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Football 101: The West Coast Offense

Wide Receivers

By Mark Lawrence

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Bill Walsh's early NFL career

When you actually sit down and try to summarize how you pursued the major goals in your life, it is relatively difficult to determine from which point you should began. Most people interested in football want to know where did Walsh develop his professional philosophies, and in particular the West Coast offense.

All factors considered, the birth of the West Coast offense started with the legendary Paul Brown, from whom Walsh worked for in Cincinnati, and the offensive genius Sid Gillman. Gillman made his mark in 10 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, leading them to five championship appearances.

Walsh learned from Gillman when Gillman hired him with the Oakland Raiders. Walsh gives credit to Gillman as being the biggest influence in his early career. Gillman was just one of the numerous pro coaches whom Walsh studied from. Walsh also credits individuals such as Blanton Collier, Al Davis, Don Coryell and Clark Shaughnessy, the legendary Stanford coach and Chicago Bear assistant to George Halas who brought the T formation into college and professional football .

Having the chance to work at the college level at two great schools like Cal and Stanford had to be meaningful for his development as a coach. What many people don't realize is that Walsh spent his first few years in college football on the defensive side of the ball. Working as Marv Levyís defensive coordinator at Cal, then later with John Ralston at Stanford as his defensive backs coach, provided him with experience important to coaching offensive football.

The time Walsh spent with Cincinnati Bengals seemingly gave Walsh a chance to develop his own coaching philosophy and to put them into practical application. At the time, Cincinnati was an expansion team that had Virgil Carter as its quarterback. Virgil Carter was a quarterback who had a great collegiate career at Brigham Young. Virgil Carter was only six feet tall and without a throwing arm, but he was a good runner. Back in those days from film I have seen, the Bengalís weren't strong enough on the offensive line to be able to run the ball well, Walsh decided that the best chance to win football games was to somehow control the ball. As a result, Walsh devised a ball-control passing game in the hope that if the Bengals could make 25 first downs in a given game and also had good special teams play, football games wouldn't be hard to win .

Over the eight year period Walsh was in Cincinnati, he and his staff were able to develop a system known today as the West Coast offense. Walsh couldn't have never known the system as being an all-encompassing system. If he did know he probably would have patented the name and made a lot of money from it.

At age 47, Bill Walsh got his first chance to be a head coach since he coached at the high school level in the late 1950s . He was named head football coach at Stanford University in 1977. Most people would consider coaching at Stanford an opportunity of a lifetime. This position allowed him to take full control of an organization and field test the precepts and philosophies he had worked to develop over the years. What matters most is that he also got a chance to further develop an offensive system, but at a decidedly different level.

Coaching football at the college level probably needs more involvement because of the varying stages of development of football players. Teaching is more comprehensive in college because a dramatic range exists in the abilities of the players. The success Walsh had at Stanford, culminating in a national ranking a win in the Bluebonnet Bowl, gave him the chance to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979.

Walsh is hired to be Head Coach of the 49ers.

The 49ers had been virtually dismembered in the late 1970s by mismanagement and terrible personnel decisions. The apathy in the Bay area for the 49ers was at an all-time high, as evidence by the fact they couldn't sell many tickets. The 49ers had been through a tumultuous period with differences of head coaches and general managers who constantly were at odds with one another. As a result, the organization had no single leadership and no meaningful direction. To make things worse the 49ers had few draft choices with which to rebuild due to some poor trades. When Walsh was hired they made him head coach, and he was also in charge of all football operations, similar to what the Seattle Seahawks have done when they hired Mike Holmgren.

The standards that Walsh set coaching the West Coast offense were miraculous. His primary goal was to get players that fit the system. Therefore, I will give an idea on what type of players by position that Walsh wanted.

Wide Receivers in the WCO

The wide receiver position is probably the second most important position in this offense only because of the passing. The ideal size of a wide receiver should be at least 6 foot 3 inches, and weigh about 210 pounds. To play effectively, a wide receiver must posses several traits and characteristics. For example, a wide receiver should have a high level of agility. The agility to change his body position is essential if a wide receiver is to be able to get his hips turned and his hands in position to catch a ball that is not perfectly thrown. Body control is particularly critical for a wide receiver who wants to get to the highest tier of play.

Wide receivers in this offense must also be relatively strong. Strength can help wide receivers in several ways. For example, strength plays a role in a wide receiver being able to maintain his balance after a collision with his defenders. Strength also affects a receiverís ability to go up for the ball and his ability to maintain his performance level as the game progresses . All factors considered the stronger a player is, the less likely he is to be injured.

Soft hands are also vital. Itís a given that to have a legitimate chance to play, a receiver must have outstanding hands. The key is to be able to catch the ball in a crowded situation, while on the move. Almost all potential receivers can run under the ball and catch it in the open. In reality, however, most catches must be made with the ball and the defender closing at the same instant.

In such a situation, the receiver must get his body in position to catch the ball and be hit all at the same moment.

Wide receivers must also have the ability to focus. They must be able to find the ball, focus on it, and isolate it from everything else that is happening around them. When a coach is evaluating videotapes on a particular wide receiver, he looks for and evaluates those plays that demonstrate situations where the player must be focused.

Speed also plays a role. While pure (track) speed may be desirable, the ability to increase his foot speed as needed (i.e., explosiveness) and his full stride speed are more important factors for a wide receiver. Acceleration has a number of obvious applications for a wide receiver.

Full-stride speed enables a receiver who has the ball in the open field to be able to keep the separation with the closing defenders until he crosses the goal line . He doesn't have to out-run the defenders or gain ground on them just get to the goal line before the defenders do. This situation requires full-stride speed, rather than track speed.

The NFL has also had a few wide receivers with Olympic-level sprinting speed who lacked full-stride speed. As a result, they weren't able to score whenever they got tangled up with a defender and weren't able to get back into full stride quickly enough.

Coachability is another factor that is important that wide receivers have (as it is for all players). Coaching can help enhance a receiver's ability to evade a defender at the line of scrimmage, to read the form of coverage, and to change a pattern accordingly.

Wide receivers must also be durable. Durability is a factor because receivers get hit a lot. Often, they're hit when they're in a vulnerable position (i.e., being hit by a much larger opponent after running a hooking pattern against a linebacker). Wide receivers are finely tuned athletes who need to be in top condition to perform well. If they are hurt or injured, it can be very difficult for them to function at a high level. Unlike a few other positions (e.g., offensive lineman), wide receivers must be almost totally injury free to perform well.

Walsh has had the luxury to coach a number of great wide receivers, including Chip Myers, Charlie Joiner, James Lofton, Ken Margerum, Isaac Curtis, Dwight Clark, John Taylor and the incomparable Jerry Rice. At one time or another, all of them were either Pro Bowl players or All-Americans in college.

Each, however, was uniquely qualified and different from the others.

For example, Chip Myers was 6'5, while Charlie Joiner was only 5'10; Isaac Curtis was an NCAA sprint champion; Dwight Clark ran a 4.6 40-yard dash, etc . The one thing that they had in common, however, was that they were all brilliant performers.

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