Football 101: West Coast Offense

By Chris Schisler

Gary Kubiak was just announced as the Ravens offensive coordinator. He comes from a west coast school of thinking. Over the air waves of sports radio it became quite clear that people don’t really understand what this term means. I heard wrong perceptions that are alarming considering the west coast philosophy is so prevalent in modern football. Even teams who don’t fully commit to the west coast offensive strategy use west coast concepts. I wanted to give our readers a simplistic guide to the world of the west coast passing attack. We could go on and on about the intricacies of west coast offenses and I could scare you with gobs of information and verbiage. I’m not going to do that. This is a general guide to the basics of the west coast offense.

The west coast offense utilizes the short and intermediate passing game to stretch the field laterally. Many people mistake this as a “dink and dunk” offense. The west coast scheme is based on shorter throws but a true west coast offense is as aggressive as any offensive strategy. The idea is with short and intermediate routes run with precision the offense can open up the deep passing play. The term “dink and dunk” are not in the vocabulary of the west coast offense. The offense is strategic and methodical, every part of the play has a purpose. The west coast organized offense adapts itself to it’s opponent. The idea of scripting the first 15 plays of the game for example is a west coast principle. In the beginning of the game your play calls are loosely scripted- you do not need to go in exact order but those are the first 15 plays. The goal is to get many different looks and plays to see how the defense is going to react to them. This will set up the play-calling for the rest of the game. This is also a great way to get your offense into a rhythmic fast start.

There are two pillars to the west coast offense. The first is timing and the second is precision. This offense depends on the footwork of the quarterback because the ball most come out in time. Say the quarterback’s first read is a short out. The quarterback must take 3 quick steps and throw the ball on time. The ball should be thrown to the receiver as he breaks so he can catch it and continue to run with it. Now lets say the first read is a slant. The quarterback is throwing to the inside and will take a more normal 3 step drop. The quarterback must trust the receiver to be in his spot and throw the ball to this location. The routes are very connected to the quarterbacks feet. Timing and chemistry are everything in the west coast offense.

Progressions are also very important in this offense. The quarterback is throwing the ball to a location. To prevent negative plays where the receiver is not there quarterback has progressions. On every play the quarterback has a first read, second, third and so on. As the quarterback does his drop-back he reads his progressions.

The west coast offense should probably be called the Cincinnati offense. That is because it was developed by Bill Walsh while he was the Bengals offensive coordinator. Walsh originally designed the offense as a necessity as his QB Virgil Carter had lackluster arm talent. Walsh was not the only one to come up with a variation of the west coast offense. There were several other coaches who contributed to the offense largely credited to Walsh.

Walsh eventually took his offense to the San Francisco 49ers. The rest as we know is history. Before the success the 49ers were mocked as a finesse team. Joe Montana won 4 Super Bowls in this offense. After Walsh had retired Steve Young led the 49ers to another Super Bowl championship with the west coast offense.

There were other offensive minds that worked on similar offenses. Don Coryell, better known as “Air Coryell” designed prolific passing attacks with the Chargers and Cardinals. This offense was very much built on timing and progressions however it was a more vertically oriented passing game.

It is very hard to blitz the west coast offense. The back side slant became the bane of the 46 bear defense. The ball comes out of the quarterbacks hands very quickly. Blitzing defenders create wholes in the defense. This is to the offenses advantage because the west coast attack makes you defend the width of the field. It is also very likely that corners will jump on short routes making the defense vulnerable to the deep pass with a double move route. The offense takes what the defense gives them. The offense knows there is no perfect defense and there is no defense to a perfect throw.

Since timing is so important in the west coast offense the goal of the defense is to disrupt the timing. The defensive line must get good push up. Remember defensive linemen can rush because they were rushing any way; the defense is not wasting defenders. Even if they don’t get to the quarterback it is important to get in the passing lanes. J.J. Watt of the Texans is the master of getting his hands up and disrupting the timing of a throw. Defensive backs must reroute receivers at the line.

There is so much that can be learned about this style of offensive football. No matter your level of interest this is an important thing to understand. The west coast offense is a big part of modern football.


  • Thanks Chris. It was very helpful

  • A couple of points: it’s Don Coryell, not “Don Corryell.” The offense known as Air Coryell has little to do with what is now known as the West Coast Offense. Also, Walsh started developing the WCO at Cincinnati because of Virgil Carter’s lack of arm strength. Carter was very mobile but was short and lacked arm strength, so the offense focused on rollouts and short passes. Ken Anderson did not suffer from any lack of arm strength, but he did suffer from the lack of a running game. Those Bengal teams of the mid-’70s used the short passes so emblematic of the WCO to make up for an absolutely dismal running attack, to get the ball out against the intense pass rush of teams like Pittsburgh and Oakland, and to set up the occasional downfield shot to Isaac Curtis or Charlie Joiner.
    Walsh later took tapes of Anderson with him to San Diego where he worked with Fouts prior to Coryell’s tenure, then to Stanford and San Francisco. The press started referring to it as the “West Coast Offense” after SF started winning. In the mid-70s, people mostly made fun of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s