The West Coast Comes to Miami

The West Coast Offense (WCO) is a name generally associated with legendary San Francisco coach Bill Walsh. The early roots of this offense were instilled by Marv Levy, then head coach at the University of California Berkeley and further developed in the vertical passing offense of Al Davis, a disciple of Sid Gillman, but took hold in 1968, when Walsh joined the staff of iconic coach Paul Brown with the AFL expansion Cincinnati Bengals. It was there that Walsh developed the philosophy now known as the "West Coast Offense.”

Interestingly enough, Brown is also the mentor of Don Shula and many of the innovators who pioneered the modern NFL passing game. Until this time and even in Shula’s early years with the Dolphins, the NFL was primarily a running league. Like the running game, the early passing game was a highly disciplined precision offense, practiced to perfection. The schemes and routes rehearsed until a system of timing developed that took advantage of a Quarterback’s footwork to release the ball in precise rhythm with cuts of a primary receiver.

The basic change in the WCO is not necessarily the actual plays; it is more the freedom given to the QB to exploit a defense by removing the rigid constraints encouraged by the Lombardi inspired running attack. Offenses were being defended by reading blocking patterns and sending more defenders to the point of attack on a run play or dropping into coverage when blocking schemes dictated a pass. The WCO was developed to exploit defensive adjustments by the extension of layers within the basic play.

In the WCO passing game, it is important that both the quarterback and the receivers be able to read the coverage of the defense. Unlike many passing plays that are designed for a primary receiver, the quarterback needs to be able to choose the receiver he is going to throw the ball to prior to the snap. The receivers need to be able to recognize the coverage, and make necessary adjustments to their routes, or even run entirely different routes. The WCO does not rely on a dominate receiver because any receiver can become the primary receiver based on the read at the line of scrimmage.

The much talked about receiver progression is not driven by the QBs ability to identify different targets in the course of a play, but by the design of the play moving defenders away from the intended target. A quick pass on a three-step drop, is followed by the same receiver running the same pattern, looking exactly the same but with the intention of exploiting the defender adjusting to that route while leaving a route behind him open.

The first fifteen to twenty plays are often scripted to see how the defense reacts to those plays in order to understand how that will affect the secondary and tertiary layers of the same play. That is what all those pictures fans see QBs and coaches look at on the sideline, not the actual play, but how the defense reacted to it. With the WCO offense, the same play is dynamic and designed to exploit a defense in motion, using the defense against itself in the course of a game.

The philosophical difference in Miami will come from a change to attacking from the offensive side of the ball verses the defensive side. Bill Parcells was a defensive coach, who believed football games were won the defensive side of the ball, with the offense responsible for scoring points, but most importantly, for ball control, and not giving away points. Tony Sparano, as a disciple of Parcells, followed the same philosophy and the Dolphins were built in that image.

The hiring of Dan Henning is a clear indication of this philosophy, because the Henning offense was a regimented run based offense that employed a dominate receiver in passing situations. It is easy to see why Brandon Marshall was acquired given these constraints. Sparano knew the philosophy was antiquated and tried to modernize it by dabbling with the Wildcat and then hiring Brian Daboll, but the structure initiated by Parcells and Henning could not evolve, especially in the presence of Brandon Marshall, though it did begin to take root.

Now, removing Marshall from the equation not only makes sense, but also is imperative to the evolution of the Miami offense. The teams now playing at the top of the league with the possible exception of the Giants… Green Bay, New Orleans, New England among others have abandoned the notion of defense winning championships, but a combination of both will always be necessary.

In Miami, there will not be an extreme change on the defensive side of the ball, but the offense will look more like the Marino era than any conception that has followed. This philosophy puts a premium on QB play, but is actually QB friendly due the use of layered plays. In a layered offense, plays are built from basic three step drops that grow from the quick out, slant and Hitch, to five-step drops and seven-step drops designed to give the receivers time to maneuver before the ball is thrown. This technique gives maximum separation between the receiver and defenders, whether running vertical routes or crosses.

It will take time, but it is apparent why many folks around the league think Ryan Tannehill may be further ahead of Moore or Garrard in many aspects of this offense. It is also clear why Tannehill was drafted. What is not clear is why Matt Flynn was left on the table, but Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman are much better judges of these two players than personnel folks less familiar with both.

Welcome to a new world in Miami where the West Coast Offense takes center stage!