The West Coast Offense is frequently thought to refer to the phenomenal football performance of the 49ers and their three Super Bowl wins in 1981, 1984, and 1988. Actually the term, coined by Bernie Kosar, a former quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, applied to the offense strategy used by the Chargers and the Raiders.
West Coast Offense, as used by Kosar, referred specifically to a type of offensive strategy that was first employed by the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s. Bill Walsh, the coach of the Niners during their halcyon days of victory, perfected a version of this strategy while working with the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh brought the strategy to the Niners in 1979, but his version was adapted from the original strategy. However, most now think of the West Coast Offense as synonymous with Walsh’s version.
The principal feature of the strategy as defined by Walsh focuses on throwing short passes in the early portion of the game. The goal is to advance the ball 3 to 4 yards at a time to make first downs, slowly and by doing so, exhaust the opposing team’s defense. In general, the running game is not utilized until late in the game.
Often, long passes were not used unless there was a clear opening. Long possession of the ball was the goal to keep the defense of the other team playing as long as possible. As well, the West Coast Offense aimed to put up points early in the game, making it more difficult for the opposing team to catch up.
The West Coast Offense tended to utilize offensive backs as receivers, and therefore, a high number of receivers ran to designated spots with the hope that one receiver would be open. This sent the defense scrambling in all directions to block receivers without being fouled for pass interference. The original plan used the same strategy, but short passing was less common. Receivers tended to go further downfield. The key to Walsh’s version was “short,” with several downs prior to achieving a first down.
Walsh was also known for scripting the first 15 plays of a game. This was helpful since it allowed the coaches to observe weaknesses in the opposing team’s defense, which could be used later in the game. However, it could also be perceived as a weakness when the plays were clearly not working against an opposing team’s defense.
In all, the West Coast Offense was greatly effective especially during the 1980s for the Niners. However, it can also be said that the high quality of the players influenced the effectiveness of the strategy. Quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Steve Young are renowned for their athletic abilities. As well, receivers like Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, and John Taylor were very successful at catching the short pass. It can be said, therefore, the West Coast Offense combined extreme athleticism and agility with thoughtful strategy.