When I created this website one of my initial goals was to explore Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense in greater detail, and to provide a glimpse of how offenses today rely heavily on the concepts established decades ago by Walsh.
Recently, a reader contacted me to explain that he shared an equal appreciation for the system that has become synonymous with 49er success during their glory years. Michael Schuttke is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studying psychology and works with at-risk youth and teens. He has previously written articles at nfldraftdog.com as a team columnist for the Atlanta Falcons.
Michael has expressed interest in using this forum to delve into the history and evolution of the West Coast Offense. From the day’s of Paul Brown and situational scripting to the use of formations, concepts and strategies for planning, teaching, installing and executing offensive football, the West Coast Offense has provided a solid framework for what we see today, on all levels.
Like myself, Michael was heavily influenced by the writings and teachings of Bill Walsh. The first Super Bowl he watched ended with “The Drive”, making him a life-long 49ers fan at the tender age of 5, setting the stage for a Zen-monk like devotion to learning all he could about the West Coast offensive system, quarterbacking and the game of football as a whole.
Enjoy the following guest blog – Part 1 in a series – researched and written by Michael Schuttke, with diagrams and links contributed by Saturday Nite Lites, exploring the roots of Walsh’s West Coast Offense and it’s foundation based in “21” personnel and the “split-backs” formation…
As most investigations go, this one started with what looked like a simple path. However, I have had to go down many roads to make a thorough discussion of Bill Walsh’s distinctive formational feature to his offense. The formation set I am referring to is the split-back formation (a.k.a. flat-backs in some circles) out of 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end). So far, no major conspiracies have been discovered but, oddly enough, a fish’s head was stapled to my door with “Red Right Slot – A Right – 322 Scat Y Stick” written on it followed by “stop now”.
I think it was from a spread guru who heard what I was up to…
Anyway, in investigating an age-old formation that has appeared to have, at least temporarily, gone the way of the dinosaur, I came across a statement by a famous source within the football realm that I thought would serve as a good introduction to this topic.
Recently, Mike Mayock was discussing the abilities of draft prospect Robert Griffin III (RGIII as he has been branded; personally, I am hoping he adopts a symbol that evokes Freudian phallic stage “stuckness”, a la Prince and refers to himself as “The Quarterback Formerly Known As Robert Griffin III”). Specifically, Mayock went on to address the distinct possibility that the talented quarterback will land with the Cleveland Browns, who have two first-round selections (#4 and #22), ammo that will likely be needed to acquire the second overall selection from the St. Louis Rams to ensure they will get Griffin (assuming the Colts do not pick him over Andrew Luck).
In reference to the strategic tendencies of the Browns offense, Mayock is of the belief that the current tendencies will only serve to hinder Griffin’s development if the Browns select him. The statement he made though to justify this was where I wanted to begin our discussion.
If Cleveland moves up to get this kid, they have to make this kid comfortable . . . he’s too explosive and too much of a play-maker to have him just sit there and read the triangle the West Coast offense is. In other words, [offensive coordinator] Brad Childress and that group of coaches in Cleveland are going to have to change some things to make this kid the playmaker he is.”
Now, in principle, I agree with Mayock’s bigger idea. The Browns (or any team that lands RGIII) should construct their offense around the strengths of their quarterback rather than force a square peg into a round hole. The majority of Griffin’s collegiate career has been spent lining up in the shotgun formation in Baylor’s wide-open spread offense. However, if the colossal rookie year of Cam Newton taught us nothing, “spread quarterbacks” are not a college gimmick quarterback doomed to mediocre performance in the NFL. Various teams around the NFL ran well over half of their plays from the shotgun formation this past year. Various studies of quarterback performance confirm that most quarterbacks are simply better when they set up in the shotgun than under center, even with the same personnel on the field.
How does this relate to Bill Walsh and the famed West Coast Offense, perhaps the seminal offense of the late 20th century and for sure into the early part of this century? Good question reader.
What The Walsh Offense Wasn’t
Walsh was never a fan of the shotgun formation, something he was not shy about stating. For Walsh, there were simply too many variables to account for, particularly with regards to the center to quarterback snap, which he wanted to eliminate. The genesis of the West Coast Offense and how it differed from offenses that came before it was the extremely defined nature of timing that occurs between the footwork of the quarterback and the subsequent timing of the receivers routes, specifically their breaks and the progression the quarterback would move through from one target to the next.
In the following clip, Bill Walsh breaks down the art and science of quarterbacking and the importance of timing in the West Coast Offense:
It is a misnomer though to say that a West Coast Offense cannot be based out of the shotgun. Chris Brown of smartfootball.com and myself got into a discussion about this via e-mail with each other wherein the end takeaway was that all of the “signature plays/concepts” most commonly associated to the West Coast Offense can also be run “from gun” but that there needs to be a change in the vertical stems of the receivers. In short, the receivers need to take their routes ever so slightly longer to account for the “time lag” between the quarterback having to focus on catching the snap before he can look at the defense as compared to when he takes the snap directly from under center and can then immediately observe the movement of under-coverage defenders.
View the following clip to see an example of how a spread offense incorporates the standard West Coast Offense route concept, Y-Stick:
So where did Mayock go awry in his statement?
ANSWER: By defining “triangle reads” to “just” the West Coast Offense.
Really, any passing concept that is worth its salt will incorporate stretching the defense to some degree on two planes; horizontally and vertically. The only other real read that differs from this is a true “Flood” concept, where three players attack what is essentially a vertical plane at different depths but all coming into one relatively straight alignment at some point. In the triangle read, the degree to which any one “stretch” is emphasized does vary (e.g. the “stick” concept will not stretch a defense as vertically as the “smash” concept, but “slants and flats” is also going to stretch the defense more horizontally than “smash” and have more of a vertical threat than “stick” does on the linebacker level of the defense; but it still is run in roughly the same vertical area…you get the idea).
However, any sound play design in the passing game will incorporate what all amounts to gaining a numbers advantage. At the end of the day, whether it be passing or running, an offense is always trying to get more “at the point of attack” than what the defense can respond with. This is why we pull lineman. This is why we option a defender. This is why we “flood” a zone. All of these ideas are essentially about creating movement and getting more of “our men” in one plane of the field than “they have”.
Walsh may have become very known for this concept though, long before it was popular, namely creating “triangles” inside of the defense. For Walsh and the West Coast Offense, the central idea of the offense was to time to the exact step when the quarterback’s back foot would stop his drop from center to when the throw would be made to the first receiver in the read. Indeed, many of these throws were made “on time” (no hitch step), such as the square out and the quick out. Others were thrown with a hitch step (in-routes and curls) or even two (post routes). The beauty of the triangle approach is that it makes any read of the quarterback very quick and simplified.
If one looks at the West Coast version of the commonly used “snag” and “stick” concepts, one clearly sees that the key features of this passing concept are retained when a “spread team” such as the New England Patriots, runs this same concept from shotgun and with multiple receivers at the line of scrimmage.
So this brings us back to our original query…what makes a West Coast Offense just that and, more specifically, what made Walsh’s version unique?
For me, in approaching this idea, the place I continually came back to was in Walsh’s formations and use of motion. In particular though, it was how almost all of Walsh’s offense was based out of a split backs (a.k.a. flat-backs in some circles) look, with one back on each side of an under center quarterback, each back aligned behind the offensive tackles. Minor variations existed (e.g. the backs may be aligned directly behind their same side tackle or they may split his inside-leg or, as this video shows, both can be split but even the depth and horizontal spacing of the split can vary) but the majority of his offense was built out of very basic, 21 personnel.
The variants to use old West Coast terminology were often with where the fullback would align. In what is often known as “Far” (or “Brown” in Walsh’s verbiage), the halfback would align “far” from the tight end behind the weak-side tackle. In what is often known as “Near” (or “Blue” to Walsh), the halfback aligns behind the strong-side/TE-side tackle. In both of these sets though, the fullback is stacked in a way that places him in alignment behind the quarterback and center.
This set allows for a strong “downhill” diving action by either the halfback (as seen at the 2:00 minute mark of the previous hyperlink) or the fullback. One can also begin to cue other runs off of this diving action, wherein one back dives down and the other moves in an arc behind this back, often receiving a pitch or direct hand-off from the quarterback. If this quick-hitting nature sounds familiar, it should as the run concepts fundamental to the Walsh West Coast system ultimately come from the Wing-T offense. A system populated at the turn of the 20th century at the University of Delaware, the main difference between a pure Wing-T team and a split-backs “Pro-Set” is the “wingback” is now a “flanked out” receiver. We also call this player the “Flanker” now in most terminologies. However, as this article discusses, the elements of the Wing-T were very strong in how the run game for the Walsh offense worked.
However, the bread-and-butter formation of the Walsh offense was the same 21 personnel but out of split backs. What is lost in “downhill” running (which isn’t that much, as seen here at the 1:35 mark; the Broncos are basically in a goal-line defense and every relevant defender is accounted for in this man-block, trap dive as the left tackle pulls inside the guard and goes second-level) is gained in edge protection, more immediate release from the backs into pass patterns and holds the same cross-faking properties as the “Blue” and “Brown” sets. Indeed, “Red Right/Left” became the signature formation of the early 49ers dynasty.
And for good reason…there is much that can be done out of the split-backs set.
The main intention Walsh had was to have his backs control the under-coverage defenders, allowing routes deeper downfield to develop. Contrary to popular belief, the mainstay concepts Walsh wanted to build his passing game around were not the famed 3-step routes (especially the quick slant) but rather more intermediate routes that came via the 5-step passing game. As such, he frequently had backs run routes such as shoots, arrows, swings, angle routes, and sit routes. Option routes were also implemented as well, something that Brigham Young developed heavily under LaVell Edwards in the 1980’s. The BYU offense ultimately spawned the USC “Pro-Style” offense that came to fame under Norm Chow and then what we now see as the Air Raid of Mike Leach today, both at Texas Tech and what we will likely see in his current position at Washington State.
Much has been said about the decline of the traditional “fullback” position. What I find funny is that this is viewed as some “recent” phenomenon when we can even see this going back to Walsh. Particularly in the early 49ers dynasty, we can see how Walsh would play with what was essentially a two-halfback offense.
The core idea behind the spread offense is to get “speed in space” and force the defense to immediately react to an additional receiver presented at the line of scrimmage. Walsh took that idea of “speed in space” but simply had the player start in the backfield. In “Building A Champion”, Walsh spoke of how he would often have a player like Jerry Rice start aligned as a halfback before motioning out into the formation.
Walsh’s unique use of player positioning, even within his very basic 21, split-back structure, led to all sorts of adjustments that the defense had to make. While it was basic in terms of personnel, Walsh’s offense was incredibly multiple with its slight variations in receiver splits, motions, back alignments (split even, split but slightly staggered, etc.). At the core of it all though, the “mode” of the offense revolved around a very basic personnel grouping and what, essentially amounted to a Split Back set, a Far set, a Near set, and slot derivatives as well as a “3-wide” variation for each.
Indeed, one does not need a billion formations, 400-page playbooks and 1,000’s of plays to be successful. Vince Lombardi was an advocate of keeping things simple and he did pretty well with it. The Colts have done very well primarily basing out of either 11 personnel or 12 personnel through most of the Peyton Manning era.
“Well, things have changed Michael!” may aruge the pundit or “Peyton Manning doesn’t need a ton!” . . . Indeed, the times have changed. And yes, great quarterbacks do give you an edge no matter what you are doing. Teams are indeed now more multiple on defense than ever. Confusion is the name of the game, as Sean Payton noted.
However, offense always has a pre-snap edge in that, unlike the defense, it knows in advance where it intends to go. Offense is by its very nature pro-active. The point of all the confusion is to force offenses to become more tentative and reactive. Most defensive sets are bound by rules built on coverage, front and offensive formation; in short, no matter how “aggressive” a defense gets, it is still fundamentally reactive. Perhaps it becomes more aggressive through one-gap principles or heavy blitzing or both with the trend now of pre-snap movement and exotic lineman stemming actions.
There are multiple ways to this growing desire to confuse (no-huddle offenses are a start), but, besides changing pace to force a defense to “be more basic”/less exotic, there is the simple nature of keeping your offense “knowable” by all players by keeping things simple. Any offense is much more likely to execute correctly after players have repeatedly been drilled relevant game skills, applied within the framework of the movement on key plays, taught in such a way as to know how to react to every defensive alignment that can realistically be seen, from front-alignment to coverage shell.
Walsh’s offenses were not simple per se but their main complexity came via the pairing of the various passing series he had with the blocking actions of his lineman. Due to having built-in hot reads, plays and protections were very linked. In the early days of one of Walsh’s disciples, Mike Holmgren, and a quarterback named Brett Favre, Holmgren refused to have Favre alter a single receiver route and instead only allowed for an audible to reset the entire pattern. This is in part due to the linked nature that Holmgren’s early Green Bay version retained of Walsh’s offense; due to relying primarily on a man-blocking scheme that heavily incorporated players “double-reading”, it was vital to have the correct play work with the protection that would be optimal for blocking the “most probable” rushers. I will later discuss how the zone-blitz would essentially kill the double-read and how this, more than anything else, affected the split backs formation.
In addition to controlling the under-coverage though, backs in Walsh’s 21 personnel, split-back paring would often be used to challenge the defense into its deeper regions as well. The primary routes for this that were used were the “wheel” and the “seam” route. Jason earlier discussed the 49ers use of the seam route in their 1995 Super Bowl win against the Chargers. We can see use of the “wheel” route here at the 1:03 mark (albeit with a “back” in motion out of the backfield). Clemson became absolutely excellent at running the wheel route, as seen here to Jamie Harper and to a now Buffalo Bill runner by the name of C.J. Spiller here and here. Note in the second Spiller touchdown how the throw was actually an underthrow though; this is the kind of subtle difference of a throw a college quarterback can make that makes his stat line look great but is not a good translation of how that throw must be made at the professional level. It is such subtle differences Walsh often spoke about, as Mike Holmgren once recalled, that makes the difference between a good throw and a great, touchdown throw.
Another advantage of a split-back set is its ability to quickly be “re-set”, especially in no-huddle situations. The first Super Bowl I watched was the famous 49ers-Bengals match wherein Joe Montana drove the Niners 92 yards before throwing the game-winning strike to John Taylor. Note though that, in the video clip of “The Drive” below, for almost the entire series, the 49ers were set in one personnel grouping – split backs. There is use of a dual receiver slot side for a stretch but the essential features of Red Right/Left are retained; an “unbalanced” set at the line (i.e. three receivers to one side of the center, two to the other) but with back flow (a concept Walsh often spoke of) used to influence the under-coverage as well. By having backs releasing either on check-releases or immediately into the flats or hook/curl regions, either way, the offense can quickly get back to the line.
It is debatable whether this is “distinct” compared to non 21 personnel groupings as, again, the same route combinations can be run from almost any personnel grouping. However, the incredible utility of split backs is illustrated as well on this drive as we often see backs check releasing and stopping blitzing linebackers before they release into vacated areas of the defense. Again, zone-blitzes have helped reduce the effectiveness of these “dual-read” concepts but I will also address in a later writing how Walsh’s primarily man-blocking schemes out of Split Pro can also have partial slide protections incorporated to help correct for this as well as how to have “simpler” hot reads. Further, the faking/cross-faking action to split backs, particularly if under center but still present in shotgun sets as well, gives it a very distinct advantage to influencing linebacker play.
Any formation has strengths and weaknesses. The point of this series though will be to show that maybe the 21 personnel, split-back offense perhaps died a pre-mature death…but that it may make a comeback before long as well. Like fashion, offenses and defenses are cyclical. As such, certain offenses have a certain Cher-like longevity (sans the plastic surgery and auto-tune vocal corrections) while others are more of a flash in the pan than Joey Lawrence’s hairstyle, before and after.
Things Change; Embrace It But Learn From The Past…It May Come Back Around (with or without hair plugs),
http://www.dawgsbynature.com/2011/9/11/2392880/the-2010-saint-louis-rams-offense-stick-snag-and-smash ~ Rufio on stick, snag and smash
http://www.slideshare.net/SmittyWerbenmanjensen/multiple-west-coast-offense-manual ~ Good comparison between system languages
http://www.cleveland.com/pluto/blog/index.ssf/2012/02/terry_plutos_talkin_about_the_46.html ~ Terry Pluto on the Browns use of the shotgun
http://www.dawgsbynature.com/2012/2/19/2810144/the-sunday-five-browns-getting-ready-for-the-nfl-combine ~ Where the Pluto article was initially found
http://jcfb.com/forum/messageview.aspx?catid=4&threadid=13717 ~ Good article on the general nature of the split back set