Ravens coach Brian Billick has heard all the criticism of his offensive personnel. No great quarterback. No flashy running back. No prime-time receiver. No dominant offensive line. Billick just smiles. He has an ace. It's called the West Coast offense. Bill Walsh started creating the system in a similar situation in 1968 while he was an assistant under coach Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The West Coast offense became fashionable with Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, and at least 11 of the 31 NFL teams now run it, including six of the past 10 Super Bowl champions.
But let's take a look at who's been executing this offense: With the 49ers, Walsh had possibly the best quarterback and receiver ever in Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The Green Bay Packers have quarterback Brett Favre, and the Denver Broncos have running back Terrell Davis.
Billick, as Minnesota's offensive coordinator last season, had quarterback Randall Cunningham and receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, as the Vikings scored an NFL-record 556 points from their West Coast offense.
But the Ravens have a quarterback, Scott Mitchell, who was benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch with the Detroit Lions last season after only two games. The receivers are basically a bunch of NFL no-names who most teams no longer want, with the possible exception of Jermaine Lewis, and 400 of running back Priest Holmes' 1,008 rushing yards in 1998 came against the lowly Bengals.
"It's a great system once you understand the principles, but you also understand principles and systems don't win championships," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "It's the players."
So, can Billick make it work in Baltimore?
"We have the players to give me the kind of multiple personnel that I like to have to present to the defense," Billick said. "We have the players to have a fairly solid and efficient running game. We have the players who can potentially be very explosive. We have yet to show if we can be consistently efficient at the intermediate and short passing game.
"We can have a solid offense," he said. "What we don't have yet, or I haven't yet seen and they can still prove me wrong, is the players to establish ourselves among the elite offenses, the top five or six in the league. Now, do we have the potential? Yeah. But potential is a scary word."
Using the talent
Walsh learned from two of the game's masters.
Two years before he joined the expansion franchise Bengals in 1968, Walsh learned the intricacies of the passing game from then-San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman. He combined Gillman's passing with the organized structure of Brown, the Bengals' head coach, and devised a short, quick-passing offense that would get 25 first downs per game and control the ball with selective runs.
"Bill was not cognizant of the fact that he was creating the offense of the future," said Billick, who co-authored a book with Walsh, "Finding a Winning Edge." "They had less-than-adequate talent. He was trying to find a way to utilize that talent. He was trying to survive. He wasn't going to sit there and cry in his beer just because he didn't have a dominant wide receiver; or, gee, complain because his quarterback was too short; or, 'Gosh, I don't have that dominant running back. Gee, our linemen are undersized.'
"You find a way and develop a system where you can be successful," Billick said. "Then you plug in a good player here and there, and you've got something going."
Walsh had Rice and John Taylor running those short routes that turned into long gainers for the 49ers in the '80s, but a lot of his disciples have run the offense and put their signatures on it. Former Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche rode the offense to Super Bowl XXIII before losing to another West Coast team, the 49ers, 20-16. Wyche put the offense into the no-huddle mode.
Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren, now with the Seattle Seahawks, likes to use a lot of I-formation running plays and screen passes. The Broncos' Shanahan has added the shotgun and more seven-step drops by the quarterback.
"You always hear how complex it is," Wyche said. "It gives the defense a lot of complex problems, but it's easy to come in and learn. It's a high-percentage system, especially with the passing game, and it's cut down on turnovers. It can look different and present different problems for a defense and still be the same. It eats up the clock. The defense doesn't have recovery time."
Billick has his own wrinkles, too. Like Shanahan, he has a shotgun and various pass-protection schemes. Billick also incorporated some of former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs' running plays -- traps and counters -- into the Vikings' offense.
But unlike Walsh, who mostly had a set group of players with the 49ers, Billick prefers multiple substitution packages. He said free agency forced him to use the strategy, which is why he had an array of receivers, including Webster Slaughter, Qadry Ismail, Justin Armour, Billy Davis, Jermaine Lewis, Floyd Turner, Patrick Johnson and Brandon Stokley, in training camp. Slaughter and Turner were eventually waived.
Billick had multiple groupings in Minnesota last year, with Carter, Moss and Jake Reed as his first group of receivers and Matthew Hatchette and Chris Walsh as backups. The Vikings scored 53 of 56 times they were inside the 20-yard line.
"Personnel-wise, you have to be well-rounded, balanced across the board," Billick said. "If you carry five receivers and they are all burners, you're not going to be as good as if you have a good mix between a speed guy, a good-move slot guy and a good, big physical target that doesn't have a lot of speed.
Armour, at 6 feet 4, is the Ravens' big, physical receiver. Patrick Johnson, Ismail and Billy Davis are burners. Stokley is the possession type with great hands and good moves, and Lewis is the best all-around receiver on the team who has proved he can play outside or in the slot.
"Bill stayed consistent with his personnel. He didn't rotate from two [tight ends] to three [wide receivers] to two running backs," Billick said. "He thought defenses picked up on tendencies based on down, distance and personnel, and if you maintained the same personnel, then you take away one of their keys. Plus, you have your best players on the field at all times.
"I differ from that a little bit. In today's free agency, it's hard to maintain that same elite level of players over a period of time. If you can be multiple in personnel groupings, you can dictate to a defense that they have to keep up with your substitution package.
"You have to be careful, though, not to have strong tendencies by personnel groupings. You can't always pass out of three [wide receivers] or always run out of two [tight ends]. I spend close to as much time scouting myself as I do on the defenses I'm playing against."
Thriving on the QB
The past three teams to win the Super Bowl have run West Coast offenses, and the quarterbacks have been Favre and John Elway, two great athletes.
The Ravens counter with Mitchell, 6-6 and 230 pounds, who doesn't move around in the pocket with the greatest of ease.
"The West Coast system has thrived, like most systems, on the success of the quarterback," Billick said. "That's why when you see most West Coast guys become coaches, they become fanatical about bringing in West Coast quarterbacks. It's a high priority that the quarterback be efficient, have good vision and be fairly athletic because of the multi-protection schemes."
Why Mitchell, then?
"We looked at the best available athletes out there," Billick said. "No disrespect to Scott, but Troy Aikman and Steve Young weren't available. Of the quarterbacks that were available, I felt that Scott and Tony Banks gave us the best chance to do what I'm talking about."
Billick isn't sweating about a quarterback. He tutored Jim McMahon and Brad Johnson during their successful seasons with the Vikings, and neither was considered a great athlete.
According to Billick, there is no formula for a quarterback, and the strength of his offense is that it can adapt to any of them. He points out that Johnson and Cunningham are different types of quarterbacks, but both had success.
"Brad could handle more of a wide-open game. He could read guys out of the backfield," Billick said. "Randall's playing field was more concise. He was more effective out of the two-tight-end, two-back set. He had more physical talent and could make throws I wouldn't ask Brad to make."
Mitchell is tough to bring down. He is also bright and has caught on to the offense reasonably well, showing progress in each of the four preseason games. Billick often has pointed out that Mitchell's career completion rate is an impressive 56.6.
Mitchell also has the ability to throw deep, which the Vikings did a lot of last season. But that was because of Moss, who could outrun or outleap most defenders or draw double coverage so the other receivers could get open.
The key to the long pass for the Ravens, Billick said, is completing the short and underneath patterns.
"Everybody wants to have explosive plays," Billick said. "But if you have incompletions on the long balls on first down, then you better have some good receivers who catch everything on the underneath stuff on second and third down. People remember us last year from Randy Moss, but they forget Randall completed 61 percent of his passes. Most of those were high-percentage passes, and bombs are not high percentage."
That's what Mitchell likes about Billick. He is so analytical.
"He likes to break things down. He puts you in position to win and gives you a balanced game plan," Mitchell said. "Plus, he's pretty straightforward. I like what we're doing with this offense."
An offensive philosophy
The West Coast offense isn't a system; it's a philosophy.
The offense is based on minute detail, and practice time covers every game situation. When Billick goes through a route with receivers in practice, he prepares them for options they may face. It's the same for quarterbacks and running backs.
Therefore, players are not taught through rote, but via concepts.
"I think some people make the mistake of thinking of the West Coast offense as some magical combination of plays and protection schemes that no one else has, and if you put them in, they magically work. That's a fallacy," Billick said.
"If a knowledgeable football person went to each training camp, sat in each of those meetings and watched how they practiced and how the game plan was laid out on each given Sunday, they could see which coaches came from the same womb, so to speak."
Defenses have studied it as well. One theory on shutting the offense down was to use a four-man front to pressure the quarterback and use the linebackers to cover, not blitz. That would give the defensive backs time to recognize the routes and not have to play zone.
Other teams have tried blitzing to offset the rhythm of the quarterback on the short and intermediate passes. Something has to be working. The Philadelphia Eagles couldn't run it under Ray Rhodes. The Kansas City Chiefs weren't successful, and neither were the New York Giants last year.
"The way we look at it on offense is that if they blitz 10 times and we win five, we've won the battle, because we'll get one or two big plays," Favre said. "But defenses probably think the way we do: If they stop us half the time, as long as they don't give up a big play, then they're OK."
Billick has heard all the talk before about shutting down this offense. He's gone against some of the best defensive minds in the game while with the Vikings, including the late Fritz Shurmur when he was with Green Bay and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Tony Dungy.
"If you can match up and go man-to-man on the outside, which would free yourself to bring blitzes on the inside, then that could cause some trouble," Billick said. "But if you want to, really want to, you can take away any aspect of an offense if you are willing to lose.
"If someone tells you they have the secret to stopping the West Coast offense, then I think they're fooling themselves."
Pub Date: 9/10/99