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The Pac-10 and the West Coast Offense
Like a virus, it has infected most teams
By: Richard Linde, Updated 24 January 2004

The West Coast Offense is like a computer virus. There are many variations of it, and it has infected most teams in the Pac-10. At Washington, coach Keith Gilbertson is no Peter Norton; he's not into scrubbing viruses.

As the Huskies' fortune-cookie has crumbled amidst the competition for 5-star recruits, their offense has gone south--literally, towards San Diego, the home of the West Coast Offense, where it was fashioned by Sid Gillman of the NFL Chargers and Don Coryell of the San Diego State Aztecs/NFL Chargers.

According to Tom Ramsey, former UCLA/ NFL quarterback, almost every team in the Pac-10 runs a version of the WCO. In my estimation, as a fan, the Washington Huskies are no exception.

Ramsey quarterbacked the Bruins in 1980-’82 and played in a variation of the WCO as it was designed by Offensive Coordinator Homer Smith, who borrowed bits and pieces of it from Coryell and the Chargers.

Ramsey says, “The Bill Walsh era with the 49ers added a whole new dimension to the WCO, incorporating RB's as legitimate receiving threats all over the field...Also, they used more 3-step drops for the QB, allowing less opportunity for a QB sack."

Because it has become tougher to run the ball in the Pac-10, the WCO, with its concept of stretching the field horizontally as well as vertically, has become de rigueur among offensive coordinators. It’s easy to see why, for it’s a worrisome task they have. There are those eight defensive men in the box, with their propensity for stuffing the run or sacking the quarterback. The defensive linemen are huge, and speed is the hallmark of REBS, SAMS, MIKES and WILLS. To make matters worse for an offensive coordinator, there are cornerback blitzes and zone blitzes to zap his sleep at night.

Because of the 85-player scholarship limitation imposed by the NCAA, most teams in the Pac-10 don’t have the dominating offensive line, outstanding running back, and dominating defense to make an offense designed around the running game excel. Furthermore, the traditional passing game, which stretches the field vertically, can cause turnovers, lose the time of possession battle (because of three and outs), and lose the field position battle (because of sacks and holding penalties).

The less risky way to face these defensive problems embraces the concepts of the West Coast Offense.

Hence, most teams in the Pac-10 use bits and pieces of the WCO, as Tom Ramsey says.

USC is now “Quarterback U” rather than “Tailback U.” Norm Chow and 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, stand up and take a bow.

At Pullman, the Cougars have as many eligible receivers on pass plays as Elizabeth Taylor has ex-husbands. Well, almost.

In 2002, Washington, a 7-6 team, finished second in the conference in time-of-possession and led the conference for its lack of penalties incurred, stats that are in keeping with a WCO. Although its passing offense led the conference and was fourth in the nation, its failure to run the ball effectively accounted for its losses.

During that season, deep passing routes at the UW were replaced by Pickett’s short drop and quick release and by precise timing routes run by his receivers.

Elsewhere in the conference, teams were dumping the ball off to a receiver in the hope that he could gain those extra yards (Run after Catch). At Arizona, WR Bobby Wade, not the fastest of the fastest, burned cornerbacks and safeties because of his elusiveness after catching the ball. Against California, Wade caught 11 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, as the Wildcats upset the Bears, 52-41.

Nowadays, offensive coordinators in the Pac-10 are looking for tailbacks, flankers, split ends, fullbacks and tight ends that can catch the ball and then put some moves on a would-be defender. Many passing formations have as many as five potential receivers. There are 4 WR sets, 3 WR sets, and 2 TE sets, all of which intend to attack a defense with more receivers than it is prepared to cover. Short passes to the tight end and running backs are key to ball control.

At this juncture, it is more important for the Huskies to have the soft hands of a Jerramy Stevens at tight end rather than the blocking skills of a Kevin Ware. For the coaches, it's a matter of getting the right personnel on the field to fashion their version of the WCO.

Because defenders attempt to angle in or slant in on the blocks of the offensive linemen, zone blocking has become standard for an offensive lineman. Offensive linemen are double teaming defensive tackles, during the course of which, one of them breaks off to block a linebacker. Instead of creating holes big enough for a Town and Country, linemen are looking for ways to open holes for a PT-Cruiser. Man-to-man blocking is as unfashionable as being a Hippy.

Coaches are looking for the passing game to set up the run, the reverse of what it used to be. That is not to say that a team must not run the ball well in the WCO--just not as well as it did in its run-oriented days because of the nature of defenses today.

Teams are looking for touch passers--a Dan Fouts or Joe Montana--instead of a strong-armed behemoth, although a John Elway, who comprises both entities, would be acceptable. Mobility and smarts for a quarterback are prime requisites of the WCO.

The west-coast virus is infecting teams from other parts of the country. Bill Callahan, formerly the coach of the Oakland Raiders, is bringing it to Nebraska of all places. At Notre Dame, former Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham is replacing an option attack with a WCO implementation; however, it's complex to install. Offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick estimates that it is less than 25% of what it was at Stanford.

Due to the complexity of the WCO, UCLA (6-7 this season) struggled with its full implementation, as it was brought to them by Karl Dorrell of the Denver Broncos.

Due to player losses each year, college teams may transition from the WCO to other offensive schemes based on the personnel at hand. Due to Pickett's graduation, for example, the Huskies, without too much perturbation, could transition from their version of the WCO to the Spread Offense used by Urban Meyer at Utah. They've hired Brent Myers, assistant coach at Utah last season, to coach the offensive line. The Huskies have two mobile quarterbacks (another one committed), each of whom fit the mold of a spread-offense quarterback, and Myers will have some definite input as to the offensive scheme the Huskies run.

On Internet message boards, fans are discussing the current state of Pac-10 football versus that of the good old days--when reaching the Pantheon of greats was simply a matter of being better at blocking and tackling. For most teams, being better than others in those fundamentals, requires an infusion of 5-star athletes inside their recruiting mix. And, for most coaches in the Pac-10, seeing five stars in one package is as nebulous as seeing them in a nebula inside the Milky Way.

As football is played in the Pac-10, we fans have Don Coryell, Sid Gillman and Bill Walsh to thank. Really, without them and the WCO, we’d have nothing to argue about. Indeed, football would be a boring game.

WCO Tenets

  • According to Bill Walsh, in the ideal setup, the wide receivers would catch 15 passes a game, the running backs would catch 10 and the tight ends would catch five. A team is looking for 25 first downs a game.

  • Short-to-medium-range passing attack. Receivers are expected to "Run After Catch. 

  •  Players must have more discipline; they have little opportunity for freelancing.

  • Use the pass to set up the run. The most successful WCO teams run the ball well.

  • If a team gains 7-8 yards per run, it can run as little as one out of four plays; otherwise, the WCO calls for an equal number of running and passing plays.

  • The quarterback must be mobile, be able to throw a touch pass with accuracy, and be intelligent.

  • He must throw on rhythm and timing. As Steve Young says, "In contrast, the West Coast offense as it originated with Bill Walsh is any play or set of plays that tie the quarterback's feet to the receiver's route so there is a sense of timing."

  • In the 2-WR, 2-RB, 1-TE base set, any of these five players can be the primary receiver at any given time.

  • Defenses are given a variety of looks, with an offense attacking a defense with more receivers than it can cover. Mismatches and confusion are created on defense by using 2 TE sets, 4 WR sets, and 3 WR sets, etc.

  • Using motion forces a defense to cover players with inappropriate players for coverage, i.e., it creates mismatches.

  • Throw the football on any down or distance.

  •  To maintain ball control, short passes to the tight end and swing passes to running backs are key. Use tight ends who can catch better than block if there is a question of personnel. Tight ends are key to a red zone attack.

  •  The quarterback must be able to release the ball quickly and accurately on timing after a 3-step drop. Receivers run precision routes. The offense is designed to keep the quarterback healthy.

  • After the QB drops 3-steps back, one of the receivers should be open to catch a pass if necessary. Ron Jenkins calls him the HOT receiver.

  • Power running behind zone blocking to minimize negative yardage plays. This is a departure from the 49ers version of the WCO that used man-blocking and cut blocks and misdirection.


Jenkins, Ron, “Coaching the Multiple West Coast Offense,” Coaches Choice, 2001.

Walsh, Bill with Glenn Dickey, “Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers,” Saint Martins Press, 1990.

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com


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