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It’s time to change the way we talk about NFL offensive systems

Don Coryell on the field Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

If you read an in-depth article about offensive systems in the NFL, the odds are good that it will state there are three basic offensive systems in the NFL, Erhardt-Perkins, Air Coryell, and the West Coast Offense.

Almost every NFL offensive coach has a pedigree that goes back to Ron Erhardt and/or Ray Perkins (Erhardt-Perkins), Don Coryell (Air Coryell), or Bill Walsh (West Coast Offense). Every coach running an offense once worked for a guy who once worked for a guy who once worked for a guy. Eventually you get to a coach who once worked for one of these four, and that explains the system your team runs.

Early in the decade, the Jets ran all three systems under three different offensive coordinators during a three year stretch.

In 2011 Brian Schottenheimer was in charge of the offense. Schottenheimer had previously worked with the Chargers under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Cameron had worked in the past with the Washington Redskins under Norv Turner. Turner had worked with the Rams under Ernie Zampese. Zampese was one of Coryell’s top lieutenants. The Jets were an Air Coryell offense under Schottenheimer.

A year later the Jets hired the late Tony Sparano as their offensive coordinator. Sparano had previously worked under Bill Parcells. Parcells had worked extensively with Perkins in the past. As head coach of the Giants, Perkins hired a young Parcells to be his defensive coordinator. Parcells was promoted to head coach when Perkins left to become head coach at Alabama. Perkins later served as offensive coordinator of the Patriots when Parcells was head coach in New England. Under Sparano, the Jets were an Erhardt-Perkins offense.

A year later Marty Mornhinweg was hired by the Jets. Mornhinweg had coached under Steve Mariucci and Andy Reid. Mornhinweg, Mariucci, and Reid all coached under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. Holmgren was a top lieutenant of Walsh’s in San Francisco. The Jets ran the West Coast Offense under Mornhinweg.

You can play this game with virtually every offensive coordinator and every head coach who came from the offensive side of the ball. Eventually you will find a link back to at least one of the Erhardt-Perkins, Coryell, Walsh group.

When you find that link, their offensive system will be categorized accordingly.

In truth all of these men have contributed to modern offenses. Many of their ideas and concepts are now commonplace across all offenses the NFL.

For that very reason, I argue we need to evolve in the way we classify offensive systems in the league.

Two of these three systems in particular, Air Coryell and the West Coast Offense, are frequently cited in changing the way passing games are constructed in the NFL.

Coryell’s offensive system, which was made famous during his run as head coach of the San Diego Chargers between 1978 and 1986, is credited for popularizing a number of staples of today’s NFL offenses.

My former SB Nation colleague Danny Kelly wrote a detailed breakdown on many of them four years ago. Philosophically, Coryell’s offense tried to stretch the defense vertically with deep passes. Space is the friend of offense. Space creates passing windows and running lanes. When you throw deep, it creates the potential for big plays, but it also forces the other team to defend more of the field. This in turn creates more room for the offense to operate underneath. Coryell also relied on passing concepts that flooded zones with receivers. If a defender is playing zone coverage, and two receivers enter his zone, he can’t cover both. Somebody is going to be open.

Additionally, Coryell utilized one back formations heavily in what was then a two back league. In 1983, the Washington Post chronicled how his unique philosophy was starting to catch on after his protege, Joe Gibbs, built a Super Bowl winner in Washington.

Now that the Redskins are NFL champions, thanks in large part to the one-back setup, that offense is catching on. Its advocates see it as much more than just the latest fad.

”All the wise ones are going to the one-back,” said Sid Gillman, one of the most respected offensive thinkers in football. “Why? Because you have to be able to throw the ball and you can’t throw the ball as well with two backs as you can with one.

”I’ll guess that as many as eight teams in the NFL wil be in a one-back backfield most of the time this season. Maybe more.”

Eight teams running a single back set? That was crazy stuff in those days.

These formations served a purpose, though. By replacing the typical second running back back with an extra tight end or wide receiver, it put more stress on the pass defense.

When teams line up in a standard alignment with two backs, one tight end and two receivers, the strong safety covers the tight end and the free safety can either double-team a receiver or help out against the run. But when a team uses just one back and four receivers and then puts one of those receivers in motion, the free safety no longer is free: he must assume primary coverage responsibility on the extra receiver. Suddenly, defenses against both the pass and the run are weakened and there is more one-on-one coverage, which is always a plus for the offense.

Another way to put it that while the postsnap action stretched the defenses vertically, the presnap formations stretched the defenses horizontally. With eligible receivers lining up before the snap to routes using the entire width of the field from sideline to sideline, the horizontal stretches created larger passing windows and running lanes.

Stretching the field horizontally was also at the heart of Walsh’s West Coast Offense. That system did it postsnap. The system was based on short passes from sideline to sideline. To an extent these short passes were meant to substitute for the run game as Walsh’s offenses incorporated their backs as receivers.

To be sure, these are oversimplifications, but they are some of the key elements in the offenses Coryell and Walsh ran.

So if a team is running an Air Coryell offense, the story goes that the play calls will be full of deep shots to stretch defenses vertically have formations spread out with eligible receivers.

If a team is running a West Coast Offense, it will stretch the field horizontally and incorporate running backs in the passing game.

Perhaps you see the problem with this analysis. Every NFL offense now does these things. It is a credit to Coryell and Walsh. Their ideas worked so well that they are standard practice in the league no matter which system a team runs. The NFL is a copycat league.

There aren’t many innovative coaches in the NFL who are willing to experiment with new things. If they see something that works, though, you better believe they will jump on it. The smart coaches tend to be the earliest adopters of these new ideas, which gives their team an advantage for a short period. Eventually most others catch on. Soon enough, you are behind the times if you have not adapted.

Now we are past the point where you would even be “behind the times” if you didn’t utilize these concepts as a coach. If you aren’t stretching the entire field with the passing game, weaponizing formations, and utilizing all five eligible receivers in your passing game in the year 2018, you don’t know basic elements of football. That’s the type of wide acceptance these things now have.

When a team hires an offensive coordinator who is a West Coast Offense guy, you will see articles pop up about how his team’s system will be based on short passes.

If a team hires an Air Coryell guy, there will be talk about throwing deep.

I have to admit. I’m guilty of this as well.

But offenses have continued to evolve in the NFL from the days in Coryell and Walsh, and younger coaches have new ideas.

Mike Holmgren worked under Walsh. When Holmgren was hired as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, it stood to reason that he would implement a lot of Walsh’s system. He learned at Walsh’s knee as a coach. He had run Walsh’s offense as a coordinator and had success with it.

Of course, Holmgren would make some tweaks. That’s natural. An important part of being successful is learning from mentors. They influence us. We emulate them. We imitate a lot of what they do.

But we aren’t carbon copies of our mentors. We have our own ideas, and we discard their ideas we don’t like.

Holmgren ran much of the Walsh offense with the Packers. Jon Gruden was one of his pupils. When Gruden went to coordinate the Eagles offense and then became Raiders head coach, he took many of Holmgren’s principles, and put his own tweaks on them. In turn, Gruden’s brother Jay likely put his own twist on Jon’s offense with the Bengals and the Redskins. And when Sean McVay went to coach the Rams, he put his own stamp on Jay’s offense.

You can still see a Walsh’s influence in the “West Coast Offense” McVay runs with the Rams, but after this many generations the system has mutated quite a bit. The Rams do not run the Bill Walsh offense. There are some familiar concepts, but it is more akin to a great-great-grandchild of the Walsh offense.

When we talk about the Erhardt-Perkins system, many articles state it is philosophically neutral. It can be tailored to a team that wants to be run heavy or pass heavy.

I think this is based on the way one team, the New England Patriots, has run the system through the years. In the 1970’s, Erhardt and Perkins were assistants for the Patriots. This is the timeframe in which the system was created. As the story goes, the Patriots were a smashmouth run team in this era.

Fast forward a few decades. Bill Belichick, another former Perkins assistant with the Giants, became the head coach of the Patriots in 2000. Belichick instituted his own “Erhardt-Perkins” system with the Patriots. You probably know the story. Tom Brady takes over as quarterback. The Patriots win Super Bowls. Now they throw it all over the field with their “Erhardt-Perkins” offense.

Clearly the Erhardt-Perkins offense is the system where you can run or throw, right?

Let’s tie in our previous point. The Patriots have incorporated their running backs as receivers frequently into their offensive success through the years. The Erhardt-Perkins offenses from the 1970’s did not do that frequently. They use formations to stretch the field horizontally, and have vertical targets down the field.

This is simplistic analysis for sure, but the influences of Coryell and Walsh are clear on this nominally Erhardt-Perkins offense.

As noted passing game scholar Blake Bortles observed early in his career when his team installed a new system under a new offensive coordinator:

‘’It’s all the same stuff,’’ Bortles said. ‘’Everybody runs the same stuff. Some people call it apples. Some people call it oranges. So you’ve just got to learn the language.”

Everybody is running the same plays in the NFL, no matter the system. Running an Air Coryell system no longer means simply throwing it deep a lot. Running a West Coast Offense no longer means simply throwing it short a lot.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense is philosophically neutral, yes. So are the other two systems, though. There are deep passing plays in a West Coast Offense. If a coach wanted to lean more heavily on them, he could do so and build a deep strike offense. There are short passing plays in any Air Coryell playbook. If a coach was so inclined to build an offense around dinking and dunking, he could do it.

In fact, that does happen.

PFF charts what percentage of passing attempts are deep throws for each quarterback. In 2017, 16.5% of Russell Wilson’s throws were deep. That was second most in the league. His offensive coordinator was Darrell Bevel, a West Coast Offense guy. Number five was Carson Wentz with 14.8% of his throws being of the deep variety. Doug Pederson, another West Coast Offense guy, was his head coach.

Near the bottom with only 8.8% of his passing going deep was Dak Prescott. His head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan have deep Air Coryell ties.

Yes, if you spend your formative coaching years learning from people with ties to the Walsh West Coast coaching lineage, odds are you will incorporate a number of the principles of the West Coast offense when you are handed eventually the keys to craft your own playbook. The same goes for those who can trace their roots back to Coryell.

But now that we are four-five-six generations deep into their coaching trees, it makes no sense to act like everybody who comes from these coaching families will institute systems that are identical or even similar. This deep into the lineage, some offshoots of these offenses will indeed wildly vary philosophically from the original.

Somebody from the Walsh coaching tree could decide philosophically that he wants to base his offense on something other than short passes first.

It’s all a matter of philosophy indeed.

And no matter his philosophy, he certainly will incorporate elements of what Coryell’s offense did as every team does. That’s just how it goes. NFL passing games tend to have have more similarities than differences these days.

In a great article for Grantland penned five years ago, the great Chris Brown convincingly argued that the greatest difference in the three NFL offensive systems these days is simply the terminology of the passing playcalls. Erhardt-Perkins offenses describe passing plays by the route combination. West Coast Offenses describe the primary target’s role, and Air Coryell Offenses give their routes a number.

That’s essentially what Bortles was saying. The plays are the same in these systems. The only difference is how they are called.

Even that might be slowly fading away.

One of Brown’s theses in his article was that the Patriots had an advantage running the Erhardt-Perkins offense because that system’s play calls tend to be less wordy. This in turn allows New England’s offense to go up tempo. The less words the quarterback has to use to convey the play, the quicker the ball can be snapped.

One of the reasons Bortles said, “Everybody runs the same stuff,” is there are no new worlds to discover in using the raw dimensions of the field in the passing game. Everybody now knows you need to utilize the length and width of the field in routes.

The next frontiers in NFL offenses lie in other areas. This decade, offenses have widely begun to utilize tempo to their advantage. Running plays quickly can tire a defense out, which can lead to mistakes. The defenses can’t substitute fresh players onto the field either.

Tempo has other advantages. An offense might snap a ball before all of the defenders are set, which leads to big plays. The defense also becomes limited schematically. Because the ball can be snapped quickly, there isn’t enough time to communicate a complex play call to all eleven players. So a defense can get stuck in a vanilla base look.

Have we found the last area where there is a tangible difference in these systems? Perhaps running an Erhardt-Perkins offense helps you be more effective utilizing tempo.

When the Patriots want to go really fast, however, it they have shown a willingness to discard the Erhardt-Perkins system’s traditional verbiage, though.

The NFL never has seen anything like it, and it may never be the same.

How did the Patriots run the offense that fast? What was the key?

One word.

Not one word to describe it.

The Patriots operate their no-huddle attack most often using one word as the play call.

More accurately, they use six one-word play calls a game.

That word tells all 11 players on offense everything they need to know.


Blocking scheme.

Direction on run plays.

Routes for receiver on passing plays.

Shifts in formations.

Snap count.

Possible alerts and play alterations.

One word.

“I think the point of it is to try to get everyone going fast,” quarterback Tom Brady said recently. “So as fast as you can get the communication to your teammates, everyone can be on the line of scrimmage, then the better it is.”

That didn’t come from a system that was invented in the 1970’s by Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins. Any team could do something like that.

On the flip side, one concern fans frequently have of their team implementing the West Coast Offense is how the verbiage for playcalling for that system is notoriously wordy.

But there is no law preventing a young offensive mind with West Coast roots from changing things.

While that might seem like a lot at first look, Sean McVay is actually cutting back on the verbiage. So even a “West Coast Offense” might not be all that wordy in the future.

This all brings me to the main point. NFL offensive systems are rhetorically put into these three silos as though they are wildly distinct brands. The major differences you see in offensive systems tend, however, not to fall neatly between the lines of Erhardt-Perkins, Air Coryell, and the West Coast Offense.

There are some teams that run a “West Coast Offense” that has more in common with teams nominally running the other two systems than other “West Coast Offense” teams.

The way NFL offenses are discussed would lead one to believe the beginning and end of offensive history took place in two decades, the 1970’s and 1980’s.

A number of coaches saw the potential to stretch defenses through the passing game before Coryell and Walsh. Sid Gillman was one. He was an influence on both Coryell and Walsh. Coryell and Walsh didn’t run the Air Gillman offense.

Offenses today have changed. Teams don’t run the Coryell or Walsh offenses. Knicks fans in recent years about how their team was running the decades old Triangle Offense. (Cut to a shot of Knicks fans nodding wistfully.) Teams across the league, notably the Warriors, have adopted elements of the Triangle into their offensive systems, but nobody is saying the offshoot the Warriors run is the “Triangle Offense.” Yet a good chunk of the NFL is allegedly running the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense.

In some ways I would say it’s an insult to Coryell and Walsh to associate them with some of the uncreative offenses of today’s NFL. If they were around today, they wouldn’t be running the same offenses they ran in the 1980’s. They would be at the cutting edge of the next advances. That’s how Erhardt was. Even though his offense with the Patriots of the 1970’s was a smashmouth unit, Erhardt adapted with the times. As Steelers offensive coordinator in the 1990’s, he, working with wide receivers coach Chan Gailey, became one of the early adopters of using four and five receiver sets on passing downs since extra receivers were more skilled and more likely to make plays on critical passing downs than running backs and tight ends.

In addition to tempo, another of the next offensive frontiers in football is exploiting the fact defenders have assignments against both the pass and the run on a given play. Teams are building on traditional play action drawing defenders out of passing lanes. We now have run-pass options, which allow the quarterback to target one defender. The quarterback can throw if that defender executes his run assignment or hand the ball off if the defender drops into his coverage assignment. Additionally, teams are creating new actions on run plays, utilizing wide receivers as options on handoffs.

Few teams are as new age on offense as Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs.

On this particular play, the Chiefs are running four verticals, a fairly common play to attack the deep part of the field. As you might expect, there are four receivers running vertical routes. This play has some of that new age twist, though, as a receiver comes into motion for a potential sweep play.

This leaves one defender in a bind as he has both a run assignment and man coverage against the back in the event of a pass.

He can’t do two things at once. Committing to the run means his guy is left wide open if there is a pass.

This isn’t your traditional West Coast Offense. Maybe we should say Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy, and other Reid proteges from Kansas City are running the Paris of the Plains Offense. Thirty years from now we can come up with a new name.

But for now I’ll take it if we can just cut back on calling what the Chiefs do the West Coast Offense.