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Examining NFL offensive philosophies

Here's the follow-up to our story on defensive schemes. It comes at a good time. The anticipation of what the Buffalo Bills are going to do in the draft is getting thick. Free agency's initial flood is now a bit of a trickle. So let's talk some offense.

This story won't be quite as visual as our work on defense. There's a couple reasons for this. Defenses are regularly categorized by their formation. Offensive formations change play to play, and during the course of the play. Traditionally, offenses are categorized by strategy. 

We're going to cover the four major strategies currently used in the NFL after the break. Two things to note before reading further. Some offensive strategies were not included for various reasons. Strategies that did not constitute a complete strategy or a portion of a strategy were not considered. This list included option, Wildcat, pistol and A-11 (now illegal). The spread was also not included, since most NFL personnel wouldn't consider the spread a strategy. The spread is a formation, and can be used by any strategy.

Second, it's hard to peg most teams as a "this system" team anymore. Teams use strategies more as base offensive philosophies, and incorporate plays that work from the other strategies. 

The four strategies that we're going to look at are the Erhardt-Perkins, Coryell, West Coast, and the Run 'n' Shoot.

This system's name originates back to the Chuck Fairbanks-coached Patriots of the 1970s, where Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins coached as offensive assistants. The system has been called "smashmouth" or "ball control" offense. It surely didn't originate with the 1970s Patriots, and, like the defensive trends, this offense comes from an earlier form of offense. Traditional running football of the 1950s and 60s underwent some modifications and was renamed. 

The Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy was summed up with this Erhardt quote: "Pass to score, run to win." The offense has been considered a run first, play-action passing offense. This is really not the case. The Erhardt-Perkins strategy relies on possessing the football. In previous decades, running the ball was the best way to do this. However, as the recent Patriot teams have shown, possession football and passing aren't mutually exclusive. New England regularly runs entire drives from the spread, throwing most of the plays, and progress through 10+ play drives.

The strategy's strengths include the ease in finding players to fit the system, since a great quarterback or receivers are not required. The system is relatively easy to learn compared to the complexity ot the other three systems, and the system is the easiest to run in bad weather.

Teams using the Erhardt-Perkins strategy often times aren't geared for high scoring games, and don't have consistent comeback ability.

While no team exclusively runs the Erhardt-Perkins offensive, many teams use its philosophy as the basis for creating the playbook. Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Charlie Weis, Jeff Davidson, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, and Chan Gailey-led teams typically base their attacks on ball control and/or running the ball.

This offensive strategy bears the name of Don Coryell. This offense was initially called the "West Coast" offense, since Coryell ran it in San Diego. After Bill Parcells' famous quote calling San Francisco's offense "west coast," the Coryell offense became best known as the Vertical or Timing offense.

The Coryell offense really began conceptually with Sid Gillman in the 1960s. Coryell's offense maintained a basic power running game. Coryell's innovative passing concepts allowed the Cardinals to win two division titles in the 1970s, but most famously, helped make the San Diego Chargers a playoff team.

The Coryell offense requires a great offensive line, because the scheme sends all five receivers into pass patterns. The scheme also sends two or more receivers deep regularly. Throws require a QB with a strong arm, and throws are made to a spot where the receiver will be running to. Keeping the passer upright is not only the key to the offense, but also the critical vulnerability.

The offense can be very easy to learn. Coryell simplified pass patterns into a route tree, where each route is numbered. Below is "an example" of what this tree could look like:


The strengths of the system include the ability to mix a power running game and an explosive passing game. Defenses that stack the line to stop the run are often exposed by deep pass plays. Coryell offenses with the right personnel tend to be the higher scoring offenses in the league.

The system requires a great offensive line, a great quarterback, and at least two great wide receivers - a tall task for any front office, and also a huge chunk of a team's salary cap space. This system can get extremely complicated, depending on the offensive coordinator, and this system can also commonly lull play callers into selecting many more passes than runs.

John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Ron Turner, Mike Martz, Al Saunders and coaches from their coaching trees favor this system.

West Coast
This is really the Bill Walsh offense. Thanks to Parcells' comments in the 1985 playoffs, the Walsh system will be forever known as the West Coast offense. This system is also known as the Cincinnati offense, and is the most commonly used system in the NFL.

Walsh served as an assistant coach under the Paul Brown coached Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1975. Walsh invented the scheme out of necessity. The Bengals' offensive line could not block long enough for the quarterback to use a seven-step drop, so Walsh innovated and developed the short passing attack that we know now.

The basic concept of the West Coast offense is to stretch the defense horizontally by using short passes early in the game. These short passes are difficult for the defense to stop, since the pass rush has no time to get to the quarterback. The offense scores early, and then runs on the spread out defense. The offense can also throw deep on a defense that's keyed in on shorter routes.

There are many adaptations and modifications to the pure West Coast system. Mike Shanahan prefers to run and throw play-action passes, but his passing game still relies on stretching the defense horizontally. Andy Reid and Sam Wyche lengthened many of the routes, but still stretch the defense horizontally. Almost every team runs some version of West Coast plays.

The strength of the system is the difficulty for defenses to stop the offense. The system is very diverse, and defenses have a number of different attack options to counter. The quarterback doesn't need to have a rocket arm, but he needs to be very accurate, since most of the routes are throws to a spot instead of a receiver, or throwing to receivers with defenders in close proximity. The shorter routes are less risky than the longer Coryell pass routes.

The system can be neutralized by defenses that confuse the quarterback. The quarterback has to make reads at blindingly fast speeds, since the progressions and reads occur very fast in a short passing attack. A defense that confuses the quarterback has the best chance of succeeding. As with the Coryell offense, having great skill players is a requirement. If the West Coast team gets behind early, the run-pass ratio ends up overwhelmingly pass heavy.

Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, and Andy Reid are the most well-known West Coast offense users, but almost every team has some Walsh plays in their attack.

Run 'n' Shoot
"It's just evolved to where everybody in the United States now runs it, including everyone in the NFL. A portion of all packages has been developed out of it. You don't see the pure Run 'n' Shoot much anymore. It's been incorporated into other offenses." - Mouse Davis (2004)

The Run 'n' Shoot was invented by Tiger Ellison, who originally called the offense "The Lonesome Polecat." Mouse Davis adopted the offense at Portland State in the 1974. June Jones is also closely linked with the offense.

The Run 'n' Shoot is really a sight adjustment offense. Receivers and the quarterback move to the line of scrimmage with many different routes that each receiver can run. The placement of the defenders dictates the pass route and route combinations. With four receivers at the line, this becomes problematic for the defense.

The "site adjustment" route in the Run 'n' Shoot can be characterized by this saying: "If he's up, I'm deep. If he's deep, I'm short. If he's in, I'm out. If he's out, I'm in."


The sight adjustment offense is very difficult for the defense to stop. The offense has many counters to any coverage or alignment that the defense uses. One such example is where the Free Safety is placed. If the Free Safety is in Cover 2, the middle of the field is considered open, and the routes adjust. If the Free Safety is in Cover 1, the middle of the field is considered closed and the routes adjust. All of this occurs pre-snap, and in the first seconds of the play's execution.

Conversely, if the quarterback and receivers aren't on the same page, disaster occurs. The quarterback not only needs to be accurate and have a good arm, but he also needs to be extremely intelligent. The skill positions also need to be very talented.

Many teams use Run 'n' Shoot variants, with the Indianapolis Colts running the most famous variant. The Colts use a blocking TE and Dallas Clark as a WR,  but when the Colts use three WRs and Clark, the Run 'n' Shoot roots of the offense are obvious. New England also began to dip into Run 'n' Shoot concepts with the arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker

Also, our own Buffalo Bills used the Run 'n' Shoot at one point in their history. The K-Gun was a Run 'n' Shoot, using Keith McKeller as one of the slot backs, hence the name. Something to consider: Jim Kelly is very underrated in NFL quarterback history. If you re-watch Kelly's games, the speed that Kelly made his reads is almost unreal. With four receivers running site adjustment routes, Kelly's decisions are made almost immediately. Very impressive.

While teams no longer rely solely on one strategy, it is important to understand the schemes, since they are really the philosophy of the head coach/offensive coordinator. While the plays that work are almost universally used, the philosophies (ball control, vertical stretch, horizontal stretch, and site adjustment) dictate how the team is going to approach offense.

Chan Gailey comes from a Erhardt-Perkins background. Buffalo fans can expect to see an offense grounded in ball control. Buffalo can expect to see a lot of the same in their opponents, since everyone in the AFC East is grounded in Erhardt-Perkins.

Despite formation and plays, expect to see a season formed by a great deal of ball control, with time of possession being a key statistic for Buffalo this season.