What Really is the West Coast Offense?

by Michael Kelley
September 29, 2004

We hear the term West Coast offense all the time in both pro and college football. So what does it really mean? Is it an offense that throws the ball every down? That is what most people believe, but it is not necessarily always true.

The West Coast offense was really publicized by former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. He made the offense famous during his Super Bowl years, but the offense was actually invented much earlier by Paul Brown’s Cincinnati Bengals, who had as their assistant coach, Bill Walsh. The West Coast offense is not designed to be a pass happy offense. It is designed to control the ball. There are many variations to the offense but spreading the field and controlling the ball with short passes and runs are the main focus of the offense. Some teams use it better than others. Nebraska has taken the offense, under head coach Bill Callahan, and made it into something different. “Philosophically, where do you want to go with it?" Callahan said. "Are you going to use shifts? Are you going to use motion? Are you going to exploit mismatches? Are you going to run the whole tree? Three-step? Five-step? The only thing I can say about ours is we have the full complement. At Nebraska, they're going to be exposed to every concept. It's not just a grab bag of reaching out and grabbing one portion of the West Coast offense." It also matters what personnel you have running the offense. At Nebraska I don’t believe they have the proper personnel to run the offense effectively. It will take some time for the offense to work, if it ever does, at Nebraska.

One place the offense has worked is at Purdue. Head coach Joe Tiller brought the offense many years ago to the Midwest and the Boilermakers have made it work extremely well. This year is perhaps the best indication that personnel are everything to the West Coast offense. Quarterback Kyle Orton looks like he is one of the best in the country and it is absolutely essential to have a good quarterback for the West Coast offense to work. Remember the 49ers and Joe Montana. He was a surgeon picking apart opposing defenses. You need someone like that to run the offense. Notre Dame is trying to develop quarterback Brady Quinn into that person, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen. What should be remembered when talking about the West Coast offense is that the main goal is to move the ball efficiently. "When you look at the system from the outside, there seems to be some mystery attached to it," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "In fact, it's pretty simple." It is all about personnel as well. "It comes down to a personnel question," Tiller said. "Can you function within the system? Oftentimes the difference between having a productive offense and a really productive offense is your team's ability to do something outside your system. If it's a good system, it can be productive to a certain degree."

The West Coast offense is really just another way of moving the ball. It does not always result in 50 passes per game. In fact, the goal is to have a mixed percentage between the run and the pass. The West Coast offense spreads the field and makes defenses react accordingly. The next time you hear the term West Coast offense, don’t always assume it means passing every down, it really means spreading the field to give yourself more options, and in football the more options the better.