:

Two things worry me right now about the West Coast Offence:

  • this is a brand new team that has not worked together before. A complex offence like the WCO takes time to perfect. Can we afford a long learning curve this season if we are to meet the team's goal of making the playoffs this year?

  • one of the disadvantages is "it requires the quarterback to be able to quickly pick one of 5 receivers to throw to, much quicker than previously used systems.
    Often, the quarterback cannot think about the play, but instead reacts instinctively etc". Nuff said ...with our QB situation as it is now.

I'm sure Charlie is way ahead on this but it would be nice to hear his response to these concerns.