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The Raiders and the West Coast Offense

It has been said that the Raiders intend to transition to a West Coast style offense under offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.  There are a lot of questions about what the offense will look like.  TFDS is doing our best to answer questions on the offense – first by looking at Knapp’s tendencies as an offensive coordinator for the Seahawks in 2009 and then looking at Houston’s offense last season.  Knapp was the QB coach in Houston in 2010 and 2011.

Now, we will be talking about West Coast offense (WCO) philosophies and tendencies as a primer to discussing personnel fits with the Raiders.

                                                                                                                            A page from Walsh’s 1985 49ers playbook

After reviewing the offenses, it does not seem likely that the team will run a pure West Coast offense but it does appear that Knapp has some clear overlap in philosophies.

First, there are two offenses that have been known as West Coast offenses at some point or another.  The original West Coast offense was a vertical system initiated by Chargers coach Sid Gillman in the 1960’s and perfected by Don Coryell with both the Charger and Cardinals.  This system was initially called West Coast Offense by Bernie Cosar but is now more commonly called Air Coryell to deferentiate it from the “other” West Coast offense.

Today, fans that hear the term West Coast offense are more likely to think of Bill Walsh’s system with the 49ers.  Instead of being a very vertical system, Walsh’s philosophy was to stretch the defense horizontally by spreading out the wide receivers and running many more short, crossing routes where the QB could make a quick read of the defense and throw to an area that he new the WR would be, anticipating a route break.

Both of these systems have some commonalities.  In each system, the quarterback needs to be good at anticipation.  Both rely heavily on the QB and WR being in sync about where the route will end up and adhering to the routes.  In both the QB is to throw to a point where the WR has not yet arrived, trusting that the WR will be there.  If the QB is accurate and makes solid decisions, this type of offense is very hard for the defense to stop because they do not know when the WR will make a break and the ball will already be arriving at that time.

There are many differences, however, especially in the type of receiver that will be successful.  In the “Air Coryell” system, the offense is designed to be very fast and stretch the defense vertically.  There is a lot of play-action involvement and passes down the field frequently come from Pro sets with an I or offset I formation.  One of the philosophies used by Coryell was to have the backs stay and pass protect which is common now, but fairly uncommon at that time.

Because the offense is working on stretching the field, the successful receivers in this system are very fast.  They need to be able to fly down the field and get behind the safeties.  The game plan is to pound the defense with the run and when the safeties move up to stop the running back, to use play action to freeze the safeties and get one of their fast wide receivers behind the defense for a long TD score.

If that philosophy sounds familiar to Raiders fans, it should.  One of the assistant coaches under Sid Gillman on the Chargers? A young Al Davis, who worked under Gillman for three years before being hired to be the head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1962.  Davis installed this version of the West Coast offense with the Raiders and had much success with it.  His head coach successors, including John Madden and Tom Flores, also ran variations of this system.

Much has been made of Davis’ fascination with speedy receivers over the years but the root of it comes from this offensive philosophy.  Al Davis believed strongly that this offense philosophy was the best way to win games and his scouting department found the type of players Davis would want to draft, accordingly.

The West Coast offense under Walsh requires a very different type of receiver.  Walsh’s philosophy was to use short passes to advance the ball early in the game and then, once the defenders were tired, to run later in games to run down the score.  Playing defense is more tiring than playing offense because the defenders do not know where the ball is going, so a well run, efficient passing game can be extremely effective.

Also, if the offense can use multiple WR sets, the defense has to account for the additional receivers by taking off linebackers and going into depth in their cornerback corps.  That has two side effects – it opens up running lanes, potentially, and takes starters off the field for lesser-talented backup players.

Because of the type of routes the players were running – many more slants, crossing routes, start and stop routes, etc – Walsh’s offense did not need speedy wide receivers as much as wide receivers who were sure handed and who would be willing to go over the middle and make touch catches.  More emphasis was put on getting yards after the catch (YAC) than running past someone into an open field.

The WRs that tend to do well in Walsh’s West Coast offense, then, are bigger, sure-handed wide receivers that run good routes.  Running an accurate route is critically important because, again, the quarterback may be putting it into a spot before the wide receiver makes a break.  The wide receiver needs to be detailed enough to know how to run routes correctly or the play will result, at best, in an incompletion and at worst in an easy interception.

The Raiders under Knapp are unlikely to run either system fully but will likely be more akin to Walsh’s West Coast than Coryell’s, a clear break from Davis’ philosophy.  While the plays in Knapp’s playbook will likely be much shorter and intermediate routes than Raiders fans are used to, one of the clear differences from Knapp and Walsh’s schemes will be run philosophy.

Walsh, as stated, was a big believer in using short, high percentage passes, instead of running the ball to advance down the field.  There may not be an active offensive coordinator in the NFL right now that is a bigger believer in a run heavy offense than is Knapp.  His teams run more than most others and use a variety of running backs to keep fresh legs on the field to advance the ball.

Film review of Seattle showed that Knapp preferred very short passes – many 3-5 yards down the field – over long throws.  However, Houston’s offense showed good balance with underneath routes mixed in with downfield shots.  Hopefully Knapp will have modified his offense scheme closer to Houston’s in his two years there.

Until games are played – or at least until training camp – there will be questions about whether Palmer can be accurate enough and be able to read defensive schemes and anticipate adequately to be able to succeed in this scheme.  From TFDS’ tape review, he showed great pocket poise and the ability to move and be accurate at all levels of the field that we believe he can.

The wide receivers the Raiders have present their own strengths and questions.  Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookie Juron Criner both seem to be great fits as wide receivers who can turn short receptions into longer gains. 

Last year rookie sensation Denarius Moore is more of a question.  He has the most skill of any receiver at this time but may not be able to withstand the pounding that a receiver can take going over the middle of the field.  He will still likely be utilized as a deeper threat with his number being called both for longer routes and crossing routes a little further up the field – say 15 yards past the line of scrimmage or so.

Jacoby Ford is, likewise, a question mark; where will he be used?  He seems a great fit as a slot receiver as long as he can stand up to the physicality of the position.

Overall, the Raiders have more talent on offense at this time than any point since 2002 when several future Hall of Famers were on the squad.  If the players and coaches can mesh their talent with the scheme, the offense has a chance to be very potent – this season and beyond.

For more news and analysis on the Raiders, follow me on Twitter @AsherMathews