Posts Tagged ‘Bill Walsh’

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 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”.

Y Stick: A Bill Walsh / West Coast Offense staple

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.

Traditional West Coast Offense "split backs" formation

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.

Mayock stated:

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.

The Spread Offense, with a dual threat at quarterback, adapts split backs with shotgun

The Spread Offense, with a passing threat at quarterback, adapts split backs with shotgun

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 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).

Smash: Vertical stretch on cornerback

Y Stick: Horizontal/Vertical stretch on linebacker

Slant/Flat: Horizontal/Vertical stretch on safety or linebacker

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.

The New England Patriots use an empty set to combine the "snag" and "stick" concepts, effectively giving QB Tom Brady his choice of concepts to read, based on the defensive pre-snap alignment


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.

21 Personnel (2 running backs, F & H; 1 tight end, Y) Split Backs or "Red"

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.

21 Personnel Far or "Brown"

21 Personnel Near or "Blue"

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.

Norm Chow's "H/Y Option" concept

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),


References: ~ Mayock quote ~ Shotgun not a cure all ~ Rufio on stick, snag and smash ~ Good comparison between system languages ~ Terry Pluto on the Browns use of the shotgun ~ Where the Pluto article was initially found ~ Good article on the general nature of the split back set


Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous plays in 49er history.  I submit to you the diagram (from the appendix of Bill Walsh’s book, Building a Champion) of the play Walsh, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark made famous – simply known as “The Catch”:

On the play (Brown Left Slot – Sprint Right Option), Montana’s first option was to sprint-out and hit Freddie Solomon (#88) in the front corner of the end zone.  Fullback Earl Cooper (#49) and halfback Lenvil Elliott (#35) set the edge for Montana as he started his sprint-out to the right.  The offensive line reached on the front-side and hinged on the back-side.  The Dallas Cowboys were playing tight man to man coverage.  When Solomon was covered, Montana drifted away from the pursuing defensive linemen, allowing Clark time to change direction and lose his man, Everson Walls (#24).  He pumped once as he processed his options (1-flat, 2-over, 3-run) and a second time to get the taller defensive linemen to jump, providing a clear path to get rid of the ball.  Finally, he lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone where only Clark (#87) could reach it.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dwight Clark makes a leaping catch to send the 49ers into the Super Bowl

Enjoy the following short clip of a young Chris Berman and his live coverage of the play that started it all:

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Recently, I came across a scathing article by Jeff Pearlman, a columnist for, in a feature he did for Esquire.  If you are an Alex Smith “hater”, you will revel in it’s repugnant nature.   However, if you are anything like me, you are excited about the efforts of this year’s squad, and in particular, the back story concerning how much hardship Smith has undergone in order to reach the level of play he has attained today.

There is so much that goes into putting together a winning team, let alone a successful offense that doesn’t detract from your efforts to win games by turning the ball over or squandering scoring opportunities.  It just seems that, with the evolution of fantasy football, the 400 yard, 3 touchdown performance is the only thing that people value anymore.

Here are a few jabs from the author.  First, in regards to Smith’s transformation this season:

In the best season of his seven-year career, the 49ers quarterback has been repeatedly — and enthusiastically — praised as “smart,” “adaptive,” “instinctive,” and “an excellent game manager.” All of which are ear-friendly descriptions, and all of which mean the exact same thing: For a crap player, this guy hasn’t fully embarrassed himself. In other words, that Alex Smith kid really can’t throw or run, but the Niners sure have found ways around it!

Then on to his performance on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Smith delivered what Smith has all season, a series of dinks, dunks, and dils (a word I just invented — Definition: to throw a ball in the manner of former Vikings quarterback Steve Dils). Blessed with Davis, as well as receivers Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn and the otherworldly running of Frank Gore (as well as a coveted position in the NFC West, the most dreadful division in the recent history of organized sports), Smith doesn’t have to accomplish much to win. And that’s important, because he’s incapable of accomplishing much.

Save another time – my argument against the fallacious reasoning supported by arguments (like this one) that the NFC West is some downtrodden version of what everyone believes is true competition.  Finally, he trivializes Smith’s role as a player who simply does what is asked of him:

Though a nation’s longing eyes turn toward Tebow, they should be focused upon Smith, an average man doing average things for an excellent team. When Coach Jim Harbaugh tells Smith to roll out and throw a three-yard screen to Gore, he does so. When Harbaugh tells Smith to hit Crabtree five yards out on a slant, he does so, too. The whole thing is uncomplicated and precisely scripted, the updated version of NFL Quarterbacking for Dummies.

You can read the entire article here.

Really, Pearlman?

That final line … “The whole thing is uncomplicated and precisely scripted, the updated version of NFL Quarterbacking for Dummies” … it really doesn’t sit well with me.  It’s like he is holding in contempt the whole idea of quarterbacking and team oriented football that we, as 49ers fans, have been trying to get back to for years.

I prefer to look to someone a bit more knowledgeable on the subject than Pearlman for inspiration.  In fact, I’ll go straight to the God Father of modern offensive football, and the architect of this once proud 49ers franchise – Bill Walsh – to decide if Smith and the 49ers apparently should be doing more than what the coaches ask them to do.

In his book, Finding the Winning Edge, Coach Walsh described how the impetus for the West Coast Offense came about when he was a coach with the Cincinnati Bengals:

“We decided that our best chance to win football games was to somehow control the ball. As a result, we devised a ball-control passing game in hopes that if we could make 25 first downs in a given game and if we also had good special teams play, we would have a reasonable chance to stay competitive in the ball game, In the process, hopefully something good would happen”

Hmm? … sounds like a game manager is exactly what this system calls for … and this sure sounds like the blueprint for Jim Harbaugh’s overall philosophy this year.

I remember when Joe Montana was labeled as a “system quarterback” who was only able to flourish due to the dink and dunk style, which ultimately led to the “finesse” label.

Who knows what Joe would have been without Walsh and his “system”?

4 Super Bowl Championships say that it doesn’t matter.

The strides that the 49ers offense makes this year to next will speak volumes about whether or not Smith will become the next “system quarterback” to flourish in the West Coast Offense.

For now, I think the only thing that will quell some of the intense criticism of a man that simply, “does what is asked of him”, is a trip to, and victory in Super Bowl XLVI.

And that is what I am rooting for…

After all, the “West Coast Offense amounts to nothing more than a total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to provide an environment that allows people to perform at their maximum levels of self-actualization” (Walsh ’98).

I don’t know, but it seems that most of these players (this TEAM) have encountered that environment that Walsh describes – here and now – with Harbaugh and this staff (who will throw all the credit back to the players).

I would say that many players are realizing their full potential and I am excited to see more as the season unfolds.  And, I hope to see more players doing simply what is asked of them.

This post is intended to provide some insight into a few of the basic passing game concepts that you see duplicated at all levels and fit into different styles or brands of offense like spread, airraid, west coast, power I and more.  You can find these core concepts in many different playbooks – and although, from team to team, the terminology may differ, the execution will remain the same – each with different combinations of personnel, formations, motions and route packages to ‘dress up’ the play and make it their own.  The impetus of these concepts can be traced back to Bill Walsh and the ‘west coast offense’ in what he terms, X & Z Spot & Y-Stick.  (Be sure to keep reading below for a more detailed observation of some memorable 49er moments from the past.) True to form of the ‘west coast offense’ these concepts are excellent ball control, short passing plays which rely on accuracy and timing between the QB & WRs to take advantage of different defensive structures and coverages.

Snag is a great passing concept that is used at all levels.  Read a breakdown from Chris Brown, of, on how it’s used in the college game here and in the NFL here (from NY Times Fifth Down Blog).  One of the great things about the snag concept is that it has a high value against both man and zone coverages, and when packaged with quick game route combinations on the backside of the play, answers to strong and weak-side pressures as well.

Brown continues to explain the play in detail:

The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

Here is a basic college playbook excerpt diagramming the play:

Here is a west coast playbook example of X & Z Spot:

The top left diagram on the second page is an example of packaging the snag concept with a quick game concept.  Here we used a simple slant/arrow combination to take advantage of a pressing slot defender with no safety help over the top – hoping to clear out the underneath defender to hit the slant against off-man coverage.  If the QB was to see a safety over the top of the two WRs before the snap, then he would look to the snag side and read the flat defender to decide where to go with the ball.

I found some good video clips illustrating this diverse but simple concept on Youtube from otowncoach and Bodezepha.  The first clip is from Mike Leach and his wide open ‘airraid’ offense, made popular at Texas Tech University, and incorporates the mesh concept (read more about the mesh concept and the ‘airraid’ offense here).  The remaining clips are from the HS level and display how simple the play can be in terms of execution:

This next cutup is from the 2010 season and is a compilation of Arizona State Offensive Coordinator, Noel Mazzone’s, use of his ‘3-man’ snag concept – notice the HOT throw against a strong side zone blitz executed at the 37 second mark:

Coach Mazzone also runs a ‘2-man’ version of the snag/spot concept which essentially works as a horizontal stretch on underneath coverage and is an excellent high percentage short yardage  play as well:

Another high percentage and widely used concept similar to the Snag and Spot concepts is the Y-Stick concept.  Y-Stick is similar to Snag and Spot in the attempt to stretch the underneath coverage horizontally with a fast hitting route in the flat (usually a RB swinging or running an arrow or shoot type route).  The play can also be packaged in the same vein as Snag and has similar pre-snap capabilities to deal with man, zone and blitz.

Here is Y-Stick from the college playbook:

Here is a west coast offense playbook example of Y-Stick:

As you can see, there are many different personnel, formation and motion variations to use around this concept.  Many spread and airraid teams have adapted the play in the packaging manner described previously with Snag.  For example, view the video below, from EAPlayMaker, to see how Dana Holgerson (noted Mike Leach and airraid disciple), now the Head Coach at West Virginia University, employed the play as Offensive Coordinator for the University of Houston:

For SF west coast offense purists, enjoy this litany of additional cutups of the SF 49ers running y-stick.  Check out Ricky Waters at the 7:43 mark scoring a 55 yard touchdown against the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, breaking the game open on a variation of the play called ‘X-stick H Seam’.  The great thing that the 49ers coaching staff did prior to that game, in the regular season and playoffs (also included in film), was to run a lot of Y-stick from similar formations and motions.  This probably started to give defenses a false sense of security as their underneath players would anticipate the play when they recognized familiar sets and motions consistent with down and distance breakdowns (from film study) – prompting them to jump the flat and stick routes.  49ers Offensive Coordinator at the time, Mike Shanahan, took advantage of this conditioned stimulus response he was creating, and added variations such as Stick Nod (a double move by the TE), and Stick Lion (a quick skinny route from the back-side to take advantage of weak ILB strong flow to the primary side), but saved the most effective quick strike variation with the H seam component for the title game of the 1994 season.  This play was able to rip a whole right through the heart of the Charger Defense as they undoubtedly overplayed the arrow route and became vulnerable to Waters’ fine tuned route running and pass receiving skills (a quintessential element of the ‘west coast offense’) as he faked to the flat and burst to the seam for a dramatic throw, catch and run.  The best part is that they set the whole thing up and most likely knew they were going to score on that play from that area of the field before they ever kicked off to start the game.  Now that’s planning for success.

Previous to the Steve Young, Brent Jones, Jerry Rice, and Ricky Waters version, there is also footage of the stick concept’s effectiveness on scoring plays from Joe Montana to Rice in the 49ers 1989 Super Bowl XXIV victory over the Denver Broncos.  Mike Holmgren was the offensive coordinator who molded Walsh’s concept into a true staple through the likes of Montana, Jones, Rice, and Roger Craig.  At the 3:12 mark Montana hits Rice on a back-side ‘sit’ or ‘replace’ route as his number 3 receiver in progression for a 20 yard touchdown pass (film from Bodezepha):

The New Orleans Saints ‘spacing’ concept shares similar elements with snag, spot and y-stick as well (from Bodezepha):

Here, Purdue University uses some creative empty and bunch formations using the 2-man & 3-man snag concepts and a ‘double stick’ concept – a variation of y-stick (from EAPlayMaker):

Now, when you recognize these plays on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in the fall, you can play armchair quarterback with the best of them and let the naysayers know that the ‘west coast offense’ is still alive and well today . . . and it is all over the football land scape from high school to the pros.

Football season must be right around the corner…

Around this time, right before summer ball, is when ideas begin to surge in coaches for a second time in the off-season.  Many of us have gone through spring ball and decided what tweaks, additions, and ideas that we will or will not carry with us into the training camp and the season.

Bill Walsh believed in scripting play calls in an emotion free environment during the week rather than trying to call plays amidst the surge of adrenaline and stress on game day.

The great thing about football is that there is such a wealth of information out there to help streamline our processes.

However, in coaching, there can also often be the feeling that we are trying to “recreate the wheel” in efforts to put our own unique stamp on the way we do things.  In the spirit of studying the greats that have come before us, I have located a piece of sage football wisdom from Bill Walsh about his method for planning, practicing, and play calling.

This transcript of a lecture is rooted in the history and application of how Walsh came about his blueprint for managing the many details that go into putting together a successful offensive attack.  It can also be referenced as an early example of what the core of the ‘west coast offense’ is all about – from Walsh, himself – in Finding The Winning Edge: “The ‘west coast offense’ amounts to nothing more than the total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to provide an environment that allows people to perform at maximum levels of self-actualization.”

Bill Walsh, from a clinic lecture (perhaps around sometime in the mid-to-late ’80s or early ’90s), talks about his mentors, scripting, situational practice and organization (from

Planning for a football game today is somewhat different than the original concept of the game in which the quarterback was the field general and saw weaknesses during the game and called his plays accordingly. Obviously the game is much more complex today. I was fortunate to be involved with some of the great football coaches and programs. I have been afforded the experience that allowed us to conceive an offense, a defense, and a system of football that is basically a matter of rehearsing what we do prior to the game.

What we do is call the plays. When I was with Paul Brown and the Cincinnati Bengals, his trademark was sending in messenger guards. He had great success. Paul Brown was the man that changed the game from one that was a rugged, slugging it out type of play, to a more sophisticated method. The advancing of teaching techniques, coaching techniques, the use of teaching aids, the use of film, the black board, etc. All were originated and developed by Paul Brown just after World War II. Part of his concept was a strategy in which virtually everything was spelled out. It was a system in which the plays were called from the sideline. He was criticized for it at the time, but today it is virtually done by everyone. One of the problems you have today is that you don’t have trained quarterbacks who can call plays because it has always been the coach who called the plays. At Cincinnati we had a young quarterback, by the name of Greg Cook, who had a short career, but may have been the greatest single talent to play the game. It became my responsibility to call the plays from the press box. Paul would always ask, “What are your openers?” He wanted to know how we were going to start the game. He was thinking about two or three plays that he would start the game with; an off tackle play, a pass, etc. So we began to develop our franchise. When I left in 1975, we had a 11-3 record and the number one offense in professional football. A lot of it was related to disciplining a quarterback. At that time it was Ken Anderson. It was disciplining an offense to know what to expect when we called a play. Consequently we could call a play with the assurance that we could get something done.

My next employment was with the San Diego Chargers and I was fortunate enough to have someone like Dan Fouts to work with. Now the list of opening plays began to number 10 and 12. In other words, we began to plan the opening sequences of the game. From there I went to Stanford and the list went to 20. We would have our first 20 plays to be called. Now with San Francisco we finally stopped with 25. What we have finally done is rehearse the opening part of the game, almost the entire first half, by planning the game before it even starts.

Now why would you do such a thing? I know this, your ability to think concisely, your ability to make good judgments is much easier on Thursday night than during the heat of the game. So we prefer to make our decisions related to the game almost clinically, before the game is ever played. We’ve scouted our opponent, we have looked at films, we know our opponent well. If you coach at the high school level, often you are in the same league with the same coaches and you know them like a book. With out question you can make more objective decisions during the week as to what you would do in the game than you can spontaneously as the game is being played. To be honest with you, you are in a state of stress, sometimes you are in a state of desperation and you are asked to make very calculated decisions. It is rarely done in warfare and certainly not in football; so your decisions made during the week are the ones that make sense. In the final analysis, after a lot of time and thought and a lot of planning, and some practice, I will isolate myself prior to the game and put together the first 25 plays for the game. They are related to certain things.

What are the reasons for pre-planning your offense before the game?

1. ESTABLISH FORMATIONS. To see the adjustments the opponent will make. You can’t wait to find out when you are on their five yard line. Early in the game you are going to show certain formations to see what adjustments are. The coach in the press box knows what formations are coming up, so he knows what to watch for concerning adjustments.

2. BASE OFFENSE. You have to establish in your own mind how you are going to handle a base offense. In other words, you want to have certain plays to start the game in which you take on your opponent physically, man to man, and the coach upstairs as well as the coach on the field, is observing that. You get a better feel which way to run and what kinds of plays work best. Part of your plays are where you attack your opponent physically and find out where your matchups are. You want to find that out early in the game, so that some time later you have an idea of just what you want to do.

3. SET UP CERTAIN THINGS. In our case we will run a given play so that later we can run the play pass that can win the game for us. Occasionally we will play an opponent in which we will run the play pass first, faking the run and throwing; so that later we can run the running play itself. In our case we want to set up the play pass.

4. SPECIALS. One of the interesting things about Paul Brown Football is that he would always be terribly upset if someone would run a reverse before we did, or a run pass before we did. He would grab the phone and scream in my ear, “They did it before we did!” This was very distressing because it sounded so dated. But you know something, over the years, I found that Paul was 100% right. If you run your reverse first, and you can make 5 yards or more, the other guy won’t run his. If you have a special play of any kind, get it into the game quickly. How many of you have had a ball game and you have practiced two or three things that you thought for sure would work. The game is over and you didn’t try them or you are so far out of it, it doesn’t matter whether you try them or not. Paul was right. Set up your special plays early and run them early. Get them done, it affects your opposition.

This approach to the game has a good track record. When I was at Stanford, I was told by our student manager that in seven straight games, we scored on our first drive. This year in virtually every game, we scored early. Against the Raiders, a game we lost, in 17 plays we had two touchdowns. Our problem was later on. The point is that in every game, we will move the ball early. A year ago we moved the ball throughout the game. Last year, we just moved it early. Planning can make the difference. Those first twenty five plays can make the difference.

5. ESTABLISH SEQUENCE. If you have running plays with any sequence to them at all, you will want to start the sequence so you can establish something to work from. If you can do this at home, or in your office, think and visualize yourself how you would like to see the game develop. Write down your plays and the corresponding formations. Believe me, it takes tremendous pressure off of you. If you feel confident going into the game, it makes you that much more confident. If you have the feeling that a lot of us have had before a game, that you are going to lose the thing, you are out gunned, etc., it certainly takes a lot of pressure off the out-gunned coach to know that you have done everything you could before going into the game. If you want to sleep at night before the game, have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that.You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor. You will start the game and you will remind yourself that you are looking at certain things because a pattern has been set up.

6. ISOLATE THE SECOND HALF. In our particular case we have already gone into the second half, not in the detail that we did at the start of the game. In our particular level, every game is a tight one. If you win a game by a big score, you never expected to. If you lose by a big score, you never expected to. There is just never a game that you can count on. You might as well plan part of the second half. You hold certain things back that you think will be effective in the second half. Some are related to your original plan, others are related to your opposition in regard to what adjustments you think they might make. I will tell you this, I think we can do a better job with halftime adjustments on Thursday than we can at halftime the day of the game. It’s that simple.


The question comes up how can you have 25 starting plays when you don’t know what the down and distance will be or where you’ ll be on the field, etc. Let’s get into the other part of the plan because that’s the difference. We have 25 plays we have basically decided upon. We have talked to the line coach, who may handle the running end of it. Basically you look for a formula to win in those 25 plays. Let’s talk about things we seldom practice but they win or lose a game.

1. BACKED UP OFFENSE. You won’t worry about it until you are backed up, but one of the things we do as part of our plan, the offense will run any where from your own one foot line out as far as your own 8-10 yard line. What are you going to do when you look down at the far end of the field, you have the ball, your players seem like they are a mile away from you and you have to drive out. The defense certainly has a feeling about that. They feel if they have you in the hole, the defensive charges are going to be lower and harder, you know the Opposition is going to be blitzing. You know that who ever is supporting sweep plays is going to be up near the line of scrimmage. You know that the linebackers are ready to plug as quickly as they can because, obviously they have you in a jam. There are certain factors such as that that you look for when you scout the Opposition. In our case, we have probably four runs and two passes for the backed up offense. The passes, you hate to think of throwing, but you may be behind and have to throw. You do certain types of passes from that situation. Things that you can do the best with very little chance of interception.

We know when we are backed up, we can’t fumble the ball. Certainly when we are backed up, we can’t take a loss. We know that when we are backed up, a penalty against us is far more damaging, and we know when we are backed up we have to have room for out punter to punt the ball with a certain amount of poise. If he doesn’t have the room, the ball is snapped very quickly to him, it’s a bad punt, the return is good and it means 7 points for the Opposition. So backed up offense means something to us in our game plan, but also it means something when we practice. This all comes from experience, men. It wasn’t ordained to me or any one else. It came through 25 years of coaching and some bad experiences with it.

Generally when you practice this kind of work it has to be contact. It does not have to be scrimmaging where there is tackling, but there has to be full speed blocking where everybody gets a feel. You take your offense to the goal line, put the ball on the six inch line, offense huddle up in the end zone, defense huddle up and wait. Now the offensive coaches and the defensive coaches will discuss backed up football. The defensive coach will talk about the advantage they have and how to maintain it and what you must not allow the opponent to do. The offensive coach talks about the things I just mentioned. Now, the team has been spoken to, here are the plays we will be running, probably all year, we are going to fight our way out of here. And so you will practice it. You may be able to get that done twice or three times during the first two weeks of practice. What you are going to do is to back up your team to the six inch line, move the ball out to the two yard line, move the ball out to the four yard line, and in each case, talk about the things you are going to do and how to practice them. The defense, of course, is doing the correlating thing. Each week in practice when you play a given opponent, you have four plays, line up your team on its own one yard line and you run four plays to remind everybody of the backed up offense and what the problems will be.

Most often the problem comes just inside the tight end. The linebackers or ends as you may call them, come underneath the tight ends. Often we will go to two tight ends, as part of that offense. But we practice it. Believe it or not, when your team is on the field and somebody punts the ball out of bounds, or some other disaster occurs and your offensive team runs out there, you can hear them talking about the backed up offense, what they have to do. When that starts to happen, your team is prepared to play football. You are doing the best job you can do, a thorough job.

2. 3RD AND 3 OFFENSE. The next thing we talk about is the 3rd and 3 offense. Naturally this is in your game plan. 3rd and 3 is a tough situation. We will practice it. We will allow certain amounts of time in our training camp for 3rd and 3 football. We set up the down markers, we line up the defense, offense, we have lectured it to our team as part of our situation football. Most often you are going to go to your best back with your best running play and you are not going to fool anybody at that point. You are going to depend heavily on that running back to get the extra yard or two with his ability, figuring that the block will account for the first two yards of it. 3rd and 3 to us may mean a pass in our style of football. We may throw 3 to 1 over running the ball because of some of the defenses we face. 3rd and 3 means something and you practice it. The first two weeks of practice you will hit on that. You will say, one of the toughest situations we have, men, is when it is 3rd down and approximately 3 yards to go. The opposition is not in their short yardage defense at that point, but they are going to come after you and it is a critical down. Occasionally the defense isn’t quite as aware as the offense of how important it is. In our 3rd and 3 offense we will probably have four runs. They may be the same as your backed up offense, and in our case, we will have two or three passes. You will practice those each week. You will say it is 3rd and 3 as part of your situation practice. We are going to have four plays, defense get ready. It will be live, not tackling. We are going to block it and we are going to make it. The runner will have the feeling of what he is after. He will come out of the huddle and see those 3 yards are the difference in this ball game, we win it or we lose it. He will learn how to control the ball, not take any silly chances, stopping, dodging. He has to bust up in there, use his blocking and get his three.

3. 3RD AND SHORT. 3rd and short can mean anywhere from 1-6 inches all the way to 2 yards. In this situation the 6 inch play may be different than the 2 yard play. Often there are plays that are somewhat different than your other plays. Most teams will stay in their same defense but they will have a way to play it. Everybody will pinch down, linebackers scraping, corners at the line of scrimmage, safety at the line, whatever. As we list our short yardage plays, we will list the play and we might list the formation, a 16 Power for example, may be the play that we use from 1 inch to 1 1/2 yards. Often 6 inches to go, we are going to quarterback sneak. Often 2 yards to go is too much for a sneak, who are we kidding, we are going to run an off tackle power with double team blocking. I really don’t worry much about the play because everyone runs a slightly different offense. I do know, that you as a coach better anticipate the degree of what we call the short yardage situation. Again, you talk to your team during the two week period before your first game, you are probably only going to get about 10 minutes of it, and you are going to practice it. You are going to line up your team, you’re going to have your down markers, you are going to show right now, we’ve got 2 yards to go and it is 3rd down. Here are the things we do, here’s what to expect from the Opposition. We are going to move it right up to the tip of the ball on that yard marker. Meanwhile, the defensive coach is doing the same thing. Talking about it. Each week you are going to get four short yardage plays. To be honest with you, it would be more than that for us.

4. SHORT YARDAGE PASSES. One, naturally, is the one you try to score a touchdown on. The short yardage situation is the only time you are sure what the coverage is. Teams won’t play around with it. If you are sure of the pass coverage, the time you might be able to score is on 3rd down and one yard to go and your team knows it. This is where we have them, they know the coverage, we know who is going to be blitzing and how to block it. We will also have a play, most often with the quarterback rolling out, running or passing to make the yard or two as one of our passes. So we have a TD play and we want it every week and we practice it every week. You may not use it for 7 weeks and you will win a game with it the eighth week.


By and large, if you have gotten to your opponent’s 20 yard line with one or two first downs, the opposing head coach is desperate. The defensive coach is trembling because the head Coach is walking toward him. The head coach says, “Blitz, stop them now. Blitz, they are killing us.” The defensive coach doesn’t have time to explain that they have only made one first down and it was the silly offense that got them there. Most people get desperate, some people panic. Teams go to a man to man coverage, teams will blitz. So, on the plus 20 yard line, we are going to throw the ball and make a touchdown. Now we have a better idea of what the pass coverages are. We know the man to man coverage is far more likely than a pure zone coverage. We know that teams are more likely to blitz s0 we are looking to throw for a touchdown. I don’t recommend that unless you have a skilled quarterback. One week it may be the 18 yard line or the 25 yard line, but that part of our football is special. We will have four passes that would be scoring passes. You might go the entire game and not use them because that situation doesn’t come up. You move the ball from the 45 down to the 2, you are never there. You have passes and you are looking to break man to man coverage. You may have some special runs because a blitzing defense, if you trap it just right, you can score against it. Again, the first two weeks of football practice, you show your team. You show your team what you think is best in this situation. We will use the same ones all year, but we are going to practice them. You talk about it for ten minutes, you practice it offensively and defensively. During the week of practice before a game, there is situational football. You move the ball to the plus 15 or plus 18, wherever that breaking point is for you and your opponent and you run those passes. Now when your team comes out of the huddle on the 18 yard line, the guys are saying, “Look out for the blitz, here’s our chance to score.” The receiver is saying, “Throw the ball out front of me, don’t make me stop for it.” Whatever it is, you have those plays. In our case, most of our touchdown passes will come from this area. If they want to zone you, we have outlet people who we would throw to against the zone. We know that it gets tougher and tougher to score as you go in closer.


This is when your opponent hasn’t got into his goal line defense. Often you will go to your backed up football. There are certain base block run plays against the three man line that you are going to run right at that point. You are looking to see if they have substituted their goal line defense. If they haven’t substituted their goal line defense, you are looking for your 8 yard line or your close offense. You have certain plays that you would run. Again, going back to your two weeks practice before your opening game, you talk about it. “Men, there is a point from that 10 yard line in that they are going to stay in their basic defense. They are going to blitz us and we are going to have certain plays that we are going to run.” We know that people can get underneath the blocker and make the stops. We know that we don’t want to lose yardage.


In this phase they have substituted their goal line defense. I suppose there are teams that don’t substitute, but by and large, let’s assume they do. They use 6 linemen and the gap charge. Often you have to make a change in the blocking patterns that you’ll use to face up to that goal line defense. Like our short yardage offense, when we talk about our goal line offense, we are talking about what we need. Certainly there is certain situation where we need inches. So we would start our list with those plays where we need inches to score. We would move our list down to let’s say the six plays we might run if we are sitting with 3rd down and 3 on the 3 yard line and they are still in their goal line defense. You will see varied charges. When we get to the six inch line or the 1 foot line, we are going to see everyone in the gap, coming straight ahead. When we are on the 3 yard line with 3 yards to go, often there is an out charge. There is a substitute man coming in for one of the linebackers. There is a free safety back in the game, those kind of things happen. We have to account for those situations. You can’t account for these situations if you haven’t planned to do it because you will look down at that far end of the field and you will just see a bunch of bodies and rear ends facing you. You can’t tell where you are. You have to have a method you have worked with and your coach in the press box has to tell you just where you are. We talk to our quarterback about signaling distance. He will put up his hands and you think it is something that it is not. He will signal and it looks like we need 3 yards and later you will see the film and we only needed 1 yard. You have ways to talk to him about what that means to you and then you have that part of your football developed. The first two weeks of practice you have to have some goal line football. Every week you have a certain number of plays. You place the ball on the 3 yard line, the 2 yard line, the 1 yard line, the 6 inch line, and the 1 inch line. Bring it out to the 3 and it is 3rd and 3 on the 3. Here’s what we are going to run. Practice it that way and often these plays run together. Your players have so much more confidence, coming out of the huddle knowing what they have been in those situations before. Obviously, line splits make a difference. Hopefully there is an extra blocker on the weakside, the tight end or some big wide rear ended guy, to help protect his gap. But whatever you have, if you have planned it and fail, you can’t blame yourself for losing your poise. You can’t blame yourself for panicking if you have planned these things and they fail. You may really search yourself for the kinds of decisions you made on Thursday night, but you certainly can’t make the decision during the game. As a coach, one of the things you are always fighting during the game is the stress factor, breaking your will. The stress factor will affect your thinking. I have been in situations where I could not even begin to think what to do. From that point on, I knew that I had better rehearse everything.


To save your own sanity, you’d better practice the last three plays of the game. I don’t worry so much what they are. Don’t get yourself in a position to try to think of something to do with just a few seconds left because you will always wonder why you didn’t do something else. Through experience we said that we were going to have 3 plays. Often they are the kind of plays with a very low percentage. I have seen the Atlanta Falcons win their division in three consecutive games, I think it was, throwing the ball way down the field on their so-called planned play with a tipped pass. I won’t talk about those plays in detail, but certainly one would be catching the ball and lateraling it. Our team has practiced those last three plays and when it gets down to that point, they go in the game knowing just what they are going to do. I say, “Good luck” and amazingly enough, a couple of those have worked. We walked off the field with our heads up. “My God, we almost pulled it out.” Rather than throwing the ball up in the air and having it intercepted and humiliating you.


You have plays that you are going to call for that kind of situation. A lot of high school teams will run the ball on 3rd and 8. If they can run it, they should run it because it is certainly the best way to attack somebody. 3rd down and 8 should mean something to you. Number one, the best single pass in Football is the hook. It’s not an out. Percentages throwing an accurate out drop considerably compared to a hooking pass. Obviously, a receiver can adjust to a hook. The receiver can see the ball leave the quarterback’s hands and the receiver can adjust to coverages. You will need some type of a hook pass that gets you 8 yards on 3rd and 8. You hear the sportscaster comment that the receiver did not run the distance he needed to make a first down. You have to school your team on the fact that half of the yardage you make forward passing is after the catch. If we have 3rd down and 15 yards to go, it does not mean we are going to run a 15 yard pass pattern. We will generally throw the ball 10 and get up into the 20’s. We remind our team, it is 2nd and 20, 3rd and 25, we are going to run a basic pattern, get all we can out of the completion and run for the rest of it. We are constantly reminding our receivers what their stats are running after the catch. Dwight Clark might be 4.2; Fred Soloman might be 9.3. This is one way you measure a receivers performance and his contribution to the ball club. 3rd down and 8 does not mean you have to throw an 8 yard pass.


What are you going to do when you have 15 yards to go on a given down? You count on your best receiver catching the ball and then have running room to make the yardage. In each of these situations, you will practice them.


The next thing you talk about is the time factor in a game. There is a dramatic difference for example, between the end of the first half and the end of the second half. Obviously at the end of the game if you are behind, you are not going to be very cautious. You have to do certain things. Some of the gross errors are made at the end of the first half.

So often teams leave the field after attempting to drive and score with time outs remaining. I suggest, if you have a so called two minute offense, you first decide whether you are going to score or run the clock out. You can run the clock out in a way that your principal and students won’t notice. You have to call certain sweep type plays, but you are looking at the clock and you want to get the heck out of there. We know, we may try to go for it with a two minute offense, but the minute I see the odds start to turn the other way, I signal to our quarterback and now we watch the clock run. We want to get out of there. Let’s say that we feel we can get into position to score and we have been a reasonably effective team in doing that. We are a team that uses our time outs. We want to use our time outs even if it is at the wrong time as far as the clock is concerned. What we really need to do is discuss strategy with the quarterback. We will give the quarterback two or maybe three plays to call. We will talk about what the defense is doing, what defense they are in, remind him what our game plan was. We are not going to be able to send plays in at that point. So we will set our strategy at the expense of the clock. We know that with a minute and 20 seconds left in the half, call your time outs if the clock is running because if that clock is running with a minute and 20 seconds, if you have any kind of play, by the time you run the next play you have probably run 20-25 seconds off the clock. You do that twice and it is now third down and you are really in trouble, because the other team is going to get the ball back. I say use your time outs and don’t wait too long.

Almost the first day of practice you install your basic running game. It might be a 16 Power or a 17 Power, whatever it is, you simply talk to your team in a meeting and tell them that we are going to call two plays. The quarterback is going to call the formation, the plays are going to be on a certain snap count, for us it is on set which is the second sound, and the quarterback is going to say “two plays” 16 Power twice. You come up to the line of scrimmage and you run 16 power on set. You don’t jump around, you take your time and run it again. If you will do that in your early camp once or twice a day, just a couple of plays, you have established a system in which you can call your plays. Most two minute offensive plays are not elaborate plays. You can repeat the same one three or four times. It could be a very simple hooking type pass or an out. The point is, all you need is the facility to do it. You simply say, two plays and name them. The next thing you might do is call your formation Red Right, check with me, you come to the line of scrimmage and say 16. Now you can run two plays. Remember if you huddle up it could cost you at least 25 seconds. The two minute offense is related to one, being able to call two plays in the huddle; two, to use your time outs; three, know when you are not going to make it. Those are the key things.


Four minute offense does not mean you are trying to score. In the two minute offense you want to score points. Four minute offense, you want to use the clock and control the ball. This was brought home in 1972 when I was with the Cincinnati Bengals. With four minutes left in the game, we had an 11 point lead and had the ball. We lost the game. We know this, we can use 35 seconds on the clock by simply not going out of bounds, not throwing an incompletion and not being penalized. But 35 seconds is 4 forward passes that your opponent can get if you don’t use it up. In a four minute offense, every play can use 35 seconds. All we really have to do is make a first down and we are going to win that thing. You must practice the four minute offense. It has to be live, you don’t tackle people necessarily because you can blow the whistle when you think the man would have been stopped. You have to talk to your team about it. You are going to win the game and here is how you are going to do it. You are going to have the lead with four minutes to go and you are going to have a first down. You will win if you can maintain control. You know you have 35 seconds if you don’t go out of bounds. You know the clock will stop on a penalty. You know that a fumble is disastrous, that if you can just squeak out a first down by good play calling and aggressive blocking, you will win.

Always feel that when you go into a game, the other team has a one point edge on you. As a coach even if they have a 40 point edge on you, don’t think about that. You figure every time you play, you are a one point underdog. They are one point better than you are. You will be a little more alert about it. If you think the opponent is one point better, you have to control the ball. We have plays that we are going to run. We are looking at the clock and unfortunately, we may have to throw a pass to get that first down, which we have had to do and have been successful. But we have practiced it and our quarterback knows the fears he can have with a mistake. Your four minute offense can win you the game. If you will talk about it, you will be surprised. If you practice it each week, four of five plays. You can say, here we are, on our 30 yard line, four minutes to go, let’s see what we can do. Let’s see if we can get a first down and how we will use the clock. Throughout much of this situational football, there is pressure on the offense.


One of the big mistakes you can make is to play around with the snap count. Any time we are backed up, we are going to snap the ball on set. Any time we are sitting there in short yardage, we are not going to play around with the snap count. We have seen teams try to draw teams offside and one of their own linemen moves and then it is 3rd down and 6 to go. We are going to snap the ball on the regular count that makes sense. Paul Brown has a certain snap count for every play and Paul was right because with certain plays it makes a dramatic difference in the way you use your cadence. The first thing you remind yourself, don’t outsmart yourself. Give the offense every chance to come off the ball together. Further down the list you might say, let’s disrupt the defense by getting them off balance. Your snap count is very important to you.

If you are talking about offensive football, the running game is the most vital part of the game, but when you talk about your running game, what you are saying is you have to be able to run when you are backed up. You have to be able to run on 3rd and 3, you have to be able to run on short yardage. You have to be able to run through tough situations. In the professional level, the forward pass dominates the rest of the game. But if you can’t run in tough situations, your chances of success are minimal.

So what do we do? We take a sheet and list our first 25 plays. We keep a sheet and on one side of it are listed 25 plays that we are going to run. We have one square accounting for the second half of the football game and we have a block where we write in our adjustments at half time. I will show you two charts at the end of this talk.

You start the game with the first 25 plays, but now it is 3rd and 3. You turn the sheet over and go to the 3rd and 3 list. You have listed the plays in the order that you would call them on 3rd and 3. You take it; turn the sheet over and go to your next play. Trouble; long yardage, you turn the sheet over and go to the long yardage category. Punt; get the ball back. You have your first 25 plays listed, but of course, somewhere in here you are going to be backed up. You have the ball on your 1 yard line; so don’t fight it. Turn over the sheet and look at your BACKED UP PLAN.


You make a first down, turn the sheet over and now we are on play number 5. It works; go to number 6. It works; go to number 7; we are in pretty good shape. Oh, you got to the 20 yard line. You have another choice now. You can stay with your original list which might have been a basic run; or you can decide to try to get into the end zone with a pass. Say you don’t quite make it and you are on the 8 yard line. You are on the 6 inch line. You look at these categories. You score a touchdown. By the time you get back to the sheet, you are behind 21-7, but don ‘t worry about it. You have a lot of plays on your list to call. So continue to go through your list.

This is a way to pre-plan the game. We feel pretty solid about this. Write on the plan the opponent and the date so that you don’t end up using last years plan. This is a format that establishes how you practice.

The next thing is when do you practice these things. Obviously we have more time to practice than you do. But I will fake a plan for the high school coaches. If I remember right, you play on Friday night. On Saturdays you are cutting the grass, if I remember right. That is not a bad life.

On Sunday you should go to church with your wife.

MON. – Review, etc. Install plays.

TUE. – We will not cover the situations that much.

WED. – 6 plays (4 minutes) 6 plays (3rd & 3) 6 plays (short yardage) 6 plays (goal line)

THU. – Last 3 plays 6 plays (long yardage) 6 plays (3rd & 8+)


When we plan our practice we don’t talk about how much time we are going to practice. We figure that one play is one minute. So we go by the number of plays. In a given practice we will have 5 plays of short yardage, and 6 of long yardage. We will say “get 12 plays in 10 minutes” of drills. Each day you will have one segment of your game plan that you will practice. There is obviously time when you are going to cover your base offense and your base defense. But, you plan on certain days for these things to be done. You can live with this much easier than second guessing yourself.

On the other side of the sheet is where the difference is. This is where we categorize all of the things we have talked about. Thank you very much.

Bill Walsh has been very influential for many coaches over the years.  Coaches use his formula for planning and practicing today, regardless of the type or brand of offense they run.  His methods are proven and they live on today in many coaches at all different levels.  Here is a look at just how far his coaching influence has reached in the NFL:

Many coaches have learned under Coach Walsh and still apply the fundamentals they learned from him in their own efforts today.

The NFL Network production of America’s Game: The 1988 San Francisco 49ers is one of the greatest segments about the storied franchise that I’ve ever come across.

It  displays the true nature of how and why the San Francisco 49ers are touted as one of the signature dynasties of the modern era.  Roger Craig and Harris Barton explain that each 49er was “an extension of each other,” as they relived the signature ‘drive’ that put a stamp on Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, and the entire group as the ‘team of the ’80s’.  Roger Craig added later that it was this sentiment, each man being an extension of the other, that provided the right attitude and belief, enabling a group of men to overcome adversity and accomplish “wonderful things.”

Bill Walsh was definitely an innovator when it came to planning, installing, and executing the many details needed to be successful in football (Link here, here, and here to read more about Walsh’s contributions).  However, perhaps one of his greatest qualities as a leader among men was his ability to instill a sense of family pride in those around him.  This helped him to facilitate a deep level of respect and caring between the individuals within his organization.  There was nothing that any one of them wouldn’t do for another – they were determined to achieve team success at the highest level possible.

I thought I’d throw in this NFL Network clip from the top 100 greatest players series.  They tabbed Jerry Rice as the number one player of all time.  Jon Gruden (a quality control coach for SF from 1990-1992 and later coached Rice with the Raiders in 2001) hosts a great look back at the timeless and ageless wonder that is Jerry Rice.  The unique thing about Rice was his determination to be the best ever.  The exploits of his commitment to his craft are well known.  Endless hours of off-season training, a perfectionist mindset in all facets of preparation and execution, catching bricks from his father to develop his hands as a youth, and cementing himself as one of the greatest wide receivers ‘after the catch’ – Jerry Rice became the most dominate player to ever play his position.  And, according to NFL Network, he was the best player to ever play the game.

49er’s Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh, offered his assessment of 2nd round draft choice Colin Kaepernick’s ability to succeed at the professional level.  In reference to what qualities he looks for in a quarterback, he said that Kaepernick had the ability to “figure things out and think [his] way to success; think [his] way to winning.”  Harbaugh was also emphatic when he proudly highlighted Kaepernick’s equally unique and impressive NCAA record holding statistic of being the only player in NCAA history to ever have over ten thousand (10,000) yards passing and over four thousand (4000) yards rushing in a career.

Harbaugh also delivered a strong message of what he expects from every player on the roster.  In his mind, the bar has been set.  Some of the workmanlike tenets consisted of what Harbaugh considers as the “ability and liscence” to reach the highest capabilities in pursuit of success.  “Guys will run on their own gas… its about earning your contributions,” stated the coach as he further outlined the mind set that he expects everyone in the organization to move forward with.  And, with the players specifically in mind, he insisted, “nothing is anointed… everything is earned.”

Here is a link to the entire press conference introducing Kaepernick, containing extended question and answer with Coach Harbaugh, also including his take on Alex Smith’s role on the team.  At the 11:17 mark Harbaugh explains what he expects from any 49er on the roster:


In terms of playing to the capability approach, here is an excerpt from research in education:

Capability Approach (Sen, 1992) – Tripp, Rizzo, & Webbert (2007), “providing a strategy for creating a framework for long-term planning aimed at developing the maximum capability of each individual to pursue and achieve well-being (human right to pursue self-actualization).”

Here is the Wikipedia definition of the capability approach (

“The capability approach (also referred to as the capabilities approach) was initially conceived in the 1980s as an approach to welfare economics.[1] In this approach, Amartya Sen brought together a range of ideas that were hitherto excluded from (or inadequately formulated in) traditional approaches to the economics of welfare.

Initially Sen argued for five components in assessing capability:

  1. The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage
  2. Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities
  3. The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness
  4. A balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare
  5. Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society”

There is definitely correlation in Harbaugh’s thoughts and words between the capability approach seen in education and economics and the competitive environment in which he chooses to operate in – his realm.  Harbaugh seems to be scratching the surface in terms of capability.  Is this correlation a cause to Harbaugh’s desired affect?

Bill Walsh used to talk about the power of self-actualization, and he mentioned it in his pioneering book, Finding The Winning Edge.  In it, he emphasizes creating/facilitating an environment in which the people under his leadership were able to perform to their highest levels of human capability or reach their god given potential through pursuing a basic human right.  I highly recommend this book to any coach or manager that has entertained questions about leadership and success as well as anyone interested in learning more about running a professional football organization (nudge: current NFL ownership).

Overall, I like the outlook that Coach Harbaugh is bringing to the table.  He has a way of establishing a positive day-to-day mindset in the face of an uncertain economic climate – both macro (global), and micro (legal, business, professional), and getting those under his leadership to look unto themselves to find that which is within us all.  It always helps to stay upbeat, positive, and focused when you are attempting to lead an organization in “thinking its way to success.”