Feb 21

What is West Coast Offense in American Football

When the United States witnessed the first version of American football between the college teams of Princeton and Rutgers on November 6, 1869, the game seemed to be a very close offshoot of rugby. But over the years, with modifications, simplification, and apparent distinction, the sport skyrocketed into one of the most watched and most enjoyed sports in America.

As the years passed, every team tried to bring their own style and technique onto the field, and that led to coaches and players formulating clever and precise plays and schemes to outdo the opposing team. Out of this wide range, the West Coast Offense became a unique tactic that was employed and perfected by many a team over the years. So let us understand what this system is all about.

What is West Coast Offense?

It is a system formulated by Bill Walsh, in which the team focuses on an approach where quick and short ball passing is applied, which helps set up the run. This method opens up the running lanes for the linebackers and multiple receivers to manipulate by opening and spreading the defense and facilitating precision-passing.

The idea is to gain an early lead, have increased ball and clock control, higher completion percentage, and to avail multiple-play possibilities, while keeping the defense guessing. This eventually weakens the barricade, allowing for longer plays and passes in the latter half of the game with a longer ball-passing distance.

Since it is more of an offensive approach than a predefined formation or play tactic, the usage of the West Coast Offense varies greatly with the team.


The concept of West Coast Offense first came in to being during Bill Walsh’s stint as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals (1968 – 75) based on tactics used by then-coach Paul Brown. But the usage of the term for his approach only came into being after an error committed by a reporter.

As the story goes, the term was based on a remark made by an ex-New York Giants’ coach, Bill Parcells, where he said, “What do you think of the West Coast offense now?”, after the Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers. Later, Bernie Kosar, the quarterback then for the Dallas Cowboys, referred to his team’s offense as the ‘West coast offense’ in relation to the ‘Air Coryell’ scheme conceptualized by Don Coryell (former San Diego Chargers’ coach).

A reporter later unknowingly used this term in reference to the offensive style of the San Francisco 49ers back in the ’80s. Eventually, the name stuck after it was publicized by Paul Zimmerman in an article for the Sports Illustrated magazine.

Principles of the System

– Ball Control: One of the main principles of the WCO is to increase possession through short passes, which is done by breaking down and spreading the defense. This will later open the field up and make longer distance, high-percentage passes possible.

– Timed Passes: A key feature is to use precision-passing which is dictated by the running game-essentially, the play used. The quarterback gages the situation and makes timely passes to the receiver, who in turn also has to gage the incoming pass and make an effective run for the same.

– Deceiving the Defense: Deception is an integral part of the WCO because there is more scope for multiple plays and varied formations that can be employed. But this depends largely on how well the quarterback and receiver gage the on-field situation, their precision with passing and receiving, and being able to improvise.

– Multiple Receivers: The WCO allows for more tailored plays, which in turn allows even five receivers to be used in a pass-play. This way, the decision-making burden on the quarterback is more evenly divided amongst the players.

– High Conversion Percentage: The WCO plays tend to require players to take up more versatile roles in the game, thus improving both their game and professional statistics.


Although the system brings about a lot of innovative game-play and change in performance and tactics, it still suffers from some shortcomings.

– Calling play is difficult at times because quick decisions are required, and that requires being able to gage defense on the move.

– Getting into a rhythm is not a quick process, and requires a lot of training and practice.

– Complicated routes have to be devised in order to adjust to the changing movement in the defense.

– Because of the wide variety in plays and formations, and the complex numbered-naming system for the same, the players have a tough job ahead to memorize each of them.

Despite all the debate and all the pros and cons of the West Coast Offense System, this game-changing tactic is still an integral part of a lot of professional NFL Teams. Time stands as testament to the success of this formula, but will also dictate its relevance in the years to come.


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