Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense
An excerpt from Ron Jaworski's new book, "The Games That Changed the Game"
On January 10th, 1982, in the NFC championship before a home crowd, Dwight Clark's iconic leaping touchdown catch in the final minute lifted the 49ers to a 28-27 upset over the Cowboys, sending them to the world championship. San Francisco's 26-21 win in the Super Bowl capped a remarkable season for a franchise that would go on to change the NFL both historically and strategically. In a 2002 interview with Steve Sabol, Walsh displayed real emotion when speaking of the '81 season. "Looking back on it, that was Camelot," he said. "That was the greatest experience for everyone involved that they'll ever have in their life. Because the 49ers had been embarrassed and humiliated for a number of years by virtually everyone in football, each of our games became a sort of vendetta: 'We're gonna show these guys.' Every game, we came out with so much intensity. I never had another season like it."
The Games That Changed The Game
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San Francisco guard Randy Cross had suffered through all the losing prior to Walsh's arrival and was there for much of the glory that followed. Nineteen eighty-one was also Randy's favorite season, and he recognized how much its success sprang from the Niners having won that first playoff game against a team like the New York Giants. "This game proved to everyone -- and ourselves -- that what we did worked. Against the smashmouth New York Giants, we showed we belonged. We'd only won ten games the previous three years, and there was no rich tradition of winning, so it meant a lot to get that first one." Walsh later acknowledged, "We won our first Super Bowl with a less-than-great football team, even though at the time people thought it was outstanding. But as you look back, you now realize it couldn't compete with today's teams. Joe was dependent on the system for survival -- in fact, all of us were -- and we believed in it."
Quarterback Joe Montana was just as beholden to John Ayers, whose Molly-block protection (a technique that asked the guard to pull, or pop up from his interior line position to ward off an outside pass rusher) kept Joe out of Lawrence Taylors's crosshairs. As Taylor admitted to Michael Lewis in The Blind Side, "There was nothing I could do but try to run him over." Lawrence tried, all right, but was continuously frustrated by San Francisco's protection scheme.
From then on, everything changed. There were some notable Giants victories, especially in '86 when they won the Super Bowl. But for the record, the Niners beat New York seven out of ten times between 1981 and '89. The Giants shouldn't feel too bad, though, because during that same stretch, San Francisco was so good that it had a better overall regular-season road record than any team's home record. The 49ers won three more Super Bowls as they expanded their explosive repertoire with better offensive players. None of this would have happened without the events of the '81 Giants-49ers playoff game. I know the Niners-Cowboys game played the following week -- highlighted by Clark's amazing catch -- is part of NFL mythology, but it wasn't as far reaching as the Giants game.
• This game made clear the potential dominance of a passrushing outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Now every team was on the lookout for someone like Lawrence Taylor, a force that could disrupt an opponent's passing game.
• This game made clear that left tackles are critical. Bill Walsh had gotten away with using John Ayers to stop Taylor, but that was only a short-term solution. If the Niners were going to prosper, they'd have to get a better athlete on Montana's blind side -- and did in '83, drafting Bubba Paris. Today the offensive left tackle is one of the highest-paid positions in the NFL, and it all started because coaches could now see how critical a good one was to keeping their quarterback healthy.
• This game expanded defensive pressure concepts out of the 3-4. Coaches now understood that they were going to have to broaden their repertoire with more variety and disguise if they were going to compete against teams that ran West Coast systems. Otherwise they would be picked apart. Defenses would also have to become faster, especially at the linebacker position.
• This game inspired innovation from offensive minds . . . Taylor's arrival forced Redskins coach Joe Gibbs to modify his Air Coryell-oriented offense into a new system that relied upon the H-back position to neutralize L.T. Joe's breakthrough made Washington a dominant team over the next decade, earning three Super Bowl championships.
• . . . as well as defensive ones. As timing and precision offenses became more widespread, people like Buddy Ryan and Dick LeBeau were forced to come up with new and better ways to apply pocket pressure.
• This game formally introduced football fans not only to a new offense but also to a new philosophy. Walsh's West Coast attack changed everything: how offenses were called, how they were coached, how teams were built. Standards for higher pass completion percentages jumped dramatically.
As the NFL enters its second decade of the twenty-first century, there are many differences between today's game and what it was like when Bill Walsh began tinkering with his West Coast philosophies. "When Walsh started this approach, it really wasn't a complex system," observed Bill Parcells. "He had a tight end, two wides, and two backs almost all the time. You didn't see much motion, because he wanted to see what the defense would be before the snap. Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid have since changed the West Coast offense to be something quite different from what Bill originally designed." Veteran NFL coach Al Saunders acknowledged those profound differences, but also noted, "The language Walsh created for his offense is still prevalent in the NFL today. If you see Reid's offense in Philadelphia, it may look more like a Gillman or Coryell attack, but he uses Bill's terminology."
I asked Jon Gruden about the Walsh lineage, and he offered some additional examples: "A lot of Walsh disciples have taken the West Coast offense in new directions. What Holmgren did with the screen game in Green Bay was sensational, and Mike Shanahan's ability to add his own touches with the Steve Young teams of the nineties might have been the most exciting&.Just look at footage from their Super Bowl win over the Chargers. They absolutely shredded them--stuff with Brent Jones and Ricky Watters--it was a full-court press. And they ended up doing it to everybody."
There are still occasional flashes of Walsh's original precepts. In Green Bay, Mike McCarthy has quality receivers who run those familiar slants, hitches, and comeback patterns, and his quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a quick thinker who reads defenses rapidly. The slant-pass foundation is still a big part of what Brad Childress does with the Vikings' passing game.
Timing and rhythm were really what Bill was all about, and that's what has most endured of the West Coast offense. The synchronization of the quarterback's drop and the depth of the receiver's route, spot-on pass location so that the receiver can make the catch without breaking stride, the harmony between the receivers and the offensive line -- this is Walsh football. When you look at today's precision offenses, like those of the Colts and the Saints, you are witnessing skilled, cerebral quarterbacks who understand and live by Walsh's principles. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees honor the memory of Bill Walsh every time they put the ball in flight.
From the book, "THE GAMES THAT CHANGED THE GAME: THE EVOLUTION OF THE NFL IN SEVEN SUNDAYS" by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ron Jaworski. Reprinted by arrangement with ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
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