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Examining The Houston Texans Offense: Gary Kubiak's West Coast Offense

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Earlier this off-season, our dearly beloved MDC dissected the Wade Phillips 3-4 defensive scheme. Now, we turn our attention to Gary Kubiak's West Coast Offense. Given some of the complaints heard during last season's games and the shift of philosophy from Kyle Shanahan to Rick Dennison, it's probably important that we remind ourselves what is supposed to happen on the playing field.

Jump below to get a lesson in the West Coast Offense, and yes...I'll do my best to explain at a level that the casual fan can understand, while reminding some of the students of the game why Kubiak's offense does the things it does.

Where did this fancy-schmancy West Coast Offense come from?
The answer is simple - San Francisco 49ers head coaching legend Bill Walsh.

Walsh developed his concepts while he was an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968-75. Coach Walsh would tweak it some and implement his full system in San Francisco which, of course, sparked their dominance of the 1980s. Walsh, who once was a student of THE Paul Brown, would begin his coaching tree by influencing the likes of Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel, Paul Hacket, Sam Wyche, George Seifert, and Dennis Green.

These coaches would pass on their influences to many others - including current NFL head coaches Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, John Fox, Mike McCarthy, Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Mike Shanahan, and, of course, Gary Kubiak. On a related side note, 14 of the last 30 Super Bowl champions and 10 of the 30 runner-ups were coached by someone in the Walsh coaching tree.

Okay, Bill Walsh has pretty much influenced the vast majority of the league for a long, long time, but what is the West Coast Offense exactly?
The West Coast Offense (hereafter referred to as WCO) is an offense that is all about precision, timing, and trust. With the proper personnel, which I will get into below, you should be able to move the ball with machine-like efficiency.

The driving philosophy of the system is "pass to set up the run." The quarterback will drop back and make short horizontal/intermediate passes of 4-to-14 yards. The idea is that you stretch the defense out sideways with the pass, which opens up running lanes. This intermediate offense also causes the safeties to cheat up which will allow the offense to land the knockout punch (a/k/a the deep pass). Don't get that mistaken. though. because the goal is to chip away at a defense, as opposed to being a vertical-strike, Mike Martz offense. A WCO should keep a defense on its heels, wear them down with high play counts, and then run all over them when a lead is obtained.

Walsh's pursuit of offensive perfection led to him scripting the first 15-25 plays of the game. The offense would practice those plays endlessly to ensure that the timing between quarterback and receiver was flawless, as well as cutting down on mistakes and penalties by repetition. With the plays scripted, an offense could, in theory, control the pace of the game. Another benefit of The Script is noticing the defense’s tendencies on certain routes and situations, which could then be exploited in the second half of a game.

To explain trust, the quarterback, in a sense, is blind. Due to the offense being about timing and quick decision-making, the quarterback sometimes has to throw to a pre-determined spot. More so in Walsh’s system, among other WCOs, the receiver would often have his choice of route to run based on the defense’s coverage. The receiver and quarterback often have to recognize this together, or else the ball will be thrown in a different spot than where the receiver actually is or, oddly enough, directly into a defender as if he never "saw" him. I assume this is starting to sound familiar, yes?

Yeah, this sounds like what I see on the what kind of players fit the scheme?
Quarterbacks: The quarterback has to be extremely accurate, quickly scan the field, be willing to develop those close relationships with his receivers, and be able to roll out in a play-action, as the WCO has begun to incorporate more "moving pockets" to offset the increased speed of the modern NFL pass rush. In the traditional scheme, the quarterback should be getting the ball out of his hands within three seconds. It's a quick strike offense that starts with the quarterback. Outside of the Reid/Kyle Shanahan WCO, throwing the deep ball isn’t really needed all too much aside from the occasional shot downfield.

Running Backs: Like Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk, backs should be versatile enough to run, catch, and block. Good vision is a trait that's highlighted in the WCO because the horizontal passing game should stretch a defense out to open up running lanes. In the theoretically perfect zone-blocking WCO, the back's vision and decisiveness will be especially critical as he should have lanes to chose from.

Wide Receivers: Jerry Rice was never the biggest or fastest wide receiver, but he was the perfect receiver for this system. Rice was a masterful route-runner, incredible in his play recognition, and worked hard to communicate well with his quarterbacks. A good WCO WR will be able to run routes, find the open spaces in the defense, and put in the time to work with his quarterback so they can be on the same page.

Due to the short routes and idea to chip away at a defense, a receiver has to have dependable hands because a bobble or drop on a short pass is likely going to A) end drives or B) be intercepted by a nearby defender. Finally, you do need a receiver (at least one in the corps) who can quickly slip behind the coverage, as the play-action pass is often used as the knock-out punch in the WCO - more so in a Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan offense, as both typically favor the deep passes.

Tight Ends: Traditionally, the tight end was the last-option safety valve for the quarterback in this system. However, today's NFL has put more of an emphasis on the pass-catching tight end because of the mismatches he can exploit. The boon is that a tight end who can slip down the seam or on an out route (run about 3-6 yards and cut to the sideline) can turn a good WCO into a great WCO. Like the running backs, you'd like someone who can block especially as the one-back backfield becomes more prevalent league-wide. 

Offensive Linemen: Due to the emphasis on the three-step drop and quick decision making, the pass-blocking part of their jobs really should be easy. The quarterback should be kept clean so long as the ball is out of his hands. Otherwise, what kind of linemen you want really depends on which branch of the WCO that you want to run. Andy Reid is notorious for his love of larger linemen to push the pile. He usually has them above 300+ pounds. For Mike Shanahan and users of the zone-blocking system, they tend to prefer athletic linemen. In some cases this does mean smaller, but seeing large and nimble linemen is becoming more and more common.

So let's put it all together...
Perhaps more than anyone in today's NFL, Gary Kubiak tends to run a more traditional West Coast Offense. He's not run-heavy like Mike Shanahan or as vertical as an Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan. The disappearance of the deep pass is, if you haven't gotten the indirect hint by now, directly related to Kyle's departure. Kubiak still incorporates the long pass some, but he tends to use it after he's set it up.

All those people calling for Arian Foster early and often? It contradicts the Walshian idea of passing to set up the run, which is used to ice games. It's a bit obvious, at least to me, that this is the kind of offense that Kubiak wants to run. It's why you see a lot more first-half passing - Kubiak's trying not to tinker too much with perfection.

A Walshian contradiction that happens from the team's side is how flat the Texans come out during The Script. It's probably the most damning criticism of this entire offense actually. Walsh's vision of The Script is for the offense to control the tempo, eliminate mistakes, and be polished. The Houston on-field product is anything but the ideal. It calls into question how the offense practices during the week. At the same time, the 2010 post-Script adjustments usually worked out well, so, on the surface, it appears that Kubiak and Rick Dennison have that part of The Script down.

Depth is a mild issue with the offense - especially evidenced when Matt Schaub or Andre Johnson miss any snaps. The idea of the system is that you shouldn't miss much of a beat if you scout properly and develop the talent. Quarterback, wide receiver, and the offensive line could still use some investment in back-up talent in my mind.

Starter-wise, this offense has a lot of ideal talent for the scheme. The only thing lacking is that second consistent threat in the receiving corps. It doesn't need to be spectacular, but someone else has to emerge to take advantage of the near-triple coverage on Johnson and stretch the defense more than it already is. If someone steps up into this role, this offense would be near unstoppable.

In a nutshell, that's the West Coast Offense. Hopefully, this has expanded some football knowledge in some while reminding others what we're supposed to be seeing as opposed to what we want. I admit, I may have been pushing a bit too hard for a speedy receiver. Still, whenever the offense comes out passing now, you'll know that it's all part of the plan...or you'll continue to criticize Kubiak and Dennison.  What do I know?

If you're interested in looking at a standard playbook, feel free to click here