What exactly is the West Coast offense of the Redskins? Does the Skins’ base defense use a 3–4 zone blitz like the Super Bowl–winning Pittsburgh Steelers or a Tampa Two like the bad-boys Chicago Bears or a 46 front like the feared Baltimore Ravens? And when Clinton Portis claims that he doesn’t understand the “chip read” that Redskins coach Jim Zorn wants him to use, Portis isn’t alone. Pretty much nobody understands it.
Welcome to an insider’s guide to the Redskins. The goal here is to help you understand the details usually known only to football purists.
The 2009 season is one of the few since “Chainsaw Dan” bought the Redskins a decade ago for which it’s even possible to offer a tactics guide—because this year the Redskins’ head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator will be the same as in the previous season. That means that tactics and strategy are likely to be the same, unlike in most other Snyder years when new coaches arrived with new playbooks on a seemingly weekly basis.
Teams that win consistently—think Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts—don’t install all-new tactics every year. They stick with their existing systems and tweak. A Snyder-run Redskins team is finally trying this formula, which bodes well for 2009, though the season may end with Chainsaw Dan once again firing all the coaches.
On the assumption that 2009 Redskins tactics will be reasonably similar to those of 2008, I studied film of four Skins outings from last season: the win over the Eagles in Philadelphia (the Skins’ best game of 2008), the loss to the Rams at home the following Sunday (the Skins’ worst game of 2008), the home loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh (a decent performance against the league’s best team), and the December loss on the road to the lowly Bengals (the game that effectively ended the 2008 Redskins season). With those games as examples, here’s a guide to how the Washington Redskins play football.
Throw It Fast but Not Far
“The key to the West Coast offense is timing routes.” I gag on my microbrew whenever a television announcer says this. All passing attacks employ timing! NFL teams have been timing their pass routes—pacing out how many strides a receiver takes in what part of the pattern—since Sonny Jurgensen’s day. The key to the West Coast offense is not timing. It’s pass routes that aren’t intended to produce touchdowns.
Here’s a compressed history. Roughly through the 1970s, most NFL and college offenses ran when ten yards or less was needed. Passing plays were drawn up to produce big gains or touchdowns. Old-school NFL coaches would have thought it was crazy to draw up pass plays designed to gain five yards. That’s what runs are for!
Then along came Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. He thought passing could be used for “ball control”—lots of short passes intended to pick up first downs, allowing an offense to drive defenses crazy by keeping possession of the ball and nickel-and-diming down the field. Walsh’s West Coast offense entailed quick release by the quarterback, who would drop back three or five steps before throwing, rather than the standard seven steps, and quick-throw to anyone open for any gain, no matter how short. Walsh reasoned that if the defense knows lots of passes are coming, it will tee off on the passer so the quarterback must release quickly, before the pass rush arrives. He reasoned that lots of short gains were just as good as one occasional long bomb.
The 1989 Super Bowl was the big coming-out party of the West Coast offense. Joe Montana led an 11-play, 92-yard short-passing drive that scored the winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining, with Montana throwing for 357 yards—at the time the Super Bowl record.
After that game, pass-first offenses became the rage in the NFL—the “run and shoot” (four wide receivers and no tight end, the offense used in the 1990s by Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, and many other teams and faced by the Redskins in the 1991 NFC Championship against the Detroit Lions), the no-huddle K-Gun (which took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls), and now the spread offense, used by the Cardinals, Colts, Patriots, Saints (last year’s number-one NFL offense), West Virginia University, the University of Florida, and many of the nation’s high schools.
Today the West Coast offense is run by the Buccaneers, Eagles, Packers, Seahawks, and Redskins. Jim Zorn learned the system in Seattle, where he worked as an assistant to Mike Holmgren, a leading proponent of the West Coast approach. The NFL has shifted so far in the direction of pass-wacky—in 2008, only the Falcons, Giants, Panthers, Ravens, Titans, Raiders, and Vikings ran more than they passed—and there’s been so much convergence that Washington’s pass-first West Coast philosophy isn’t hugely different from the approach used by teams that don’t call themselves West Coast. A “West Coast offense” now can mean anything from one modeled on Walsh’s 1988 49ers to any offense based around quick-release short passes.