Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The West Coast Offense

We're almost four and a half years into Karl Dorrell's tenure at UCLA. Lots of things have changed over that time, including 4 different offensive coordinators, entire classes of players, and more position coaches than you can shake a stick at. Yet the one thing that hasn't changed is Dorrell's dedication (some would say stubbornness) to utilizing the West Coast Offense (WCO). Even though it has taken on slightly different incarnations with his coordinators, at the heart it remains Dorrell's baby. While we've all read and heard about the WCO, I've never been entirely clear on the details of this offensive philosophy. Is it too hard for college level? Why are some teams more successful at using it than others? I decided to take a little time and give you the evidence of my findings and a little football 101 on the WCO.

History

The first thing you need to know about the WCO is that it is an offensive philosophy, not a particular formation or set of plays. Unlike an option-offense, which uses the option at the core of it's workings, the WCO has no set packages or plays. It is more of a mind-set, a way of approaching the game that is predicated on passing the ball to setup the run. From that perspective, it has been around for decades and most teams have incorporated some aspects of the West Coast Offensive philosophy into their scheme. However, when we talk about the WCO, we tend to associate it with a more narrow definition. The WCO that UCLA runs finds it's roots in the NFL and the teachings of Bill Walsh.

While the WCO has taken on many different incarnations over the years, most would agree that the modern professional variations are based on the offense devised by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers. In Walsh's system, multiple receivers, running backs, and tight ends are available to catch passes. The focus is primarily on short, quick passes, where receivers run precisely timed routes. The offense tries to spread out the defense by throwing the ball more horizontally to receivers aligned across the field. Receivers are then expected to gain more yards after the catch to move the ball down field. Walsh had amazing success with his system and he won 3 Super Bowls up in San Francisco using it.

Obviously that type of success drew a lot of imitators and Walsh's former assistants went on to build great teams using this system. It was this new generation of Walsh disciples that took the WCO all over the country. In the NFL, George Seifert (San Francisco), Mike Holmgren (Green Bay), and Mike Shanahan (Denver) each put on Super Bowl rings while using variations of Walsh's original concepts. In particular, Mike Shanahan was a strong influence on Karl Dorrell who spent time as the receiving coach with the Broncos before coming to Westwood.

At the same time that Walsh was winning Super Bowls up in the bay, LaVell Edwards was having great success using a similar pass-first scheme at BYU. The Cougars went on to win a National Championship under Edwards in 1984 and set a number of passing records in the process. Edward's also sent a lot of players and assistants on to great success including Steve Young (San Francisco), Norm Chow (USC), Steve Sarkasian (USC), Mike Holmgren (Green Bay) , and Brian Billick (Baltimore).

The reason for the success in this college-version of the offense is that it cuts down on complexity. Norm Chow says his college offense has around 12 basic pass plays and 5 basic run plays (with screens). Those plays are run from many formations, with plays tagged for a little versatility. With this simplified version of the WCO, players know the offense by the second day of practice. The defense is kept guessing by the different formations and the offense can focus on learning a much smaller play book. Like I mentioned above, UCLA uses more of a pro-style WCO that has considerably more plays and complexity.

Strength

The core strength of the WCO is that it is difficult for defenses to stop. Why run the ball against a team stacking 7, 8, or even 9 guys in the box when you can throw the ball to a receiver facing man-on-man coverage. Since your quarterback doesn't have to throw many long passes, he doesn't have to be as physically gifted. A smart, accurate quarterback is prized over the guy with the big arm. The quick, 3 and 5-step drop passes mean the offense line doesn't have to give the QB a long time to throw, so there are fewer sacks.

Likewise, your receivers don't have to be as fast or talented in a WCO. Players run precise routes with little room to improvise, but a well timed delivery of the ball means they don't have to outrun the defender as often either. With a large number of players available to receive passes (including running backs and tight ends), the defense is forced to spread out it's coverage and the quarterback can deliver the ball to a receiver with the fewest defenders.

This pass-first strategy forces defenses out of the box and, thus, makes it easier to run the ball. Great WCO teams are great running teams as well since their pass-first scheme means the defense has to cover everyone on the field. Running backs become duel-threat weapons that should be equally good at catching a quick pass out in the flat as they are at taking a hand-off. Backs don't have to be big bruisers who can get 3 yards and a cloud of dust. A more versatile, athletic running back can have great success in the WCO.

Weakness

The quarterback is the most important part of any offense, but especially so in the WCO. With short, quickly timed passes, the quarterback has to make a split second decision on where to put the ball. The pass has to be quick and, most importantly, very accurate. The receiver usually don't have much separation from his defender, so the ball must be right on target for the play to succeed. If your quarterback can't make those "instant" reads and get the ball to the right spot at the right time then the whole scheme collapses.

The other weakness, especially at the college level, is the complexity of the offense. It often takes professional players years to fully adapt to the WCO and they get to practice and train year-round. The complexity isn't just in the size of the play book, but also in gaining a comfort level with the timing of the plays. The quarterback has to have a "feel" for the offense, so he can make an instinctive and immediate decision on where to throw the ball. That type of instinct doesn't develop overnight and for some quarterbacks, it never develops. When asked what is the WCO, Steve Young had this to say, "Timing and choreography, not plays, are what make the West Coast offense."

The WCO and UCLA

It is not too much of a stretch to say that the WCO hasn't been a success at UCLA. Most would classify it as a down right failure. Looking at the offensive ratings over the last 4+ years you get a picture of a team that struggles to move the football.
  • 2003: UCLA ranked 110th in total, 100th in scoring. 9th total in conference.
  • 2004: UCLA ranked 28th in total, 29th in scoring. 4th total in conference.
  • 2005: UCLA ranked 23rd in total, 5th in scoring. 5th total in conference.
  • 2006: UCLA ranked 71st in total, 64th in scoring. 7th total in conference.
  • 2007: UCLA ranked 39th in total, 39th in scoring. 6th total in conference.
The 2003 season was obviously a horrific year that had quarterback issues in spades. Things improved significantly in 2004 and 2005, but sadly, those numbers still didn't put us in the top-3 offenses in the conference. In a offense-oriented conference like the PAC-10, UCLA struggled to keep up with it's peers. Some of the improvement can be credited to Drew Olson getting more comfortable with the WCO. Other gains can be attributed to future NFL players like Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis making big plays. If the WCO can only be successful every few years, and it takes years for the quarterback to get comfortable, then you have to scratch your head and wonder why a college team would use it with players turning over every 4-5 seasons.

Now What?

Some fans, with an honest desire to see change, ask if we can just scrap the WCO and do something else. The answer, unfortunately, is no... at least not during the season. There is a reason why teams install offenses in the spring. It takes months for teams to learn and drill in an offense before they feel completely comfortable. The Bruins, unfortunately, can't just take a month off and retool the entire offense. In the off season it is possible, but Karl Dorrell is married to the WCO and he isn't likely to change to something else. For better or for worse, we're stuck with this system as long as Dorrell is the head coach.

What UCLA can do is try and simplify things. The hard part about that, is that you want to simplify without being simple. If a defense keys in on your small play book, well then you don't have anything else to pull out of your pocket. Really, what the Bruins need is to try and find ways they can maximize their talent. That means getting the ball to play makers like Chris Markey, Brandon Breazell, Joe Cowan, and Kalil Bell. Get the ball into their hands and let them make lemonade from this lemon of an offense.

(photo credit: AP)

6 comments:

Bruwins said...

Great job on summarizing WCO!!!! I believe once Dorrell simplify this WCO ala Chow, our offense will be clicking on all cylinders.

Divided loyalty said...

So, USC runs the WCO and it works great. UCLA runs the WCO and it sucks. Seems to me it isn't the WCO itself that has been the problem at UCLA; It is UCLA's implementation of it. That could be because Dorrell attempted to use a version of it that is too complex. Or, maybe, the Bruins just haven't had the horses for it. Or, maybe Dorrell (or his offensive coordinators) just weren't very good at teaching it. Regardless, sounds like UCLA doesn't need to scrap the WCO; they need to fix it. Probably they need to go after Norm Chow to make it work like USC's.

Divided loyalty said...

p.s. The other possibility, I suppose, is that USC has smarter football players who have been better at learning a complex offense. :)

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