The Gulf Coast Offense: Setting Trends in the NFL

A little more than 30 years ago, Bill Walsh revolutionized the NFL when he refined the theories of Sid Gillman into what is now commonly known as the West Coast Offense (WCO). As the offensive coordinator of the Bengals, Bill took those principles and devised an offensive system meant to get about 25 first downs a game with short, quick timed throws and a few select runs because his quarterback, Virgil Carter,  didn't have a strong arm. 

When Paul Brown retired, Bill didn't get the promotion he wanted. He went to San Diego for a year and worked with Dan Fouts' mechanics before becoming the head coach of Stanford and eventually the 49ers.  Bill's offense stayed in Cincinnati, where Ken Anderson won the MVP in 1981 and set the completion percentage record in '82 (that Drew Brees later broke in '09) to go along with four passing titles, four Pro Bowls and a few Super Bowl appearances. During this time, Walsh went to San Francisco where he took a dismal franchise to its first three Super Bowl wins, training Joe Montana and Steve Young into Hall of Fame QB's. The offense spread throughout the NFL like wildfire as coaches and assistants took other jobs.

In essence, the West Coast Offense bucked the trend by using short, high percentage passes to open up the run game and in effect open up the deep pass. It stretches a defense horizontally, making it easier for an offensive line to open running lanes. When a defense being stretched out horizontally begins getting had with runs through gaping holes, it starts to hedge its bets and play its back seven (LB's and DB's) closer to the line of scrimmage (LOS) to stop these short passes into the flats and opportunistic run plays, making themselves susceptable to getting beat vertically.

The West Coast System is more about timing and having a quarterback throw to a spot in blind faith that the receiver will get to the ball first. It utilized three-step drops instead of long seven-step drops in order to prevent pressure. A team needs a QB that can process everything in very short time and throw to the best option by the time that plant foot lands. You don't need freakish speed and super-huge receivers. Jerry Rice caught the slant and ran it straight to the Hall of Fame, and he wasn't close to fast. A team needs agile RB's who can catch the ball well on the run, and all WR's must run precise routes. The system is so precise that if executed properly, someone will always be open. Walsh was the first to script the first 15 plays, which allowed the offense to perfect them all week leading up to a game. Sound familiar?

Sean Payton has taken this concept and evolved it. That is what I intend to explore below.

First, let's start with the offensive line. Sean Payton has put more emphasis on having a dominant interior line, as opposed to having blue chip book-end tackles. When your quarterback gets the ball out quickly, you don't need two Willie Roaf's protecting him on either side because the edge rush (or blitz) normally needs more time than a three step drop to get to the QB. So that money instead goes to freak nasty guards who can prevent what scares a quarterback the most-- that interior pass rush from dominant defensive tackles (more on that later in the article).  In Payton's offense, it is better to allocate your money towards top tier guards than top tier tackles. Those tackles, who in the past were out of the league after failing to make the transition to the pros, are now becoming dominant guards who can pass block in a phone booth, yet have the athletic ability to be dominant in the interior run.

The other benefit of having those top shelf guards? The running game (with a good healthy RB) can exploit the middle of a defense, between the tackles, and open up the passing attack. Past West Coast Offenses struggled when playing Tampa 2 defenses because a speedy front seven is adept at stopping those quick passes without having to sub out of their best packages. Having the money invested in the tackles meant that when the WCO philosophy of using the pass to open up the run failed, they didn't have much of a running game to fall back on. With those top guards instead, you can have your cake and still eat it too. If a defense has an answer for the quick passes, you can pound them old school style, three yards and a cloud of dust. You have the ability to do both.

I credit this innovation to Payton. Whether it was a stroke of genius or an innovation of necessity, we'll never know. The 2006 season saw Payton using Reggie Bush as a misdirection/decoy back who moved a player out of the box to open up long developing run plays for Deuce.  The 2007 season saw defenses smarten up to what Reggie could and could not do, and for all purposes, the end of Deuce. 2008 saw the passing offense explode as Payton figured out how to use mismatches, described below, with the addition of Shockey. 2009 is where it all came together when Payton decided to abandon the long developing run plays he brought over from his days and Dallas, coupled with inserting Carl Nicks into the starting line-up, as well as a change in the RB coach.

The next innovation that we can credit the Saints GCO with was the use of a situational RB and TE to create mismatches and diagnose coverages in the passing game. The way Payton used Reggie was never seen before, and it caught defenses by surprise in 2006. They digested it and it caught up to the Saints the following year. A tight end who gains separation and affects coverage was nothing new. But getting both types of players on the field at once and using them together in the fashion Payton did was something never seen. In the Saints Super Bowl winning year, Reggie and Shockey demanded bracket coverage. A linebacker had to carry them until a safety picked each up. Both players each occupied a linebacker half the time and a safety the other half the time. This led to WR's getting one-on-one match-ups, many times against a third cornerback, streaking up the field on those seam routes where Drew could throw to them open even if they were covered.

Another benefit occurred when Payton put Bush or Shockey in motion. Doing so told Drew Brees, before the ball was snapped, what coverage the defense was in. Payton didn't stop there, though. He began lining Shockey up where a wide receiver lines up, and lining up a WR - like Colston- where a tight end would normally go. Furthermore, he'd put a running back in a WR's slot, or a tight end in a RB's spot. All these manipulations forced a defense to declare itself by who was matching up to who.

In 2010, Reggie was injured in quick fashion. Shockey lost a step and no longer got the separation that demanded bracket coverage. For the most part, he also lost his ability for yards after the catch (YAC are a staple in the West Coast Offense). This resulted in having more WR's double covered or more safeties playing deeper in a zone. In other words, many of those seam routes that worked so well in 2009 were gone. Losing multiple RB's affected the Saints' threat to be balanced -- safeties didn't cheat up as much and the offense was no longer able to stretch a defense both horizontally and vertically.  Defenses had the option to keep everything in front of them because the Saints no longer had the mismatches that threatened them horizontally and vertically simultaneously.

So what was the next innovation? Stockpiling talent at those skill positions. Remember, in the Saints offense, a Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson is almost devalued. They don't need to invest mega money in one big wide receiver. They don't need one wide receiver who can do it all, they need a two deep rotation at each of the three receiver positions, fitting a role. Consider Marques Colston and Adrian Arrington as the big body guys that use their body to get position to be a big target. Consider Meachem and Henderson as the speed guys that stretch a defense. Consider Moore and Reggie as the slot guys that use quickness to exploit the nickel back. The Saints get wide receivers's at great value and can replace them with someone similar when one goes down. Their money (and offensive success) isn't tied up in one player (aside from Drew).

And the Saints are doing the same thing at running back. Instead of having one guy that can do it all and maybe someone to spell him, they have a hand-full of guys capable of doing three out of the four things they use their RB's for. Losing one won't hurt. But as we know, losing five will.

How the Saints have built their offense is now being copied. A caller on Sirius Radio named "Benny from the Bronx" (popular guy if you listen often) called to comment on precisely this. The last two Super Bowl winners, Green Bay and New Orleans, have started stockpiling players at running back, tight end, and wide receiver; guys that you can plug and play while traditional defenses struggle to stay fresh defending them.

That's the direction the NFL is trending toward. Ever since 2006, you've seen teams try to copy how the Saints use Reggie with players like Leon Washington and Felix Jones; Atlanta just drafted Jacquizz Rodgers with the same use in mind. The Saints can't claim to be the first to use the TE the way they do, nor can they claim to be original in drafting Jimmy Graham to be their Antonio Gates, but they're the first to have that type of TE with a Reggie-type skill set at running back both on the field at once. And many teams are in a rush to duplicate that. Smart teams like Green Bay are building up their stockpile of WR's, RB's, and TE's much the way they Saints are. Teams are starting to put more value on the interior line than in years past.

The final effect of the Saints offense? They must have a defense that can defend the lead. This is a passing league now, all teams average being in nickel defense more than 50% of the time in the last three years. That makes the third cornerback just as much or more of a starter than the player he replaces. Just look at how the Saints have built their defense in the past few years -- Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson, Johnny Patrick and Malcolm Jenkins. They have at least four guys that can play man coverage when a team is trying to play catch up or when playing a team with multiple WR sets in its normal offense.

Translation? The Saints offense is changing how defenses are being built. They need to get pressure, but due to the quickness of the Saints quarterback, it is more efficient to have that pressure come from a defensive tackle. A penetrating DT is the greatest priority -- the quickest route from point A to point B is a straight line, and there is nothing a quarterback hates more than pressure in his face from a DT. He has nowhere to step up and many times runs into a blocked DE on the edge. It helps to have good DE's, but they may not have enough time to get there when the quarterback can quickly plant and throw. Having multiple coverage cornerbacks is a must as well. Most teams prefer zone because a man CB is a little harder to find, much less three or four of them.

So it's time to be excited, because the Saints offense is setting a trend on how an offense and defense is built (where the money goes, which positions on the roster have the most depth, and the changing value placed on certain positions). The Saints are at the forefront of evolving this offense, so in the past they've gotten great value in the draft. They won't be able to get a Jimmy Graham in the third round or a Carl Nicks/Jahri Evans in the fifth and fourth rounds much longer, though, because teams are catching on and starting to copy. However, fixing that running back position and replacing Shockey while grooming players like Tennant and Arrington leave the Saints in prime position to explode this year.

In summation, Sean Payton's greatest innovations with his Gulf Coast Offense allow the Saints to go further than the West Coast Offense. Unlike the WCO, they can do either or: open up the run with the pass or open up the pass with the run. Unlike the WCO, they have the immediate ability to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically, because they step on the field with the viable threat of hurting you with the pass and run (in the West Coast, one sets up the other). And due to the way their unique offense is built -- where the value is placed on the type of players needed for each position -- they can build their offense cheaper and quicker, with players from mid to late rounds of the draft (much the same way Tampa 2 defenses were able to build their back seven). So while the Saints are still the trend setters, enjoy and marvel!

This FanPost was written by a reader and member of Canal Street Chronicles. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CSC and its staff or editors.

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