Can the West Coast Offense be taught anywhere besides the NFL?

Is it possible to run the “West Coast Offense” — the offense credited to Bill Walsh and those of his “coaching tree” — at any level other than the NFL? The answer is not necessarily clear. Indeed, despite being the most prevalent offense in the NFL, the WCO seems designed to overwhelm any college or high school team attempting to install it, whether from the voluminous playbook, playcalls that sound like something from NASA, or the difficult throws that only NFL guys can make. Despite its wonderful aspects and results, there’s a reason that many a high school coach with the best of intentions has junked the West Coast Offense after a few miserable games to return to some simpler and more trusted approach that has the advantage of being something his kids can actually do.

west coast

One, two, three, throw

Yet it must be possible to run the west coast offense at the lower levels, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the most important elements of the offense can definitely be applied to the lower levels, while Jon Gruden’s extensive call sheets can be left aside. The no is just that: you won’t be able to run every formation, motion, and play in Holmgren’s Packers playbook, but fortunately you don’t have to. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about installing the WCO. The wrong way is to download a WCO playbook and try to install Walsh’s verbatim. That approach is also known as suicide. Instead, to use the offense at the lower levels (including college)  — or even to merely understand why the WCO and is such a good offense — it’s necessary to focus on the offense’s core principles.

1. Timing-based, ball control passing game. Routes are timed to match receiver steps and quarterback steps, with a healthy mix between 3-step and 5-step drops. It’s not about long bombs (though it has these too), but instead about efficiency. This is probably Walsh’s defining legacy. Most of Walsh’s plays existed before he came around — you can find Paul Brown and Sid Gillman using them, among others — but Walsh’s passing game exploded because he was essentially the passing game’s first risk manager. Although quarterbacks had long been able to sling the ball — for example, Joe Namath threw for over 4,000 in 1967 — Walsh’s quarterbacks became great by what they didn’t do: they didn’t throw incompletions (Walsh’s quarterbacks consistently completed over 60% of their passes, and occasionally closer to 70%), they didn’t throw interceptions (the interception rate per pass attempt went way down) ; and they didn’t take sacks, owing to Walsh’s meticulousness about their not holding on to the ball too long.

To compare this to the prior generation of signal callers, in 1977 the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl despite Ken Stabler’s 20 interceptions; in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite Terry Bradshaw’s 20 interceptions; and, in 1978, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and won more games … despite the fact that Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions. (In 2009, only three quarterbacks threw 20 or more interceptions: two rookies, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, and Jay Cutler, who had some issues in that department.) Moreover, if you roll the relevant passing stats together you get a useful stat called “Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt,” which averages how many yards are achieved per passing attempt (which usefully combines completion percentage and average yards gained per completion), with the adjusted part being the subtraction of yards to account for interceptions. has an in house version of Adj. YPA quite similar to what I’ve described, and the upshot is that Walsh’s quarterbacks, Montana and Young, average between one and a half and two adjusted yards per pass attempt more than Hall of Famers from an older generation, like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Stabler, Bob Griese, and so on. The difference was the efficiency, the careful approach, and the timing.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that it’s really important to focus on the details. It’s one thing to say that the WCO “treated short passes like runs” and used a “ball control approach to the passing game,” but it’s another to make pass plays so routine that they really become as second nature to the players as a handoff off-tackle. You do that through intense drill-work and matching routes, reads, and drops.

2. Meticulous gameplanning. If his legacy is not about reducing the risks of throwing the ball through a disciplined approach, it is by revolutionizing how coaches prepare for games through simple organization: scripting plays, analyzing tendencies, self-scouting, probing defenses to look for weaknesses, and so on. As with his plays, none of Walsh’s innovations here were truly new, but his approach obviously worked because not only was his success outsized but so has been the success of those who coached with him — those that were able to observe his methods.  Applied to the lower levels, it is about having a plan for gameplanning, designing practices around what actually happens in games and using as many “situational” or “game-like” scenarios as possible, and treating the creation of the scripted plan and playcall sheet as tools to be organized during the game (when you have the least time to think and things are craziest). You don’t need to produce 200 page scouting reports (like this one which Mike Shanahan and co. made for the Denver Broncos as they prepared for the Indy Colts in 2002) but the creation of a thorough plan will make you a better coach and will make your practices more focused on the things that matter.

3. “Balance” between running versus passing. Now, I have written a lot about notions of balance but and how I don’t think traditional notions — an equal number of runs or passes or an equal amount of passing and rushing yardage — is a useful way to think about the concept. But there is no doubt that the West Coast Offense wants to be balanced in a meaningful way: the defense must fear both the run and the pass. Now, again, the WCO is a pass-first offense, so I think the best way to think about whether your team has sufficient balance is to contrast the offense with offenses that don’t care about balance, like the Airraid teams or run-heavy option squads. And the best way I know of to determine that is to ask whether the play-action pass is a legitimate threat. For many pass-first spreads, the play-action pass is a non-starter because the run is an afterthought. But it is also the main source of the West Coast Offense’s explosive plays.

Indeed, Walsh as Walsh explained:

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

In highly competitive football, it is very unlikely that you will be able to run the ball so effectively that you will not need to do anything else to move the football. There is no question that having the play-pass, as a part of your offensive arsenal, can allow you to get a key first down or big chunks of yardage.

And when do you need those kinds of play-action passes? When you’re in the scoring zone:

I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their placekicker, because right at that point defenses change, the field they can operate in changes, and suddenly their basic offense goes all to pieces.

My contention is that if we are on their 25, we’re going for the end zone. Failing at that, we will kick a field goal. In an evenly matched game, I don’t want to try to take the ball from their 25 to the goal line by trying to smash it through people, because three out of four times, you won’t make it. Unless you are superior. Of course, if you are vastly superior it makes very little difference how you do it.

Why? First, every defensive coach in the country is going to his blitzes about right there. The pass coverage, by and large, will be man-to-man coverage. We know that if they don’t blitz one down, they’re going to blitz the next down. Automatically. They’ll seldom blitz twice in a row but they’ll blitz every other down. If we go a series where there haven’t been blitzes on the first two downs, here comes the safety blitz on the third down. So we are looking, at that point, to get into the end zone.

By the style of our football, we’ll have somebody to get the ball to a little bit late-just as an outlet to get 4 or 5 yards, to try to keep it. But from the 25 to the 10, we’re going for the end zone.

The bottom line is that you must be able to run the ball enough and well enough to make the play-action passes go. The rest is ball-control passing and getting the ball to the playmakers. If you use ball control passes, the draw play, base runs, and well practiced play-action passes, you’ll know by the defense’s reactions (Is the safety flying up for the run? Are the linebackers respecting our slot receivers? Do the linebackers begin each play with their pass drops?) whether they are sufficiently respecting your run game or not. And you use those reactions to burn them.

4. Keep it limited. This is where you must differ from the Walsh offense, or the Holmgren offense, or the Sean Payton offense, or any other pro coach. At the lower levels — including college — you don’t need a thousand plays. You need a core set of plays that fit together. You don’t need 15 versions of the same flat pass and no good Cover 4 beater. My recommendation is to limit yourself when running the West Coast Offense at lower levels by picking around 10 or so pass plays and 5-6 run plays (along with screens, bootlegs, and other constraint plays). [Ed Note: I didn’t mention protections — you need one or two versatile protection schemes as well as some kind of roll-out or sprint out scheme; most WCO playbooks have way too many different protections.] You must then figure out a systematic way to mesh your playcalls, play-action, and so on in both a huddle and no-huddle environment, and then get your Vince Lombardi on and simply practice these plays repeatedly until you get unbelievable at them. Remember, it’s a waste of time to practice and install plays that will not get used, and I’d argue it’s just as much of a waste to practice plays that you only use a few times. Conceptualizing your offense makes the process of keeping the necessary and throwing out the unnecessary much easier.

5. Calling the game. If you’ve done all of the above, this part should be (relatively) simple, albeit stressful. The plays have been selected, they have been practiced repeatedly, the players know which ones are in the gameplan, and the gameplan itself is well organized and provides logical responses to the various threats the defense may present. Of course, during the game you get some unexpected blitz or other wrinkle you hadn’t prepared for, but the point is not to eliminate this risk but to instead reduce it. Soon you settle down and realize that it isn’t so different than what you’d practiced, and then you’re picking it up and getting big yards. Each playcall seems to indicate the counter and the following play; and the quarterback, insofar as you’ve given him freedom, is putting you in good position. In other words, the method works: it makes mortals into great playcallers, through the magic of preparation.

6. Personnel. I have purposefully saved this until late in the discussion. Not because personnel is unimportant — anything but — but instead because at the lower levels your control over it varies. In the NFL if you need a tight-end or fullback or wideout you draft or hire them; in high school you might not be so lucky. I personally think you can be “West Coast” with four wides, three wides and a tight end and runningback, three wides and two halfbacks, or with the traditional personnel — a tight-end and a fullback. The key is to make sure your concepts are teachable across personnel groups and formations. It would be silly to have to reteach your whole offense every year because this season you’ll predominantly be using a slot receiver instead of a fullback or tight-end. The whole point of the West Coast Offense and all the “multiplicity” and formationing is that you can take advantage of your best 11 players every year.

The related thought here is that one adjective used to describe the WCO is “multiple.” When people think of the offense they think of motions, shifts, and multiple formations. I haven’t discussed this much because I think it is a subset of the gameplanning and personnel discussion: all of that is only worth it if there is a point, or some specific matchup or numbers advantage to be gained. The other reason I haven’t mentioned it is because each team has to decide their identity: you can be “West Coast” and use few shifts or motions and a handful of formations and give your quarterback freedom to check, or you can be “West Coast” and use a lot of shifts and motions and so on to try to gain certain advantages on a given play. It’s a different discussion.

7. To mobile QB or not to mobile QB? The last consideration is old but has a modern twist: what type of run game will you marry the offense with? One reason the WCO has survived is because the running game has evolved from man-blocked schemes with some Wing-T influence to today’s uber-prevalent zone blocking schemes. The type of run scheme you choose will dictate your formations, though not necessarily your approach — i.e. it’s harder to use zone schemes with traditional splitbacks.

But the more interesting question is whether you will adapt spread principles into your West Coast Offense. NFL teams are wrestling with this quite directly. The problem is that, by trying to do more, you risk being able to do nothing well. Yet I still think most (though not all) of the zone-read and related concepts are simple enough to fit right in with the rest of the WCO, with only marginal additional teaching required. Just make sure you spend enough time on the timing of the passing game first.

I’d love to hear additional thoughts from those seasoned in coaching the West Coast Offense, at any level. Below are some links to additional reading and watching:

The NFL Offense: What is it? Why does every team use it? And how does it differ from college?
Airraid Info (condensed, pass-first derivative of the WCO)
Mike Shanahan on Playcalling
Brian Billick on the West Coast Offense

  • dazz

    Excellent work as usual!

    Chris, how would you describe Lane Kiffin’s offense?

    Like if Mike Leach’s Air Raid was a 10, and Norm Chow’s BYU and first year USC offense was a 5? (you may disagree with that), and Bill Walsh’s original west coast offense was a 1 where would you put Kiffin era USC on a West Coast/Air raid spectrum? (Realize I’m using these numbers in a non-value judgemental way.)

    A few other thoughts:

    – I think you had linked before to stories of Bill Callahan struggling to implement a complicated WCO in Nebraska. It seems the case study of the problems of a “real” WCO in college.

    – As a Pitt fan, I’ve seen Walt Harris and Matt Cavanaugh struggle implementing even WCO oriented tendencies into Pitt’s offense, though others will defend Walt’s production with a team that didn’t have a ton of depth. No doubt it worked much better than Walt’s half season experiment with an early mess of a spread offense. Then last year it seemed Frank Cignetti got much more production out of the same QB with a simpler version of a “pro” offense without all the complexities of a classic WCO.

  • doesn’t the argument begin and end with “protection”?
    Plays and the 1-6 issues outlined above seem to be shared regardless of what you call your offense (maybe I’m missing something).

    If we’re defining WCO as a two-back, under-center offense, then this (unncessarily, imo) complicates lower levels in deciphering just what and who you are going to block. Even when the 49ers in the William Floyd/Ricky Watters era of the 90’s, when they were playing more 1-back looks, you still ended up with the same packages (though with more H-back influence).

    wco practice clips

    If you boiled down WCO to 3 runs, 4 3-step, and 4 5-step concepts to run…what would you have? You’d have an verbose, under-center Air Raid, but because of the way it was taught (multiple drop variance), you have a handful of protections (unless you plan to distill this down even further…..all slide/solid?).

  • There aren’t many examples of the WCO working consistently at the college level, but it does pop up dramatically from time to time. Al Borges’ Auburn offense sputtered out after two brilliant seasons (2004-05), in no small part because of personnel. With four thousand-yard-career receivers and three power running backs (Williams and Brown in ’04 and Kenny Irons in ’05) it was hell on wheels, but without that combination of players AU went back to three yards and a cloud of dust in a big hurry. Making things worse, Brandon Cox could run the offense at quarterback from a mental standpoint, but he took a physical pounding and regressed over his junior and senior seasons.

    A recent negative example would be the failed Sly Croome regime at Mississippi State. Croome never had anything close to the tools to run the WCO, but he kept doggedly at it until he was run off.

  • Would John Shoop at NCarolina qualify as WCO?

  • dazz

    I only watched maybe 2 UNC games last year, but I didn’t think the John Shoop offense is really very different than the Cigentti offense they ran 3 years ago when Butch Davis first arrived. Can you be a WCO OC if you predictably run on first down? If it was “barely” a WCO in the Bears, wouldn’t it be even less so when stripped down for UNC?

    Granted though, Chris and Brophy you guys know a lot more than me, I’m just reacting.

  • Will

    Chris, great stuff as usual. To answer the question of the post, I say sure, if you can throw timing patterns at a high percentage from a 2 back 1 TE set, and then run the ball when the numbers are there, then you can run the WCO at your level. Whether you run the whole Walsh playbook is a little beside the point, because Gruden, Payton, and Holmgren all run their own playbooks too. The key as you say is to keep it simple enough and rep it enough to perfect it at your level with your players. The deeper point, that Brophy makes, is why, if you can do all of that, would you not just run Air Raid instead? At the HS varsity level, linebackers (and sky safeties) take terrible zone drops. The Air Raid de-emphasizes the run game but it zeroes in on the things the defense does not do well while greatly simplifying the whole approach (not just the playbook) for the offense. So while the WCO is possible at that level, it is not the optimal risk/reward strategy – for the same personnel, there is an easier way. It would be like running triple option with 8 year olds when all you really need is a fly sweep.

    As for zone from split backs, I agree except that split-flow works well. Even the smallish RB/WR (e.g. Reggie Bush) that is so common now can chip a backside DE on a zone play away.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02. Great stuff!

  • brophy

    ……….WCO @ HC?
    beginning and end of the subject becomes Andrew Coverdale.

  • On the college level, one coach that is using the west coast to his advantage and own way is Garrett Campbell, head coach at Illinois College, a D3 school is central Illinois. He is a California guy who used the original West Coast playbook as an OC at Menlo College. He was at Carthage College, before IC but he uses the west coast with a spread feel, calls it the Spread Coast. Terminology is the same as any west coast offense, but uses gun and pistol looks with a lot receivers. Puts up big numbers every year, playbook is actually simple to get down because he has done what Chris talked about and downsizing it to a few pass plays, runs, screens with different proctection variations. Pretty cool stuff and it can be applied to the high school level

  • Trip

    It’s amazing the amount of variation you can add to an offense by simply changing formations and motions. I think the biggest problem in implementing the WCO at lower levels is the personnel issue. You’ve got to have a guy who can throw and three or four guys that can catch along with five guys that can hold their own for at least 2-3 seconds on the line on a consistent basis. At some places this is a no-brainer, but there are plenty of places where that’s harder to find than you’d think.

  • Karl Cuba

    With regards to the question of a mobile or non-mobile quarterback: the Bill Walsh offense doesn’t require the qb to be able to run for 25 yards while juking linebackers like Steve Young used to. However, there is a requirement for the quarterback to have good footwork.

    As you pointed out, one of Walsh’s most significant innovations was to link the receivers’ routes to the qb’s footwork and so if that’s a shambles then you have a problem. Walsh used to say that one of the most extraordinary talents that Montana had was his ability to cover three yards with his first step away from centre without losing his balance and to be able to complete a five step drop in just over a second.

  • Coach Elkins

    Excellent Chris!

    I would only add the aspect of the “TRUST” that Walsh was able to develop within his relationships with his players as a core factor to his success…but you pretty much hit this one out of the park my friend.

    One could argue that “TRUST” was also a big weakness….knowing that possibly the main reason for his retirement was the mere fact of not wanting to bench Joe Montana for Steve Young, the writing was on the wall even then.

    After all, Walsh continued coaching at Stanford after his last season in SF.

  • UNC Tarheel

    In regards to John Shoop being a “WCO” guy, the offense is pretty verbal. Remembering hearing Zorn speak a while back, the two of them sounded about identical. So whatever Zorn adheres to, it appears that Shoop learned from someone similar. He cites one of his biggest influences as Norv Turner, and Norv’s had some decent offenses over the years. Its possible that his stuff came from him.

    His preferences in throwing the ball were hindered last year, essentially due to the nature of there being 7 offensive lineman on scholarship who were healthy at one point early in the season, and there being one receiver with any considerable experience.

    I’m still not sure that he should take a huge amount of criticism for his failed attempts at making the Bears serviceable on offense, as that’s not happened since they had one of the best running backs in NFL history.

    Cignetti’s offense at UNC was characterized by his QB’s being confused and uncoordinated, though there is some belief that John Bunting told him to strip down and simplify the offense after the 4th game of the season. I can’t remember how many times you can start a game running OZ/Stretch to the boundary before it starts getting hit in the backfield, but watching UNC under Cignetti would be a good reminder. There were a limited number of people, if any, disappointed with his departure. I don’t know that Shoop has any kind of cult following, but he hasn’t attracted the kind of hate that Cignetti did.

  • h2p

    Yet Cignetti’s offense beat Shoop’s the one time they met head to head, in the Carolinas at that.

  • Karl Cuba

    UNC Tarheel: If Shoop learnt his stuff from Norv Turner then he’s not a Bill Walsh West Coast guy, he’s a Don Coyrell West Coast guy because that’s Norv’s philosophy.

    This highlights the problem with there being two offenses that are pretty different and they’re both called West Coast. Bill Walsh used to say that his should be either the Cincinatti offense because that’s where he first ran it, or the 49er offense. He thought that ‘West Coast’ should be the more vertical, Gillman/Coyrell offense.

  • john

    Any thoughts on Texas A&M’s offense? Mike Sherman talks openly about running a WCO and their offense was 5th best in the country last year.

  • Mr.Murder

    Was reading a compliation of Walsh clinics the other night. Left the comp going and it crashed somewhere between page 307 and page 375.

    Importantly he considered play action to be his scoring series, five step to be control passes, three step to take what was given on quicks and defensive alignments. He surprisingly used seven step more than people would consider, mostly against a particular matchup more than a formation.

    The best aspect of the notes I could find relate to your prior post on randomnizing and play selection. He notes a blitz is coming if the other play before that was coverage.

    Later he makes a more important note. If you call two plays in the huddle the defense will be stuck to its grouping and formations for the most part. The defense will almost always go into its base cover from that situation.

    He also notes the past way to win in the pros was to throw opposite the roation on an out(these days it is the choice). He said Van Brocklin threw thousands of yards on it in a season to a title. This was copied until the entire NFL had to catch up the trend. His era found new ways to isolate the backs upfield past linebackers. These days even colleges preach weakside roation(Saban clinic notes you also shared).

    That’s where the WCO should fit. Most young teams put their best players at QB and RB. The WCO makes those into passing game elements. Action passes in the red zone to allow a QB to run. Throw to backs using keys to split coverage zones underneath or get past them in man.

    Play action throws for points, red zone is a scoring chance, action passes into the red zone, and pure passes(half the play selections) for very short yardage. That would probably include two action passes as rollouts. Play action to use the field or initial area of the red zone, moving the passer or pure passing past that.

  • Mr.Murder

    *279 on the notes(need new glasses)
    He goes into the sequencing of formations. He calls the same play but keeps changing the assigned defender by formation adjustment.

    “What we’ll do is have the same play called from maybe 4 different formations and the quarterback memorizes the sequence of formations. I personally memorize the sequence of the calls, he personally memorizes the sequence of formations.”

    A spread look, a double tight, a bunch set, a base set, double wing or goal line(tight flanker), a slot set. You could run the same play and each time change. “…the third time we change the split of the receiver” though he goes into the use of motion as well, and that can be a different installation.

    The point is he runs the X curl from several looks and still gets his best speed guy a catch on the same route.

  • 123kid

    Great article! Doesn’t Bill Cubit run a Walsh-WCO at Western Michigan?

  • Ruffian

    I have trouble recognizing anything in modern-day football that I can identify as WCO. Back in the Walsh’s day I understood the WCO to be the antithesis of the Oakland Raiders vertical attack. The basic concept of the WCO was to stretch the field horizontally, rather than vertically. The ‘touchstone’ for identifying the WCO was that the leading pass catcher was the pass catching fullback. I cannot find a single offense today where the leading pass catcher is the fullback. In fact, I rarely see a fullback on the field. Is there really anything left of the WCO other than a very cumbersome nomenclature system? What I see much more of today is what appears to be the modern variant of the old run-and-shoot using a small quick slot receiver to stretch a defense both vertically (upon occasion), but more oftern horizontally. (The Patriots being the most obvious example).

  • As far as Mississippi State, the mistake made by Croom in running his version of the West Coast offense were actually addressed in the article.

    First of all, he basically brought in the Green Bay Packers playbook and tried to have MSU run it instead of simplifying it based on his personnel.

    Secondly, as the article states, the West Coast offense is a pass first offense. Croom tried to make MSU’s run first. One could argue if an offense is run first that it is not even a real West Coast offense.

    MSU had players that had the ability have run the offense, in my opinion- cetainly not to the extent of USC or someone like that- but the plays were not built around what the players could do, and that severely limited State.

    I am a MSU fan, and I was very excited that we were going to run the West coast offense, because I am also a Bill Walsh fan, but then I heard and saw what was going on, and I realized that Croom did not know what he was doing.

    Thankfully Dan Mullen does.

  • As always, great great work.

    I would like to muse on your last question, the idea of integrating a running QB into the WCO.

    If you are looking for a way to make the WCO simple enough to work for college, I think the use of a little bit of zone read is exactly what it calls for.

    At it’s heart, the WCO is about timing. The zone read is kind of timed as well, since with an unblocked end who needs to be read, that action will necessarily take place at about the same time. The key, then would be a mobile quarterback who, at the moment of zone read, has three options: 1) Hand off, 2) Run it himself, or 3) Pass to the open guy.

    Really it’s more zone-read than WCO. But I think it’s a better passing attack than most zone-read schemes, which basically rely on play action/seams opened up by cheating safeties.

    Instead of trying to hit seams with a beat-up, hard-breathing QB, give him simple, high-percentage passes: outlets. You need one outlet available at the point of the read, and then another available immediately after.

    This will be the money part: once the QB keeps it, there should be a timed route that is immediately open.

    Michigan was doing a little bit of this with Tate Forcier early last year, where Tate would literally run right at crashing DE, then flip the ball over his head to a tight end. Then, this winter, all of a sudden Rich Rodriguez went from a guy who doesn’t recruit tight ends to a guy calling every tight end in the Midwest.

    The downside — and the NFL stopper — is of course also demonstrated by Michigan, who got their only serviceable QB injured at the start of the Big Ten season and didn’t beat another FBS team all year.


  • Dustin Humphreys

    Jim Harbaugh claims to run WCO at Stanford. Willie Taggart (Harbaugh’s RB’s coach last year) claims to be bringing the WCO to Western Kentucky this year. Both are a run-first offense but use the WCO pass plays and terminology.

    Taggart spoke this summer at a clinic I attended and went over 2/3 Jet, Fox 2/3, and 20’s protections. He also mentioned H2/H3 draw. On top of that he went a couple pass plays: Y-Stick X-Looky and Z-Squire Y-Go. Both pass plays and terminology are staples of the WCO.

    Check them out here:

    I am undecided whether to say that the new run-first WCO is not really the WCO but at least they are committed to the terminology. Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos team turned out to be different than his 49ers teams (bringing to life the offset-I zone running game and boot off of that as opposed to the split-back passing game with Steve Young) but he still uses the WCO terminology. So, you be the judge.

  • Mr.Murder

    They catch on faster than you imagine. The ones who listen up you give more chances.

    Break terminology down in route combos/groupings. That way you pair assignments to accelerate the read.

  • ChrisApplewhite

    Northwestern ran it with a freshman QB in the 80s and put up big numbers for the era under Denny Green. We run a bastardized version of it at my (NAIA) school. We went spread last year but took a step back this year because our FB is good and the OL needed a lot of help protecting.

    But to answer the question, yeah, you can. Not the way Joe Montanta did, but at our level anyway aren’t sophisticated enough to need to be perfect. Just get reps and the offense kind of runs itself. The hard part is not getting swallowed by all the things you CAN do and focusing on simplicity. That’s where the Air Raid came from.

  • Mr.Murder

    The current person I coach with doesn’t see the value in it, but if you teach the combo groupings for one side of the ball on a one and two target, you can pretty much run the WCO with a combo of backfield actions.

    Then for about four plays( Sprint, Smash, Streak(all go), Sharp) you can create triangle reads at some point on the field. Mesh it for formations and passers who can work the whole field, a fifth option. Fourth play call is in essence the curl/flat with the 2 man going right down the LOS sharply outside to accelerate the read, one runs the fade/go/stop for a spot pass.

    Four backfield actions (Option, Angle/circle, Wheel, Follow/Flood) including a simple altering which back leads to the flat(flood/follow) so you can really work an overactive SAM side cover guy or agressive Sky force man.

    Then when you go to trips replace the back route with the third target, or tag it with the crease/divide read. Spacing works along those lines, replace the back’s route and settle where someone faces your outside. Easier to work in once you’ve already got people able to settle/noose drill and sense how to work off that read defender.

    Get a shallow series installment that can change all routes on a tag or run one guy from any of the other series. Choice as well, as a route call and as a series tag.
    Go dualies on teams from any spread set following a completion.

    That group of four combos and actions should keep the other team on skates. Only one of which doesn’t combine easy, the go/streak and wheel end up going the same area, unless your qb is ten ft tall and can take down timber with his throwing arm. If that is the case you should able to go double tight and show run all game with a one man route atop it to let him play pass on a down of choice determined at the start of a quarter.

    We tagged directional calls to cadence and I had them ready to do it right every time by the second day. The HC at the time didn’t like the idea so it never saw game time. Had one of the kids return to scout QB the team and he does it all the time, but is plannning a transfer to a major metro soon and isn’t the classic tall strong type the HS coach wants. Would be nice to see the kid get into a system somewhere, he has the IQ upside in terms of taking an idea and working it through in a play.

    So, four combos and corresponding backfield actions(certain ones very effective vs. wall backers, perhaps only use two of those until everyone is certain). Plus two route tags as a series, and the seam read or outside flatten read. Then automatic reads off made completions, mostly quicks. You pretty much keep a person open on every play, usually end up with one guy running past people staring back in, and settled targets in front of the zone.

    Had two and three directional checks for what we wanted to do. Reach the end on OS/IZ or check it, or check the direction and return to IZ. Kids never got it wrong. Even when a coach would try to change thew cadence calls they always caught onto what was said.

    That isn’t counting screens off automatic leverage looks when you face certain sets, in particular teams whose alley players usually stay close to the formation. Simlpy using leverage against certain defenders to set up rubs and blocks.

  • Coach Carbs

    What about LaVell Edwards at BYU?

  • Thanks for this outstanding post. I look forward more of your writing on this topic in the not too distant future. Cheers again

  • Shane

    Obviously Holmgren, Shanahan, and Andy Reid are the best that have been under Walsh. Could you explain the way there offenses worked in contrast?

  • Mr.Murder

    The WCO with Walsh and two back sets featured a lot of the near/far backfield formations(halfback near or far to tight end/strongside) and that is a big part of the Paul Brown influence.

    That was important because it allowed you to run fullback leads, so the play pass result of that would be that the fullback stayed in to protect and the halfback got into better speed matchups. It also helped on lateral fakes for boot actions, since the flow was already set to one side of the backfield from what you could see before the snap.

    To add with that he often started using people with halfback speed and skills at fullback(Roger Craig paired with Wendell Tyler was an amazing backfield).  After Rathman(a classic fullback in terms of run game who had amazing hands like a third down back) they went to using people who were often feature backs for college teams at fullback ,where their skills were above the run down linebacker’s cover ability in pass calls. Today many teams use the nickle as their base set and that is because much more speed is at play on the field, Walsh put faster players on the traditional power positions at fullback and tight end(Earl Cooper was a running back on his first Super Bowl winner and an extra tight end on his dominant ’84 team).

    The cut block rules changed and that drastically changed how his offense could work, until then the WCO was positioned to dominate because it emphasized getting at the knees of rushers on almost every down. That got their hands down so the slant/out windows open and made them play on skates. With the line checked like that it was simple as isolating the alley defender to make him wrong on slants or option routes.

    If the outside players slanted the alley defender would have to get under those and help, as he widens the run alley off tackle widens. If it was a playside backer getting under the slant the run alley really widens. That goes back to near/far pairings helping shape some of the underneath cover rotation(“weak flow” as his key in locating the slant side).

    Those elements of mixing in horizontal fakes and action passes translated to increased red zone effectiveness. Use formation leverage to influence coverage rotations then throw control routes.  Pass early, make play passes count for big yards so they loosen enough to slant under, then control the outcome with off tackle runs and sweeps or screens that get you similar backfield/blocking actions and work width.

  • mattcoach1

    I use the WCO at the high school level (A very low level at that) but like mentioned before, don’t use 120 plays. Use roughly 7 base passes and 6 base runs. +Play action, boots, screens, 3 step, and something that I used last year and is something I will use more this year and that’s the 1 step drop. The one step approach was fantastic this last season.

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  • Timothy Mendoza

    I took Bill Walsh’s system, combined it with some of Sid Gillman’s play calling structure and simplified the blocking schemes cut down the play call verbage and won 2 championships in 2000 & 2001, fielded the highest scoring offense in California, along with the most combined yards from scrimmage, a 51/49 pass run ratio and an 18-2 record at the semi pro level. I’d definately say it can be taught and implemented at the high school as well as adult minor league levels. I know Ron Jenkins used it at LA Harbor college and it’s been used at the college level extensively by Lavell Edwards, Norm Chow and Steve Sarkesian to name a few. I plan to use the system now in Canada in 12 man football. Should be interesting. Coach T.