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Football 101: The West Coast Offense


By Mark Lawrence

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The Main Principles of the WCO

There are three main principles to minimize risk and achieve success with the West Coast offense. These include protecting the quarterback, timing the pass, and using multiple receivers (including using backs as receivers). Pressure from the pass rush can result in loss of yardage and can disrupt timing between the quarterback and receivers, resulting in forced passes. Repeated hits on the quarterback take a toll physically and invite injury. The offense must have a plan to handle the pass rush of linemen, shooting linebackers, and defensive back blitzes. When the defense sends more rushers than available blockers, the hot receiver principle is used in order to get rid of the ball before the rusher can get to the quarterback.

Solid pass protection gives the quarterback time to find the open receiver and throw him the ball. The quarterback gains confidence and gets into a rhythm of throwing on time while the defense becomes frustrated because of its inability to get to the passer.

Sound protection is based on effective blocking technique. Blocking for the pass is more than the offensive player positioning himself in front of the rusher. The rusher is surging toward the quarterback. The blocker must stop this surge and force the rusher to start up as many times as possible or redirect him away from the quarterback. Technique must he drilled in game like situations and polished through repetition. Practice time allotted for pass protections should he proportionate to how much an offense will use the passing game.

Pass timing is the next most important element in successfully throwing the football. The depth of the receiver’s route must time out with the depth of the quarterback's drop. If the receiver breaks into his route before the quarterback is ready to throw, the defender begins closing on the receiver and arrives at the same time as the ball. If the quarterback is ready to throw, but the receiver has not broken into his route, the coverage begins to converge to where the quarterback is looking and gets a jump on the ball.

Proper pass timing aids the receiver in getting open and permits the quarterback to get the pass off. It establishes a rhythm for the quarterback and receivers. A team that executes its passing attack with near flawless timing is difficult to defend, because in most instances it simply beats the coverage.

The quarterback and receivers must have a thorough understanding of what a given pass route is trying to accomplish and how to run that route properly. Receivers must run routes at precise depths and adjust their route according to the coverage encountered. The quarterback must understand pass defense, recognizing the alignment of defensive secondary personnel and their drops into coverage. He must know the strengths and weaknesses of the coverage and which defender can take away a given route.

Finally, using multiple receivers in the West Coast offense is a definite must. The design of the attack must include a secondary or dump off receiver along with a primary receiver. Their routes will complement each other so that; versus man coverage, a clearing action is provided by one receiver for the other, and versus zone coverage, the defender must make a choice of which receiver to cover.

This design increases the chance for a completion, and permits the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, since he does not need to wait for his primary receiver to get open.

The receivers routes should be in the same general area and at varying depths so that a stretching action is made on the coverage, and one receiver comes open before the other. The quarterback should be able to quickly scan from one receiver to the other, and complete the pass to the open man. He is taught that when the coverage takes away the primary receiver, he will immediately go to the secondary receiver. Even if throwing to the second choice results in a missed first down, an incompletion or possible interception will be eliminated and some gain will be achieved. There's always chance the receiver might break away for the first down. Throwing the ball to the secondary receiver enough times will soon condition the defense to cover him, opening up possibilities down field.

The West Coast passing attack utilizes all five skill positions as pass receivers in a variety of ways when attacking the defense. By using all skill positions as receivers, the offense can attack the whole field and reduce defensive coverage into one-on-one situations.

The nice thing about the West Coast offense however is that on any given pass play, a quarterback will have a variety of options, especially on the side of the field that the play is designed to go. Because of this a receiver is usually open. For example, on a pass play to the strongside, the wide receiver may be called to run deep down the field, the tight end may be called to run an intermediate out route, and the fullback may be called to run a swing pass. If the flanker and tight end are covered, the quarterback should be able to dump the ball off to the back.

Football is a game of field position. Positive yards are gained in the field position war. This is the same strategy a traditional running attack tries to accomplish. At best, the back breaks a tackle and picks up the first down. Don't force the issue, don't make mistakes. This is supposed to be a low risk offense. A complimentary benefit is that completions will raise a quarterback's confidence level.

In conclusion, the West Coast offense in my opinion is the most productive offense that could be used in football. I say productive because this offense can be used with average players for maximum benefit. As defenses place more and more emphasis on speed pass rushers, disguised coverages, and attacking, pressure- based concepts, the need for the West Coast offense will continue to grow.


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  3. Football’s Quick Passing Game: More Advanced Routes Vol. 2. Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Sagamore Publishing, Inc. 1998

  4. Football’s Quick Passing Game: Implementing the Package Vol. 3. Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Sagamore Publishing, Inc. 1998

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  7. Quarterbacking. Bart Starr and Mark Cox. Prentice Hall, Inc. 1967.

  8. Rough Magic: Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football. L. Cohn. Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.

  9. Developing an Offensive Game Plan. Brian Billick. Sagamore Publishing, Inc., 1997.

  10. Winning with the West Coast Offense. Mike Lowry. M-Low Enterprises, 1996