Friday, August 7, 2009

The difference between West Coast and Air Coryell

So, one of the most persistent peeves I have as a football fan is the East Coast notion that Bill Walsh and Don Coryell were doing more or less the same thing. Not so. These are two different offensive philosophies. They have many things in common, but in the end, they are at loggerheads.

Let's start with commonalities
  1. You throw to setup the run, you don't run to setup the pass.
  2. You establish your passing game first. You don't establish your running game first.
  3. You will substitute a short passing attack with your running backs for a standard conventional running attack.
  4. You never attempt to run through a brick wall. You throw a short pass to go around the brick wall.
  5. You pass early and often to get the lead. You defend that lead in the second half with a running attack that eats the clock in garbage time.
  6. You use all 5 eligible receivers in the passing game. Every back on your team must have good to excellent hands.
  7. There is a tendency to go with lighter, leaner, faster, more athletic offensive linemen
  8. Receivers run complementary routes to clear defenders out of zones, and to create collisions between defensive players.
  9. There is a strong focus on timing of routes. Both offenses expect receivers to be in a specific location within a specific interval of time. Both offenses require the QB to throw to a specific spot before the receiver is out of his break.
In the West Coast (Bill Walsh) offense, you will see the following things:
  1. Short 3 step drops by the QB. Very few 7 step drops.
  2. An East-West passing game rather than a North-South passing game.
  3. The QB often throws the football before his receivers are finished with their breaks.
  4. The offensive line must provide excellent protection for the QB, but not for long.
  5. The Quarterback frequently has a specific (low) time limit in which he must throw the football. This is most often a three count. It can be longer.
  6. There is always an outlet or dump-off receiver that the quarterback can throw to if he is under pressure. This is frequently a running back to his throwing-arm side.
  7. The terminal point for most routes is within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
  8. The favorite routes are quick slants, shallow crosses, dump-offs, half-back screens up the middle, flanker screens,
  9. Receivers have a route tree which determines the routes they can run based on their position in the formation.
  10. Receivers and Quarterbacks are expected to read and identify coverages. Receivers can adjust both depth of the pattern and the pattern itself based on the defensive coverage they are facing. The quarterback must read according to the same set of rules and correctly predict where the receiver will go.
  11. The absolute idea is a ball-control passing attack, which advances slowly through the air. It chews up yards and minutes. You create many one-on-one collisions between running backs and defensive backs. You beat up the secondary with this form of short passing so you can throw deep later if necessary.
  12. There are a few key phrases that have been used to describe Walsh's offense. Nick & Dime. Dink & Dunk. Continuation of the run by other means. Pass-first. Conservative pass-first. Low-risk passing attack. Ball-control passing attack. High efficiency passing attack.
The Gilman/Coryell/Martz style of offense is different in a number of ways.
  1. The first element of Air Coryell is the bomb. You go deep, break off large chunks of yardage, and stab the defense in the heart.
  2. You throw Noth and South, not East and West.
  3. It not about ball control. Its about explosive plays gaining more than 25 yards per pop.
  4. An ideal Air Coryell drive is no more than 3 plays long, and will cover 80 to 90 yards.
  5. You force the safeties to drop deep and prevent the big pass.
  6. You use motion and formation to construct mismatches.
  7. The objective is to put your biggest play makers against the weakest links of the defense.
  8. In the final analysis the objective is to put the ball in the hands of your biggest play makers, and let them run with the ball.
  9. The system is extremely player-centric. What you do is going to be predicated on the players you have.
  10. There are a lot of 5 and 7 step drops.
  11. What you like to do is highly predicated on the sort of players you have, the sort of mismatches you think you can create.
In the final analysis, I would tell you that Walsh's system is much more an organized system of football that is very formulaic. A West Coast offense team will play week after week with basically the same offensive game plan. Because the passing plays themselves are loaded with adaptive option routes, the change per coverage and adjustment to defense should always happen automatically... unless the defense has something really special in mind for you.

Air Coryell is much less an organized system of football, and much more an offensive philosophy explaining how you should make aggressive use of absolutely fantastic play makers, and exploit weaknesses in the enemy defenses. In the West Coast system, you take absolutely fantastic playmakers like Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharp, Shannon Sharp, John Taylor, Rod Smith, Terrel Davis, Terrel Owens, Roger Craig, Ricky Waters, etc. and you do almost the same things with them. The system rules. The system dictates to the players. The better the players, the better the results the system produces, but they must execute according to the system. Air Coryell is different. The system is rubbery, and plasticy, and will change to maximally exploit the skills of different groups play makers. The more devastating the group of play makers, the aggressive the attack shots get.

Consider the Rams the Chargers. The Greatest Show on Turf and Air Coryell are the two greatest implementations of the system we have seen {unless you want to talk about the 1950s Rams under UCLA Bruin & Hall of Famer Bobby Waterfield}. While they were brothers under the skin, they were different in many ways. I think it is reasonable to say that Kellen Winslow was Dan Foutes' biggest play maker, and his favorite target. As such, the tight end was an absolutely massive factor in the Don Coryell's scheme. On the other hand, the tight end was not such an important factor in Mike Martz's scheme in St. Louis. Roland Williams was a nice tight end, but he was not Kellen Winslow. Rather, much of the focus was on Marshall Faulk, as he was the biggest play maker on a team loaded with lethal weapons. Muncie and Brooks combined output never matched the 2,429 yards that Marshall Faulk produced in 1999.

There are some other system-oriented things. Martz's playbook relies on a Numbers System for nomenclature. The West Coast relies on code names for formations and route numbers for receivers. So you have Base, Tiger, Zebra, Eagle describing the personnel on the field. You use colors like Brown, Blue and Green to describe variations of formation. You use numbers like 69 or 54 to describe the routes your primary and secondary receivers should run. Each route has a number. The larger the number, the deeper the route. Even numbers go out of bounds towards the sidelines. Odd numbers go in towards the center of the field. So, the key point is the language of the play is different.