Philosophy Overview: The West Coast Offense

The reason American Football is my favourite sport is the strategy. Each week is a battle of bodies but also a battle of wits. In the NFL you set up your strategies, follow your philosophy and then hopefully execute on Sunday. Over the decades many different approaches to both offense and defense have been developed and passed down, forming connections between different coaches who have been mentored and then gone out on their own. From time to time I give a quick overview of these philosophies. These aim to be accessible and informative. I will provide links to more in-depth stuff if the article has whet your appetite for more.
Some philosophies are more successful than others. The most dominant system over the last 20 years has been the West Coast Offense [WCO]. This philosophy runs contrary to the traditional belief in football that you must draw the defense in by running the ball; then pass when they are committed to defending that run. This is known as "stretching" the defense and aims to create holes downfield that you can exploit.

The WCO utilises this theory of stretching but in a different way. Instead of running the ball, it uses short horizontal routes that are easy to complete. This has the effect of stretching the defense both across and down the field, which allows longer runs and passes in the holes that are left.

This theory was initially implemented by NFL legend Paul Brown but was honed into what it is today by San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh, who won 3 Super Bowls with the 49ers between 1979 and 1988. This was due to the implementation and the tweaking of the WCO. There are many different versions of the WCO with different nuances and ideas. I will be referring to the Bill Walsh philosophy unless otherwise stated. 

The philosophy of the WCO can be summarised as follows:

Pass First, Run Later
This is something that is seen all over the modern NFL but at the time it was a radical departure from the smash-mouth trench warfare of the 60s and 70s. The aim was to get an early lead and then literally run out the clock.

Make the defense accommodate you.
Walsh would line more players up on one side of the field than the other, meaning the defense could not utilise its normal packages and had to adjust to the WCO. This put the defense at an instant disadvantage, which increased the chances that holes would open up. Today, the WCO is run out of almost all formations.

Get the ball to the receiver quickly.
Walsh implemented the 3 step drop for his quarterbacks in the WCO - again so the horizontal routes that were the bread and butter of the WCO could be implemented. The WCO philosophy demands that the QB gets the ball out of his hands quickly so the defensive blitz cannot take hold. Players with quick releases such as Dan Marino have thrived in the WCO for this reason. 

Efficiency through complication
Bear with me here. Because most things happen within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, possession receivers - who know the routes and have safe hands - are a massive commodity. If you ask a wide receiver about the first thing to go when you get past ten seasons, the answer is speed. Speed is not as important in the WCO as it is about precision and possession. Jerry Rice is the supreme example of this idea, participating in 20 seasons of NFL football.

Quick Feet
One of the weaknesses of the WCO is that short blitzes and blocking of receivers at the line can lead to a lack of options. The majority of WCO plays are within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. With defenses knowing this, it is much easier to defend a smaller part of the field. Some WCO teams employ a mobile quarterback to counter this problem. Players like Steve Young, Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick have all thrived in WCO systems as they assume the role of a runner, turning a WCO weakness into a strength.
The WCO coaching tree is immense. Nearly half of all the current NFL Head Coaches come from the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree and while each team uses different aspects and ideas, the basic philosophy is the same. For more in-depth study of the West Coast Offense visit


  1. Thanks for the article. Im still relatively new to following the game and have always wondered what exactly the West Coast Offense was. Should make it a bit easier next time I hear a commentator refer to it!

  2. No worries Dave! If you ever have any other terms you don't know would be happy to do an article on them. It's an easy game to learn but a hard one to master!