The Beauty Of The West Coast Offense

West Coast Offense
Bill Walsh is the founder of the West Coast offense and led the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories. Photo Credit: Loren Lloyd via Creative Commons License.

Football is a beautiful game. From looking at the diagram of a play to watching the play unfold, something about it is enchanting.

The West Coast offense is arguably the most artistic of all offenses in football. Every player on the offense has to be in sync for the play to work. It is known as a finesse offense and is a picturesque offense to watch in motion.

There are three factors which give this offense its charm. These factors are the quarterback/receiver connection, the offensive line, and the running back. Let’s explore the elegance of football through the eyes of the West Coast offense.

Quarterback/Receiver Connection:

One of the defining aspects of the West Coast offense was the drop back of the quarterback from the center. Before Bill Walsh arrived as an assistant coach in Cincinnati, quarterbacks would typically drop back and look for an open receiver. There was rarely a value with each step in the quarterback’s drop back.

The West Coast offense synchronizes the number of steps the quarterback takes to the patterns the receivers are running. The key is it is all about timing.

Walsh once made an instructional video for quarterbacks. In this video, he discusses the various steps the quarterback takes in the West Coast offense. Listening to his instructions is almost poetic as if classical music could be played while the quarterback goes through the steps.

Three quick steps

Three big steps

Five quick, open, throw

Five big, hitch, throw

Three big, Four quick, bounce, throw

Three big, Four quick, hitch-step, hitch-step, throw

A quarterback must be light on his feet to have the perfect timing with his receivers. Even the slightest misstep can lead to disaster. It is very much like a dance, where the slightest misstep can lead to broken ankles and broken dreams.

Footwork is everything. Even when the quarterback is forced out of the pocket, he must be light on his feet in order to stay in control.

When “The Catch” was made in the 1981 NFC Championship, Joe Montana was supposed to roll out of the pocket but with three defenders in his face, he had to maintain his composure and his body in order to have any chance of completing the pass.

Another factor in this play is the practice put into making this play possible. Montana and receiver Dwight Clark practiced completing the throw where only Clark could catch the football.

It is like a great dancing duo practicing day after day on the perfect routine. When the rehearsal arrives, the crowd sees nothing but beauty because the duo is in perfect sync. The beauty of this play lives on in NFL history and sparked a dynasty.

Walsh always taught his quarterbacks to throw the ball just in front of the receiver. This way the receiver can make the catch in stride and continue up the field.

This brings fluidity to the West Coast offense and makes it extremely dangerous for opposing defenses. The passing game is one motion when performed correctly and inspires imaginations to run wild.

Offensive Line:

There is perhaps no better representation of teamwork than a running play. The struggle of the offensive line to create an opening for the running back to make a significant gain is the epitome of grit and beauty all in one moment.

They wage war against their enemies across the line while fighting to protect their brothers from harm. It is ugly, it is elegant and it is everything football represents.

The perfect illustration of this is the drive that led to Clark’s memorable moment in the 1981 NFC Championship game. The 49ers had to go 89 yards against a tough Dallas Cowboys defense.

To make matters even more challenging, a number of 49ers had battled the flu during the week. The circumstances seemed insurmountable, but the grace of Walsh’s offense took hold and made this into a legendary drive.

Walsh was masterful in his game plan and decided to run most of the time on this drive. Through the mud and turmoil, the offensive line battled the resilient Cowboys defense.

The key plays they used are called 18 and 19 BOB. They sweep plays to either the left or right side of the field and require guards pulling to the outside to provide the lead blocks. Guards John Ayers and Randy Cross worked in tandem to pave the way to glory.

Much of the reason why the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s were so dominant is that the “Packer Sweep” used this same concept. It was all about teamwork. The ball carrier relied completely on the pulling guard.

Through the muck and mud of Candlestick Park, the 49ers mastered the nuances of 18 and 19 BOB until they reached the Cowboys’ six-yard line. That setup “The Catch” and the rest is history.

Running Back:

Running backs are fairly versatile in any offense but the West Coast offense takes the position to another level. The running back in this offense is required to block, run and catch. No running back was better suited for this offense than Roger Craig.

In 1985 he became the first player in NFL history to rush and receive for 1000 yards each in the same season. The fact that he played both running back and fullback in his career with the 49ers speaks volumes about his versatility. He was able to take the punishment as a somewhat undersized fullback his first couple of years in the NFL and made the transition to half back seamlessly.

This versatile player brings balance to an often pass-heavy offense. He serves as an outlet receiver when the quarterback is in trouble and provides a change of pace on the ground. He must be among the most knowledgeable of the offense due to how much depends on his play. The perfection of the West Coast offense relies on his performance.

Final Thoughts:

The West Coast offense highlights the beauty of football. It requires teamwork and brotherhood in the midst of adversity. In the process, it becomes an art. The fluidity of the offense is not only dangerous to opposing defenses, it brings a certain elegance to the offense. The West Coast offense has spread throughout the NFL and will continue to have a lasting influence for years to come.