West Coast Offense

What Is It and Position Responsibilities

West Coast Offense

What Is It and Position Responsibilities

Written by: Connor Morris | 05/06/2019 - Co-Founder, CMO, Apex Sports

Written by: Connor Morris | 05/06/2019 - Co-Founder, CMO, Apex Sports

West Coach Offense: What is it and Position Responsibilities

The West Coast offense traces its roots back to legendary Football coach, Bill Walsh. Walsh began to incorporate the offense while acting as the Offensive Coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. The offense was initially designed around then-Bengals Quarterback, Virgil Carter, who lacked arm strength but did possess good accuracy from short and intermediate distances. Walsh’s West Coast Offense is best remembered by the Joe Montana-led 49ers of the 80’s. Montana could be considered the prototypical West Coast Quarterback. Montana had average arm strength and, at 6’2”, was not particularly big. Regardless, Montana went on to win 4 Super Bowls, 3 of them with Walsh as the head coach. Since Walsh’s time, the west coast is frequently used at the college and pro level. The list of coaches that are seen as descendants of the Bill Walsh coaching tree include Gary Kubiak, Dennis Green, Mike McCarthy, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, and Mike Shanahan. All of the aforementioned names were NFL head coaches that implemented the West-Coast Offense into their team’s game plan. Today, teams like the Los Angeles Rams have shown that when executed properly, the West Coast Offense isn’t just dangerous, but unstoppable.

The West Coast Offense is predicated on ball control and is primarily comprised of short and intermediate passes. Due to the focus on short passes, Running Backs and Tight Ends are expected to be more heavily utilized in the passing game. As a whole, the West Coast Offense is capable of scheming around Quarterbacks with average-to-below average arm strength, slower and/or smaller wide receivers, or an ineffective run game. The West Coast Offense can potentially lack explosiveness, which can often be a detriment if your team find themselves facing a large deficit or in any other situations where they need to score quickly, like in the two-minute drill. What the offense lacks in explosiveness, it makes up for in control. West Coast Offenses are capable of putting together long drives that eat up a ton of clock, keeping the opposing offense off of the field, and limiting turnovers.

Objectives of the West Coast Offense

Traditional school of thought reasons that an offense should establish the run as a way of setting up the pass. In the West Coast Offense, the team will throw a high volume of short-distance passes. What this does is spread the defense out, eventually forcing linebackers into coverage. The Quarterback can then expose mismatches down the field, or effectively run the ball by pushing the linebackers back into coverage.

The high volume of plays and the prolonged drives from a West Coast Offense also seek to tire the defense out before incorporating more running plays into the offense. The pass-first-run-second strategy was preached originally by Walsh. The West Coast Offense also seeks to keep the opposing team’s offense off of the field. This has long been a strategy against teams with dominant offenses and a long drive can really take momentum from the opposing team and limit the number of drives the other team’s offense gets.

Quarterbacks in the West Coast Offense

As is the case in most offenses, the Quarterback is the most important part of the execution of the West Coast Offense. This is even more the case here, as opposed to other offenses considering there’s such a heavy concentration of passes. Arm strength is not as essential in the West Coast Offense as accuracy is. As the Quarterback, you will not be asked to make many deep throws and instead be required to hit receivers, running backs, and tight ends on shorter routes. Recognition of mismatches on a play and being able to make an accurate throw to those targets is essential. These Quarterbacks should be able to make a plethora of different throws, from screen passes to timed passes, as well as short and intermediate throws in the flats.

In addition, these Quarterbacks need to be good decision makers and have a strong understanding of the playbook as well as the route trees for all receivers. The Quarterback must be able to anticipate where his receivers should be on a play and lead them. Due to the nature of the passing plays drawn up in this offense, a Quarterback must be able to get rid of the ball quickly, meaning a quick release and quick decision making. Mobility, while not essential, is extremely beneficial in a West Coast Offense. This can be seen in Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson who can extend a play outside of the pocket, giving more time for a receiver to get open. Other Quarterbacks that have played in the West Coast Offense include Jared Goff, Alex Smith, and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Running Backs in the West Coast Offense

Running backs and fullbacks in the West Coast Offense tend to be very different from traditional running backs. The stressed areas of importance at these positions are pass-blocking and receiving. This is to be expected in a pass-heavy offense where the focus is on keeping the quarterback upright. The 49ers running back Roger Craig became the first running back to ever have 1000 rushing yards and 1000 receiving yards in the same season under Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense. This means that you want a shiftier, quicker running back that have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Running Backs will be required to run screens, wheel routes, and will often be the go-to checkdown target for a quarterback. Examples of West Coast Offense running backs are former Packers Running Back Ahman Green, Jamaal Charles, and Devonta Freeman. Power running backs might not be the best suited for the West Coast offense as they typically lack the lateral quickness or skill as a receiver to be effective.

Fullbacks are extremely valuable and underappreciated in a West Coast Offense. These fullbacks possess similar qualities to halfbacks but are expected to be used in short yardage situations on 3rd and 4th down by catching passes in the flat or running up the middle once the defense is stretched out. An example of a West Coast Offense fullback would be Chiefs All-Pro Anthony Sherman.

Wide Receivers in the West Coast Offense

As was previously stated, the wide receivers in a West Coast Offense don’t need to be the fastest guys on the field, and they don’t necessarily need to be the biggest. The receivers are mostly going to be running short and intermediate routes which means they will typically be breaking in or breaking out at the beginning of their route. Agility and quickness are more important than pure speed in a West Coast Offense. The most important things, however, are exceptional abilities to run routes and catch balls. A receiver that drops passes simply won’t fit into a West Coast Offense that is built on driving down the field incrementally. Dropped balls can kill an offensive drive and cause the offense to stall, which is not what you want.

These Wide Receivers must also be able to do a lot in the open field. Many of the pass plays in a West Coast Offense are designed to have the Quarterback lead the receiver and give him an opportunity to make a move in the open field. This can be seen to a massive extent with Chiefs Wide Receiver, Tyreek Hill. Hill is one of the quickest players in the entire NFL and the Chiefs have made a point over the past 3 seasons to get the ball into his hands in space as he has shown elite skills in the open field. Other Receivers that have played in the West Coast Offense include Cooper Kupp, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr.

Tight Ends in the West Coast Offense

The tight end is significantly more prominent in the passing game than it was during the Bill Walsh era in San Francisco. This is certainly the case in the West Coast Offense as Tight Ends are almost exclusively running short or intermediate routes. The West Coast Offense is also focused on creating mismatches. Tight Ends are often the subject of mismatches in this offense if a slower linebacker or smaller safety is tasked with covering the Tight End. These Tight Ends MUST be able to function as a wide receiver when it comes to catching the ball and skillfully running routes. In addition these Tight Ends must be faster than most linebackers and bigger than most safeties. Showing an ability to make tough catches in traffic is also a huge asset for Tight Ends. Examples of tight ends that play in a West Coast Offense are Travis Kelce and Austin Hooper.

Plays in a West Coast Offense

The West Coast Offense has most of its plays happening within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. The playbook is obviously pass-heavy. As the goal of the West Coast Offense is to pass the ball in order to “keep the defense honest” to set up long run and pass plays, there will be plays in which the Quarterback is given the freedom to take a shot down field once the defense is too focused on the short-passing game. Most of the plays are run with the Quarterback taking a 3 or 5 step drop.


The West Coast Offense has proven to be adept at masking potential weaknesses of Quarterbacks and Receivers. Quarterbacks that have difficulty playing in another system may find success when playing in the West Coast Offense. This was the case for Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. Arm strength is traditionally one of the go-to metrics being looked at when determining the potential of a young quarterback. However, Quarterbacks that lack arm strength could masterfully execute a West Coast Offense if they show quick decision making abilities, anticipation, and accuracy. Wide Receivers that may not have the metrics that jump off of the page might also find success in the West Coast system. The receivers might not be tall or fast or have the most impressive verticals, but can make up for this with strong route running, good hands, and quickness. For this reason, some NFL receivers that excel in the West Coast Offense come from smaller colleges after being overlooked due to lack of size or speed. At the end of the day, the West Coast Offense relies heavily on decision making, and intelligence. Almost all of the traits required to excel can be developed through training and practice.

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