Cincinnati's Connection to Football's 'West Coast Offense'

The following isn't a wholly original idea, and it might even risk incoherence. Such is the gamble so many take, and lose, when they begin discussing the so-called "West Coast Offense." The up

Jerry Dowling

The following isn't a wholly original idea, and it might even risk incoherence. Such is the gamble so many take, and lose, when they begin discussing the so-called "West Coast Offense."

The upshot: Of the offensive strains going around football today, three either are or should be called the "West Coast Offense," but two of them are rooted in Cincinnati — or, going a little further back, Columbus — and should be called the "Cincinnati Offense" or the "Ohio Offense" or something like that. The third is most truly to be called the "West Coast Offense," though it never is, and it happens to be the basis of the Cincinnati Bengals' offense today.

The confusion began one day in 1993 when Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman, who's studied football tactics as deeply as anyone outside the game, interviewed Dallas back-up quarterback Bernie Kosar and asked him to describe offensive coordinator Norv Turner's plan with the Cowboys. Said Kosar, "Oh, you know, the West Coast Offense. Turner and (Ernie) Zampese and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman. That thing."

Kosar, understanding football, referred here to the vertical passing game Gillman made famous with the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers of the late American Football League. Al Davis carried the offense from Gillman to the Oakland Raiders, where quarterback Daryl Lamonica came to be known as "The Mad Bomber."

Coryell picked it up coaching across town from Gillman at San Diego State, added touches of his own and moved on to the Chargers, where he launched the "Air Coryell" attack. Among the disciples on the Gillman coaching tree who have made their mark in the past few decades are Turner, Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz.

This strain of offense, recognized by most commentators as the "true" West Coast Offense, goes back even further to Gillman's playing days in the early 1930s at Ohio State under Francis Schmidt. It's fun to realize, after all those years of Woody Hayes with his "three yards and a cloud of dust," that innovation in the passing game is Ohio State's true football legacy.

Schmidt put wings all over the place, tricked up multiple laterals and reverse plays, threw downfield by the standards of the day and, by accounts, first inspired the use of the term "razzle dazzle." It was also during Schmidt's Ohio State tenure when Buckeyes fans developed the proud tradition of more loudly cheering each successive touchdown in a blow-out victory, for Schmidt liked to run up scores and thus earned the nickname "Shut the Gates of Mercy."

Immediately succeeding Schmidt at Ohio State was the great Paul Brown. And here's where the research turns fuzzy, because there must be some kind of connection among Gillman, Brown and Schmidt, but it's not obvious and it's certainly not mentioned in the readily available histories of football. But Brown started coaching at Massilon Washington High School in 1932, the first of Gillman's two All-American seasons for Schmidt at nearby Ohio State, and Gillman worked on Brown's first staff at Ohio State in 1941.

Past that, however, Gillman and Brown appear to have walked separate paths. Gillman took over at Miami University in 1944 and UC in 1949 before landing his first NFL position as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. During most of those years, Brown coached the Cleveland Browns, named for him.

So we had two of the most brilliant innovators in football history working at opposite ends of Ohio. They knew each other, both were rooted in Central Ohio, both liked to throw deep and both developed interesting methods for learning and teaching the game. At the very least, they must have borrowed ideas from each other. Yet one would think from checking around a little that they operated entirely in parallel.

Sadly, neither is still with us to shed light on the matter. And Brown, resisting questions of this sort, would say, "You need to read about it in my book, PB." At a time like this, one wishes for quick access to Brown's autobiography to see what he says about himself and Gillman. If anyone out there has it, do a writer a favor: Look it up and check back.

Brown, of course, launched the Bengals in 1968 and the tactics that would become wrongly known as the "West Coast Offense" were soon to be born at the humble confines of Spinney Field. If Brown and his receivers coach, Bill Walsh, had their druthers, it would never have happened.

The Bengals threw the deep ball in 1969 with their strong-armed quarterback, Greg Cook. Their tight ends averaged more than 20 yards per catch. Walsh, we should mention, had spent time at Oakland learning the Gillman offense.

But Cook blew out his arm after one year, and the Bengals were left at quarterback with Virgil Carter, an agile sort with a weaker arm. The deep ball was mostly out of the question.

So Walsh devised an offensive plan that stretched the defenses horizontally, rather than vertically, setting up mismatches that forced linebackers and safeties into difficult pass coverages. Passed on by the Bengals when Brown retired from coaching in 1975, Walsh moved on to the West Coast, most famously crafting his ideas into the attack that pushed the San Francisco 49ers to his three Super Bowl championships.

Walsh said, more than once, that the offense for which he's credited should be known as something along the lines of the "Cincinnati Offense" rather than the "West Coast Offense." As the lore has it, though, writers ran with Kosar's original remark and located ground zero in San Francisco.

Of course, San Francisco is a West Coast city and the Walsh offense was cutting the edge in football. But his horizontal passing game shouldn't have been confused with Gillman's vertical game. It was, however, and now every coach who ever worked with Walsh or one of his direct assistants for 10 minutes is said to run the "West Coast Offense."

Now the really true "West Coast Offense," which is never recognized as such, is nowhere to be found on the Brown or Gillman coaching trees. It begins with an athletic prodigy born in Port Angeles, Wash., such a transcendent child sportsman that his father moved the family to Los Angeles so the boy might receive appropriate instruction and competition.

There, the teen-aged John Elway ran a spread offense at Granada Hills High School concocted by Jack Neumeier, a career high school coach who set receivers from sideline to sideline and tore apart opposing defenses for 19 years until his retirement in 1988. As it happened, the boy's father, Jack Elway, coached the football team at Cal State-Northridge, fell in love with the Granada Hills offense and took it with him to San Jose State, where he coached from 1979 to 1983.

During his first three years at San Jose State, Elway had, as his offensive coordinator, a fellow named Dennis Erickson, who later won two national championships as the head man at the University of Miami. Erickson's spread has become an enormously popular attack, loved by college and high school coaches everywhere.

Sadly, Erickson's two turns in the NFL ended badly, due largely to flaky ownership in Seattle and a nasty salary cap bite in San Francisco. Because of that, he'll probably never receive his due, despite his success at the collegiate level.

For much of Erickson's career, he employed the same offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, who has worked from the Erickson spread to develop the Bengals' explosive package as their offensive coordinator since 2001. Bratkowski was Erickson's offensive coordinator at Wyoming (1986), at Washington State (1987-88), at Miami (1989-91) and with the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98).

So the Walsh/Brown offense that's wrongly called "West Coast" is truly Cincinnati, the Gillman offense that's most rightly called "West Coast" passed through Cincinnati on the way to the West Coast from Columbus and the Neumeier/Elway offense that should most truly be called "West Coast" but never was now lives in Cincinnati.

Confused? Think about it like this: It all goes back to Walter Camp anyway.

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