Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The West Coast Offends

One of the things people get wrong with the San Francisco 49ers is the whole West Coast-offense thing.

The way the legend goes is that Bill Walsh came to town with a phenomenal new scheme called the West Coast offense and revolutionized a moribund attack and suddenly it was okay to say bad words on records. Or something like that.

What a bunch of rubbish.

The fact is that the San Francisco 49ers have always run a West Coast offense, in one or another of the ways that term has come to be defined. The West Coast offense out of the shotgun? Buck Shaw and Frankie Albert ran that in 1951. Five-yard dumpoffs to the running backs? That's how Hugh McElhenny got to Canton. McElhenny finished his career with 264 receptions. The only contemporary running backs who caught as many passes were Bobby Mitchell and Frank Gifford, and they spent most of their careers as actual flankers. Big possession receivers? San Fran had two of the best in six-foot-three R.C. Owens and six-foot-four Bernie Casey. Passing to the tight end? Dave Parks led the league in receptions in 1965, with John Brodie passing and Jack Christiansen in charge.

Brodie was a prototypical West Coast offense quarterback: short drop, quick release, short patterns, limited mobility. Brodie led the league in passing yards three times. He led the league in yards per completion once -- 1961, a complete aberration of a season.

From the time the 'Niners entered the league until 2002, the last good year of their run, the San Francisco offense was always more multidimensional than most, always full of backs who could catch, always willing to use the short pass as a surrogate run.

Like television or the iPhone, the West Coast offense was less revolutionary than evolutionary, a successful synthesis of elements that had already been tried. The only difference between the West Coast offense and the Run 'n' Shoot  is that the West Coast offense worked in the NFL.

The Run 'n' Shoot might have worked in the NFL; there was nothing inherently flawed about it. All it needed to succeed was the right coach and the proper personnel. The West Coast offense had Bill Walsh, and after a couple of years it had the people to make it work. But perhaps most importantly, it had a team used to such stuff.

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