What Is the West Coast Offense in Football? A Complete Guide


A college football player dives into the end zone.

From big throws downfield to power running the football, there are countless ways to run an offense in the NFL. One of the most popular styles has become the West Coast offense, a system that many NFL teams use today to various degrees. This leads to the question…

What exactly is the West Coast offense in football?

The West Coast offense is a fast-paced system that relies on short and quick throws to sure-handed receivers who run precise horizontal routes. This system looks to control the game through the air and sets receivers up to make plays after the catch.

While that’s a general overview of the West Coast offense, there’s a lot more that goes into calling and running plays in the system. Throughout this article, we’ll cover the origin of the system, positional roles, different variations of the West Coast offense and much more – so stick around!

What is the West Coast Offense?

Compared to other offensive systems, this style has been said to “nickel and dime” the defense, due to its short passing attempts, and has led to amazing success by countless teams throughout the years and is a staple in the NFL.

The offense relies on a smart, accurate, and mobile quarterback running the offense under center. Typically, there will be two backs in the backfield split to either side of the quarterback. On either side of the field are two wide receivers along with a tight end lined up next to the offensive line.

The goal of this offense is to use the quarterback’s dropbacks to establish the timing for plays, while receivers run horizontal routes across the field. The quarterback looks to take advantage of precise route running by the receivers to complete short, horizontal passes, allowing receivers to make plays after the catch for extra yardage.

The West Coast offense’s core elements are rhythm, timing, and ball protection. While there may be some deep throws made downfield, the focus is on quick and short passes that have a high chance of completion.

One of the most important elements in this system is the quarterback dropback. For each play, there is a certain number of steps for the quarterback’s drop back. This allows the quarterback to understand the timing for each play and know where to look to pass.

Almost every football fan has heard the phrase, “establish the run”. This phrase is a football standard and is the mindset of using the run to set up big plays downfield. When the running game becomes effective it causes the defense to set up to stop the run and potentially overcommit.

When the offense feels this is happening, they often take chances by throwing the ball deep down the field. The West Coast offense does the exact opposite.

The West Coast system looks to establish the pass, to set up the run. Due to its quick horizontal passes, the defense can’t crowd the line of scrimmage, leading to linebackers playing in coverage against the quicker wide receivers. In addition to wide receivers running routes, the running back and tight end typically will also run routes to overwhelm the defense.

The West Coast offenses also use a lot of play-action plays. Play action is where the offense fakes a run in an attempt to make the defense react to the run, then uses the quarterback to roll out and pass to a receiver running down the field.

Part of the reason this works so well is due to the offense’s willingness to throw on any down or distance. Due to this, when they see any type of potential run play, the defense may overact, letting the offense take them off guard.

The final aspect of the West Coast offense is the use of pre-snap motions to create mismatches on the defensive side of the ball. Receivers, tight ends, and running backs will go in motion to try and draw a slower linebacker in coverage to create a mismatch.

Who Invented the West Coast Offense?

A college football quarterback in red looks downfield as he scrambles.

With all of these advantages, it may come as a surprise that this system was created out of necessity rather than want. In 1969, the Bengals had a rising superstar in rookie quarterback Greg Cook, but in week 3 Cook tore his rotator cuff.

Cook, who was drafted as a big-armed, vertical passer, no longer had the arm strength to throw the ball deep. Bill Walsh, who was the offensive coordinator at the time, had to step back and completely redesign the team’s offense.

Up to this point the team’s running backs and tight ends were used in power runs to set up the vertical pass. Instead, Walsh turned them into pass catchers and gave them horizontal routes designed to get them in space.

Walsh then added more layers by sending players in motion to create mismatches and used the passing game to set the tempo of the game. His offense became one of the few not using the power running game as the focus through the 1980s and 1990s.

Walsh took this offensive system and perfected it during his years with San Francisco. During his time in San Fran, he worked with two of the most accurate, intelligent, and relatively mobile quarterbacks in the history of the NFL to show the league the dominance of the West Coast offense.

Walsh had two elements he found to be crucial to the success of the offense. The first was using the timing of the quarterback dropbacks to set the pace for the play. He so firmly believed in this, every play was created with a predetermined number of steps for the quarterback’s drop back.

The second element was having pass catchers who could run precise routes and who possessed good hands to catch the ball over the middle of the field. The goal was to get these pass catchers the ball in space as they ran across the middle of the field to allow them to make plays after the catch for extra yardage.

When first introducing the system, Walsh was criticized as trying to finesse the defense or playing too conservatively. Walsh ignored the critics and at the end of his career Walsh’s system started a new era in the NFL with the passing attack being the focus of offenses. Walsh ended up winning three Super Bowls utilizing the West Coast offense and was named the NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and the NFC Coach of the Year in 1984.

Player Roles in the West Coast Offense

As with any offensive system, specific player qualities are needed for each position. Listed below are player roles and the qualities they need to have to be successful.

  • Quarterback – Needs to be a mobile passer with excellent decision-making abilities. They will need to choose from multiple options and deliver the ball quickly and accurately.
  • Running back – On many plays is utilized as a pass-catcher, making receiving and precision route-running skills invaluable. They also will play a role in pass blocking on longer quarterback 5 step drops. Finally, the offense will look for longer runs later in the game when the passing game has been established, requiring the back to possess breakaway speed.
  • Wide Receivers – Their biggest strength needs to be in precision route running and timing. With passes being short and based on timing, physicality or breakaway speed isn’t the most important factor. Instead, receivers who thrive in this offense need the ability to make plays after the catch.
  • Tight End – Have the role of a hybrid between a blocker and possession receiver. Good hands as well as the ability to make catches in traffic is a huge plus.
  • Linemen – Need to be mobile and agile players who can move the pocket to keep up with a mobile quarterback. The main focus on the running game is zone runs, so they need to possess the ability to get outside and block for the running back or quarterback.

West Coast Offense Formations

Quarterback in red throws the football.

In the West Coast system, there are countless formations to run the offense out of. The most basic formation is to have a quarterback in the backfield with a running back and full back split to either side of him.

There will be two wide receivers on the line of scrimmage on either side of the field. Finally, a tight end will line up at the line of scrimmage next to the offensive linemen. This formation allows the offense to potentially have five pass catchers on the field and hopefully create a mismatch for the offense.

Even with countless formations, the West Coast offense will have several consistent elements:

  • Get an advantageous matchup. This typically involves getting a linebacker in coverage on a running back, wide receiver, or tight end.
  • Use players in motion before the snap to make the defense show their scheme.
  • Let the quarterback see and read the defense by utilizing his three or five step drop.
  • Attack the defense and force them to adjust and react.
  • Have the ability to run many plays from multiple formations, meaning the defense shouldn’t be able to predict what the offense will run.

NFL offenses have taken these elements to create their own unique variation of the West Coast system. Even though this system was created almost four decades ago, its influence is still evident in the league as almost every offense has taken to using the West Coast system in some way.

West Coast Offense Passing Concepts

Walsh believed so firmly the importance of the three-step or five-step drop back by the quarterback and there are specific reasons for this. Walsh preached that at the end of the drop back, the quarterback should know exactly where the pass catchers are in their routes and be able to predict where to go with the ball. The three-step and five-step drop back each had their own role in Walsh’s system.

The three-step drop is designed to be the ball control section of the passing game. The quarterback is looking to see what the defense gives him and looks to take advantage of it. The following are three of the most basic plays to pair with a three-step drop back:

  • Quick out, called Omaha
  • Slant, called Lion
  • Hitch, called Thunder

The offense builds upon these three basic plays by adding layers of disguise through players in motion, quarterback rollouts, and play-action plays.

The second and more common passing concept is the five-step drop back. These plays are designed to get the ball thrown before the defense has time to respond; there are a few different variations within the five steps to further confuse the defense. The types of passes coming out of this concept are quite numerous, but typically pass-catchers will have short to intermediate routes sending them horizontally across the field.

The final passing concept is the play-action pass.

Bill Walsh is quoted as saying, “This type of pass is designed specifically to develop and take advantage of a defensive conflict. A fundamentally sound play that strives to contradict the basic principles of a defense, the play-pass gets the defensive team to commit to a ‘fake’ run and then throwing a pass behind the defenders off the fake.”

This style of play works brilliantly against defenses that commit to stopping the run. The concept exploits the aggressiveness of the defense, as the passing plays are based on faking the most successful running plays.

West Coast Offense vs. Spread

College football wide receivers line up out wide.

A new kind of offense has taken over the college level and has made its way into the NFL recently called the “Spread” offense. Initially, the Spread looked to be a variation of the West Coast offense, but it’s a unique offensive system.

One of the big differences is the removal of the fullback in the Spread system. In the Spread, the fullback is replaced by another receiver; the running back is also used to block more.

Another difference is that the West Coast system looks to make quick passes across the middle of the field, but the Spread looks to spread the defense out across the whole field and uses vertical routes just as much as horizontal routes.

With the defense spread out at the line of scrimmage it becomes easier for the quarterback to find holes in the defense as well as for the running back when running the ball. This style also limits the defense from stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run as they are spread across the whole field.

While it’s similar, the Spread doesn’t rely on timing as heavily as the West Coast system, but rather on creating holes across the defense to be taken advantage of.

What Type of Offense Does Andy Reid Run?

Andy Reid is known as one of the most brilliant offensive minds in football and has created highly successful offenses with several different teams. His version of the West Coast offense relies on a highly athletic quarterback with an elite arm, as well as skilled receivers who thrive on making plays after the catch.

Initially, Reid treated the quarterback in his system like an NBA point guard, using short accurate passes to get talented pass catchers the ball in space. Recently with Patrick Mahomes, arguably the best quarterback in the league, he has moved into more shotgun formations allowing Mahomes more freedom with his decision-making. Still, Reid’s offense led the NFL in yards after the catch in the 2020 season due to the extremely talented pass-catching duo of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

With all of this success, Reid has passed his knowledge to his assistants who have gone on to be successful NFL coaches in their own right. Some of the most notable are the following:

  • Matt Nagy: In 2018, he led the team to reach the postseason after an eight-year absence. Leading him to being named NFL Coach of the Year in 2018.
  • Ron Rivera: Led the Panthers to playoffs four times and was named Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2015.
  • John Harbaugh: Led the Ravens to reach the playoffs eight of his 12 years and has had just one losing season. Named NFL Coach of the Year in 2019
  • Doug Peterson: Won the Super Bowl in his second season with the Eagles and has had the Eagles in the playoffs in three straight seasons.
  • Sean McDermott: Went 9-7 with the Buffalo Bills in his first season as the head coach, earning the team a playoff spot for the first time in 17 years.

How Do You Stop the West Coast Offense?

With all of the advantages of the West Coast system, it can be hard to imagine a way to stop this type of offense. Defenses have found the best way to do so is by attacking the element that makes this offense elite – the timing.

The quarterback’s dropback is critical to the timing of the offense, so defenses have targeted this element in an attempt to disrupt the offensive scheme. Before the introduction of the West Coast offense, defenses would simply play man-to-man defense and send an extra pass rusher at the quarterback.

Since the West Coast system has so many pass catchers on the field, when a defensive player blitzes, the quarterback just needs to find the open, unguarded player.

Defenses then developed the zone defense, where defensive players would cover a certain part of the field rather than a certain player. They then would blitz the quarterback using a zone blitz in an attempt to disrupt their timing. This was effective as defenses could keep offenses guessing by blitzing linebackers, safeties, or cornerbacks from any part of the field.

All of these adaptations were focused on one thing, disrupting the timing of the quarterback. If he is unable to complete the correct number of steps for his drop back or is moved out of the pocket, he will have a tough time finding an open receiver.

The second way to stop the West Coast offense is for cornerbacks, or those guarding the receivers, to try and jump the route to intercept the ball. Since timing is so important, there are times when the ball is thrown before the receiver is open. Cornerbacks can take advantage of this by playing underneath the receiver or looking to jump the passing lanes to beat the receiver to where the ball is being thrown.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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