Doug Marrone’s Buffalo Bills Offense: West Coast Philosophies

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Updated: February 25, 2013
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This is the second installment of our series on what concepts Doug Marrone (and Nathaniel Hackett) might implement into the Buffalo Bills offense. This is part 1 of 2 posts on the West Coast Offense. You can read the first installment on the K-Gun here. 

We’ve explored a bit how Doug Marrone’s experience with the New Orleans Saints is tied to the “K-Gun” elements often referenced by offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. However, neither the Saints nor the Syracuse Orange had a true Run and Shoot offense. Rather, both offenses had Run and Shoot concepts implemented into another framework: the legendary West Coast Offense.

While casual football fans are perhaps more familiar with the West Coast Offense’s principles than K-Guns, there is still a need to clarify what exactly the term will mean in context to what Marrone will be running with the Buffalo Bills. Yes, at a very basic level the West Coast Offense can be described as quick, horizontal timing routes to stretch a defense horizontally, and passing to set up the run. However, due to the revolutionary nature of the offense at the time it’s genius creator, Bill Walsh, was using it to carve defenses, every team in the NFL uses at least some of the concepts; furthermore, it is probably the most popular offensive system in the league. Therefore, it is necessary to understand some of the core philosophies of the West Coast Offense in order to have an idea of how Doug Marrone and the Buffalo Bills will put their own twist on the famed system.

Perhaps more than any other offensive system, the West Coast Offense is all encapsulating (quick aside: by West Coast Offense we are describing Bill Walsh’s system. Sports Illustrated’s Dr Z used to argue that the real West Coast Offense was the “Air Coryell” system popularized by San Diego in the 70s. That may have been true, but since most people are talking about Walsh’s system when they say WCO, that’s what we will use). More than anything else, the West Coast Offense is a reflection of Bill Walsh’s innovative, detailed, genius, and preparation obsessed approach to football. If you want some insight into the Walsh’s mind, check out this article on the greatest football book ever written, Finding the Winning Edge by Bill Walsh, or perhaps flip through the 1985 San Francisco 49ers offensive playbook, also written by Bill Walsh. Either way, the most striking aspect is how Walsh attempted to plan for every possible occurrence on the football field, and what his team’s response would be. Evidently there is a ton to digest here, but here are a few of the main points:

1. Scripting This is a particularly widespread idea. Basically, Walsh would script the first 15-25 offensive plays of any particular game. The idea was to test different concepts against the opponent, see how the opponent would react to those concepts, and put together a plan that would fit complimentary concepts together, such as a play pass (play action) after a series of runs. It’s important to note that the script was not mandatory, as particular situations would dictate specific play calls, such as a 3rd and long or a goal line play. But by scripting the majority of the first half, Walsh’s West Coast Offense was meticulously planned and would show him quite a bit about his opponent.

2. Descriptive Play Calling Since most NFL offenses implement concepts from most of the major offensive systems, often times the most tangible distinction is the verbiage. West Coast Terminology is unique in that it describes just about everything that needs to happen in a play. An example of a West Coast Play from the Andrew Luck Jon Gruden Special last year is “Green Right Strong Slot Spider 2 Y Banana.”  Quite a mouthful, but the advantage is it leaves nothing uncertain.

3.  Immaculate Execution Bill Walsh was a perfectionist, to both his benefit and detriment. For instance, check out some of his coaching points for the receiver on the basic slat play:

Throw ball to middle of receiver and above his waist – if anything slow him up to catch it.

Ball should be caught 1 ft. in front of receivers numbers.

Additionally, Walsh liked to practice plays over and over until the team could execute it perfectly. A famous example was the 49ers practice before Super Bowl XXIX, where offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan described the most perfect execution he ever witnessed an offense achieve; the ball never touched the ground. And in the Super Bowl, Steve Young would throw 6 TDs, which is a Super Bowl record.

At this point, you should start to see a theme emerging. Walsh tried to anticipate every possible scenario that his football team could encounter, and consequently prepare his team as much as possible. Walsh’s rigorous approach is probably the closest football coaching has ever gotten to science, and I don’t believe using the word “genius” to describe it is hyperbole. There is a very good reason it is still the most popular system in pro football, with disciples ranging from Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, and countless others.

Now, this is by no means a comprehensive overview of the West Coast Offense. After all, both the 49ers old playbooks and Finding the Winning Edge are voluminous, and to fully understand the system, one must pore through the texts. However, these examples shed some light on the approach to the game of football espoused by Walsh. Furthermore, it becomes clear why a comprehensive, detailed system like the West Coast Offense would appeal to a well organized, detail oriented coach like Doug Marrone. Discipline will be key, and thankfully that is frequently mentioned as a major strength of Marrone’s.

Stay tuned for the second part, where we’ll explore some of the types of plays, route concepts, and specific examples of both that are prevalent in a west coast system.