West Coast offenses, Cover 2 fading away
The advent of creative wrinkles such as the Miami Dolphins’ Wildcat means certain strategies and schemes of the past are falling by the wayside. While the ideas listed below still have their places in the game, various factors leave them far less utilized in comparison to prior eras.
West Coast offense
Most schematic developments in NFL history have more than one point of origin, but the true West Coast offense that took pro football over in the 1980s and 1990s can be traced primarily to one source: former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, who developed the concept during his time as an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals. The WCO system, which put a premium on timing and precision in place of the vertical “air it out” meme of the 1970s, became the league’s dominant system as former Walsh assistants got their own head coaching jobs.
“When what is known as the West Coast Offense was being developed, it was summarily dismissed by many people as nothing more than ‘nickel-and-dime’ football,” Walsh wrote in his 1998 book, “Finding the Winning Edge.” “They argued that, as an offensive system, [the WCO] was developed out of a desperate attempt to counteract its lack of overpowering personnel.”
In truth, it was to a degree. Walsh developed shorter passing plays to fit the skill set of Virgil Carter, a quarterback for the Bengals from 1970-72. Carter didn’t have a great arm, but he was a smart player, and he was a good match for what Walsh was putting together. As Walsh’s personnel acumen met his strategic genius in San Francisco, players like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice turned the WCO into an unstoppable concept.
Coaches who came from the Walsh tree passed the word along. Mike Holmgren, who served as Walsh’s quarterbacks coach from 1986-88 (and San Francisco’s offensive coordinator for three seasons after Walsh left following the ’88 Super Bowl season), took the WCO to Green Bay in the early 1990s, retrofitting Brett Favre(notes) to the system and making it to two Super Bowls (winning the title in the ’96 season). Mike Shanahan ran his own version when he called the offense for the ’94 Niners (the last 49ers team to win a Super Bowl), and won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the ’97 and ’98 Denver Broncos. The third-level Walsh influence through Holmgren and others led to coaches like Steve Mariucci running updated WCO systems through the end of the millennium.
But with coaching turnover, the recent dominance of the spread offense in the NCAA, and different styles of defenses gaining ground in the NFL, the WCO became more difficult to implement successfully. Jon Gruden’s 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the last team to win a Super Bowl running a WCO from the Holmgren tree, and Norv Turner brought the vertical spacing offense to the 49ers in 2006. Simple spread concepts in college have led to more quarterbacks less familiar with pro-style strategies, a fact that has prompted teams to implement different – and sometimes less complex – schemes into their passing games.
Cover 2 defense
The Cover 2 was developed to counter the WCO, and that offense’s ability to set up short passes for long after-catch gains. In the base Cover 2, a 4-3 front is augmented by two deep safeties and cornerbacks who cover fairly close to the line of scrimmage (see diagram). With linebackers set to cover shorter routes, short passes were limited to the approximate point at which the receiver caught the ball opposed to man-on-man mismatches in which wideouts could turn and run. Simple route combinations were also foiled by the five-across nature of the zone coverage.
Elements of the Cover 2 can be traced back to the Steel Curtain defenses that helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. The idea took off when Tony Dungy (who played on two of those championship teams) was hired as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (who worked together in Minnesota from 1992-94) implemented the scheme and developed a variant called the Tampa 2, in which the middle linebacker would drop into deeper coverage, and the outside linebackers would be directed to watch for intermediate hook-and-seam routes. In the meantime, cornerbacks would re-route outside receivers to the intermediate halves played by the outside linebackers.
But as Kiffin has said, “Cover 2 became a lot better when we had better players.” That’s true of any scheme, more so with the Cover/Tampa 2. When the Bucs were killing offenses with it, they had potential Hall of Famers in their front seven (tackle Warren Sapp(notes) and linebacker Derrick Brooks(notes)) whose talents were especially suited to these schemes. Many teams that played copycat without the same talent failed. Dungy’s 2006 Indianapolis Colts team won the Super Bowl despite having one of the worst run defenses of the modern era. That’s another problem with the Cover 2; run support from your safeties can be tough to find without breaking out of the box. Even the post-Dungy Colts are augmenting the front four by going with more blitz looks.
Teams that have not moved to different 3-4 hybrids and stick with the 4-3 base tend to use more Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts. Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals provided a successful example of this change. The Bengals have two of the best young cornerbacks in the game in Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer used Cover 3 because it brought one safety up to use in different run fills if necessary. In addition, backing his cornerbacks off from the line a few yards actually enhanced their athleticism by giving them room to roam off the snap. In Cover 3, the strong safety moves up to linebacker depth and has a number of options based on the call – he can cover short, or act as a force defender reading the need to defend out of the backfield.
The Cover 3 was more susceptible to the West Coast offense because the flats and seams were left open more often, but it’s a great way to defend the deep pass and still keep an eye on running backs and mobile quarterbacks.
The three-man front
The traditional 3-4 defense has undergone some remarkable transitions. First implemented in the NFL as a counter to the passing game by the Miami Dolphins of the early 1970s, the 3-4 had a dominant stretch in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The need to defend the WCO through the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a decrease in the stationary 3-4, but Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants added the hybrid concept in 1981 with a devastating ability to alternate as a pass rusher between linebacker depth and the line of scrimmage. Many defenses through the last decade, led by Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, have made this concept the heart of their system. Belichick, architect of this concept, was the Giants’ linebackers coach from 1985 through 1990. In 2010, at least half of the teams supposedly running 3-4 defenses are actually using hybrid fronts in which personnel and formations will be switched based on opponent and situation.
The “four-man 3-4” also solves one personnel problem – the lack of true 3-4 nose tackles in college football. In 2009, just three of the 120 BCS schools used the base 3-4 as their primary fronts. And as the Cover 2 declined in popularity, hybrid fronts popped up in many places.
The pro-style offense, with blocking tight ends and fullbacks
In the 1999 season, 3,848 of 31,085 total plays started out of the shotgun, 12.4 percent of all plays. Last season, 11,872 (including Wildcat and option) of 31,874 total plays were out of the shotgun – that’s 37.2 percent. In 2007, the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to take more than 50 percent of their total offensive snaps from the shotgun. And in 2008, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Tyler Thigpen(notes) took the ball away from under center on an incredible 85.5 percent of his passing attempts (359 of 420).
The ’07 Patriots had the most productive offense in NFL history by most standards, while Thigpen was a third-string quarterback out of a spread scheme at Coastal Carolina, just trying to keep the Chiefs above water. But the results were basically the same – the Patriots amassed 7.2 yards per play out of the shotgun and 5.5 yards per play under center. The Chiefs went from 5.4 to 4.3 yards per play in shotgun. While these numbers are skewed by the higher percentage of pass plays out of the shotgun, Football Outsiders’ metrics have determined, year after year, that most offenses are more efficient overall in shotgun sets.
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