West Coast Offense: Positional Breakdown

by Francis Duffy on July 18, 2007 @ 12:30:22 PDT


The term "West Coast offense" is thrown around a lot in football circles everywhere, but just what is it exactly? Obviously the West Coast offense refers to a type of offense run in the NFL, but exactly what does it do and, more importantly in this case, how does it pertain to fantasy football?

First off, it's important to understand the roots of the West Coast offense. Today's versions of the scheme vary from squad to squad, but they all can be traced back to the legendary Bill Walsh during his term with the San Francisco 49ers as head coach, general manager and team consultant. Walsh developed his system during his time as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns, drawing different ideas from other great coaches such as Don Coryell, of the San Diego Chargers, as well as Al Davis, Sid Gillman and John Rauch.

Walsh was faced with a dilemma in Cleveland, with a quarterback that had great accuracy but a weak arm. In response, he devised a timing-based passing attack where the receiver and quarterback must be completely locked into each other. Since then his system has evolved, and in current basic cases, the West Coast offense is a short-passing scheme designed to control the clock using high-percentage, precision passes - what Walsh termed the "extended handoff." However, despite the reliance on the passing game, there have been several running backs that have thrived in the system in both the past and present. Terrell Davis (Denver Broncos) and Roger Craig (49ers) both enjoyed career years in the West Coast offense - the same can be said for Shaun Alexander (Seattle Seahawks) and Clinton Portis (then with the Broncos).

General Guidelines

Although each team's version of the West Coast offense is different, there are quite a few similarities between them. Here are some of the staples of the West Coast offense.

  • Discipline comes first. Since the scheme is based mostly on timing, freelancing and missing assignments result in missed opportunities for points.
  • Use the pass to set up the run. Most teams using the West Coast offense more often than not have a pass-first mindset, choosing to instead spread the defense out to get better matchups in the run game. (The major exception to this rule would be the system the Denver Broncos utilize.) The offense also should be prepared to throw on any down or distance during the game.
  • The passing game attacks the defense within the short-to-medium range. This means the quarterback should have good accuracy in tight quarters, and it makes the receivers run precise routes in order to get open.
  • Everyone is a weapon. Whether it's a four-receiver set, a pro-set, or a goal line formation, all of the players on the field (including tight ends and backs) have to be able to catch the football and make plays.
  • Create matchup problems for the defense. The quarterback usually will make pre- and post-snap reads to judge where the ball should go. Audibles and motions at the line of scrimmage open up holes in the defense to create mismatches for the offense to capitalize on. The offense can also be run out of any formation, which will give opponents headaches as well.
  • Ability to run the football. Although it is typically a pass-first scheme, the ability to run the football when needed is a must for any successful West Coast offense (or any scheme for that matter). Most West Coast teams now use zone-blocking to help in the power-running game (including Denver and Houston). This aspect of the scheme derives directly from Coryell and the Chargers of the 1970s.  
  • Quarterback play: Signal-callers should be mobile and football-smart. They will be expected to make reads at the line of scrimmage to figure out who the hot (or primary) read is on any given play. Touch and accuracy are usually a must; while a strong arm is a nice asset, isn't the most important thing. The ability to see the field and either get rid of the ball or make a play after the three- or five-step drop is important as well.
  • Running back play: Obviously the ability to pick up yards when needed is a must, but running the ball is just one job of a back in this scheme. Many West Coast offense rushers are key cogs in the passing game (such as Brian Westbrook) and are also needed in pass protection, at times, as well with tight ends running routes more often than not.
  • Receiver play: Wideouts in the West Coast offense obviously have to run very precise and sharp routes with the ability to separate from opposing defensive backs. What may be even more important, however, is the ability to make plays after the catch. This was a big reason why someone such as wide receiver Terrell Owens (Dallas Cowboys) was such a big-time player in the system.
  • Tight end play: As touched on earlier, tight ends will mostly be counted on to be a part in the passing game as a receiver, with their blocking ability being an added bonus. Running sharp routes is a great attribute to have in this system, especially as a check-down target for quarterbacks trying to get rid of the ball quickly.

With all of these basics in mind, it is much easier to assimilate statistics of players in a West Coast offense and those that aren't. It also helps to describe why some players succeed and others don't in the system.

Teams that Utilize the West Coast Offense

As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of teams that run a version of the West Coast offense today.


While the 49ers have incorporated some of the West Coast offense into their scheme since Walsh's tenure as head coach, the specific features of the system have changed often over time. From George Seifert to current head honcho Mike Nolan, the key elements of the basic form of the West Coast offense have changed. For instance, after the 2005 season, former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy left the team and took a head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers, bringing his form of the offense with him.

As you can see, West Coast offense teams are often intertwined, as they learn the system under one coach and bring it to another team. In fact, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden, as well as former Packers head coach Mike Sherman all worked under Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren when he was coaching the Green Bay Packers. Holmgren was a disciple of Walsh during his time in San Francisco as the team's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. 

Positional Breakdowns

As is evident from the general features, the quarterback is the key to a West Coast offense. You can't run this type of offense successfully with a quarterback that can't make quick reads and sharp, precise passes. As a result, certain quarterbacks in the league aren't suited for - and as a result should never play in - a West Coast offense. While they aren't necessarily but can be the main focus of the offense, running backs and tight ends are also key as they are relied on to catch a lot of passes more so than other schemes. These positions might not be main targets (or hot reads) on every play, but they must run routes and are often used as fallbacks or check-downs in case the hot read is not open.

The focal point and key to a successful West Coast offense, though, is the wide receiver position. Unlike other offenses, wide receivers fit into a different terminology of positions on the field. West Coast receivers have to be excellent at gaining yards after the reception, something that made retired NFL great Jerry Rice such a lethal wide receiver for the better part of two decades. They include:

Split End: This position is generally reserved for a more possession-type receiver that has a good release off the line, because the split end must line up on the line of scrimmage on the weak side of the field.

Flanker: This position gives the receiver more freedom, since he doesn't line up on the line of scrimmage and can go in motion to the weak side of the field. An illegal formation penalty will be called if there is not a wideout on the weak side of the play, whereas the tight end on the power side is on the line of scrimmage. The flanker is not technically reserved for a speedy receiver, but it does give smaller, speedier receivers more room to work.

Slot: The newer versions of the West Coast offense often use a third receiver placed in the slot instead of a second tight end. Slot receivers are generally smaller, speedier players that have trouble beating press coverage. However, some teams may use bigger players to offset this.

West Coast Offense Meets Fantasy Football

There isn't one set, foolproof way to view a West Coast offense in fantasy terms, since there are so many variations on the basic system. Therefore, it is very important to know each team's particular tendencies, as some will spread the ball around more than others and some will just key in on a few targets. Some West Coast offenses use the tight end a lot in the passing game, while others use them moderately.

While it is important to understand what West Coast offense wide receiver positions generally do what, realize that these responsibilities can change mid-play. The advent of more complex defenses with multiple defensive back formations and more 3-4 schemes force offenses to make a lot of adjustments on the fly. Having receivers in motion can change the player at flanker to the split end and vice versa, which is done to create mismatches that the defense tries to prevent. 

Realize that the West Coast offense doesn't have a traditional hierarchy of wide receivers, such as No. 1, 2 and 3. Any of the wide receiver positions in a West Coast offense could be the one responsible for the most production, as the ball is spread around based upon which players are open. As a result, statistics are often spread around evenly, regardless of the talent at the positions. The Eagles, without wide receiver Terrell Owens (Cowboys) are a prime example of this situation.


Know the roles of each receiver in each West Coast system and how each specific system works. While wide receivers don't hold traditional depth chart roles as other offensive systems, it's still important to know the types of chances they should have and the typical matchups they should face. While running backs and tight ends are not the focal point of West Coast offenses, that doesn't mean that players at those positions can't have solid fantasy seasons in such a system. How a running back or tight end is set to fit into a West Coast offense has a lot to do with what team he is on and how that team views those positions.

Generally speaking, slot receivers are rarely marquee fantasy contributors based on the limited number of targets, especially since slot receivers are "tweeners," meaning they don't fit into one specific position - size-, speed- and sometimes talent-wise.

With a more in-depth knowledge of the West Coast offense, you can have a major advantage over the other owners in your league. You should be able to identify players that, in the general fantasy world, might be more well-known but might not have great seasons based on the elements of a West Coast offense. The more you know, the more you stand to gain.

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About Francis Duffy

"Fran Duffy has been involved in sports since he was a child. A Philadelphia native, Fran is obviously a die-hard fan of the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers. Fran is desperately waiting to see his first major championship from one of his hometown teams. He is a Broadcasting major at Temple University and has experience on the radio as well as in television production. Fran also currently works with Temple football's video-operation's team and is an avid fantasy sports player. Looking for more experience in writing, Fran joined KFFL in the spring of 2005."

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