NFL Schemes – Offense

NFL Offenses – The Rule Change That Gave Birth To Modern Football

Football is a complex system where competitive entities strive for every small advantage in the “game of inches,” evolving as needed to gain a strategic edge, not unlike in nature or economics. Innovations almost never occur out of thin air; they are more often than not reactions rather than so-called acts of genius.

Today, most teams use an amalgamation of concepts, generally rooted in one core scheme or offensive “philosophy.”  The three core offensive philosophies that you should know are West Coast, Air Coryell, and Erhardt-Perkins. Implementations of these philosophies vary greatly and even get names themselves, but the core philosophy can easily be discerned from the language at the line. No two “West Coast” or “Air Coryell” offenses are the same and may have very different looks, depending on what different plays or strategies, such as the Spread, Read-Option, Play-Action, Vertical, and Pistol Formation, the coaching staff incorporates. However, all of these modern offenses have one thing in common; the wide receiver is a much bigger part of the game. How did this occur? It all starts with a Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame cornerback named Mel Blount.

In 1977, the NFL instituted a rule change on how wide receivers could be covered. With this new rule, wide receivers could only be blocked for the first five yards, and then the defense backs had to let him run his route and try to keep up. The rule is known as “The Mel Blount Rule,” as he was the cornerback at the time most well known for his physicality with receivers. Here is an example of a perfectly acceptable Mel Blount play prior to the rule change:

This rule created a milestone moment in the NFL. There is a time before the Mel Blount Rule, and everything after. The Steelers’ SuperBowls are even divided by this rule. The two before the rule are known as the Franco Harris SuperBowls, and the ones after are about Bradshaw, Stallworth, and Swan. There is a lot of delicious politics involved with this rule change, and it is worth further reading.

NFL Football Offenses Get A New “Heat Map”

Up until this rule change, football had a very clear “heat map” if you charted where plays were run and how teams defended. Think “three yards and a cloud of dust.”  There were some interesting formations and schemes such as the Veer and the Wishbone, but for most part the football world was concentrated at the line of scrimmage. For most teams, wide receivers were almost an after-thought. Unless the wide receiver had enough speed to get, well, wide open, the fact that they could be tackled to the ground as soon as the ball was released made them fairly ineffective.

With the new freedom for wide receivers, teams started to move more plays away from the line of scrimmage with increased vertical passing plays. Instead of 22 guys all gathered in one place, football started to… say it with me… “spread” out. Wide receivers were lined up along the line of scrimmage in different places, and defenses had to cover more of the field. An up and coming NFL coach that was trying to implement a vertical passing game even before the Mel Blount Rule took effect suddenly became the namesake of this new passing strategy that changed the NFL forever. His name was Don Coryell.

Coryell worked his way up the college ranks utilizing Sid Gillman’s offensive scheme that forced defenses to cover the whole field. Plays took place all over the field and defenses had to be ready for a pass play anywhere. Different rules and a different timeline for rule changes allowed an offensive evolution to occur earlier in the college game. The “Mel Blount Rule” change allowed Coryell to use these strategies in the pro-game, and altered the “heat map” of pro football. Coryell also put players in motion… wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. This showed the quarterback if a team was in zone or man by seeing if a defender followed the player in motion. The motion also made it very difficult to get that first jam at the line of scrimmage. The vertical passing game began to flourish in the NFL.

Every NFL team has some “Air Coryell” concepts, and some teams are primarily based in this scheme. But there are drawbacks to running the system in its purest form. The playbook in an Air Coryell offense is complex and routes and plays needed to be run with precision. Free agency has brought about a lot more player movement from team to team, and a complex and difficult to learn playbook can be an impedance to getting newly acquired talent out on the field.  You also need a superb quarterback, with elite down the field accuracy. Don Coryell had player stability and an elite quarterback in San Diego, and had a lot of success, but ultimately couldn’t win a championship. Air Coryell, for all of its benefits, was too vertical, too dependent on specific personnel, didn’t necessarily benefit the run game, and has a complicated play calling proceedure. In many ways it was just an inversion of three yards and a cloud of dust.

A Weak Armed Quarterback and an Adaptable, Genius Coach

It’s better to start with Bill Walsh’s conundrum with his weak-armed quarterback than to lead off with the term “West Coast Offense.” Why? Because Air Coryell was originally called the West Coast Offense. The West Coast Offense we know now as the West Coast Offense was not started on the West Coast, but in Cincinnati. Then it was on the West Coast when it became popularized by the 49ers. Bill Parcells coined the name but so did Paul Zimmerman. And it also was used at the college level, but only mostly at BYU, which is at least West, if not west coast. See the problem? For all intents and purposes, we attribute the West Coast Offense to Bill Walsh.

Bill Walsh worked for probably the greatest NFL coach of all time, Paul Brown in Cincinnati. In 1970, the Bengals traded for Virgil Carter, a very intelligent, and very noodle-armed quarterback. He was vertically passing challenged. Walsh had to come up with a short, reliable passing game for him which was more horizontal than vertical. In fact, to this day a major way to describe the difference between the Air Coryell vs. the West Coast Offense is Vertical vs. Horizontal. To this point, what we know of as the West Coast Offense was not invented in some Eureka! moment after the Mel Blount Rule. It was already in place. In Walsh’s new short, horizontal passing game, Carter led the league in completion percentage in 1971. This adaptation to a player’s limitations along with utilizing that player’s intelligence, mobility, and short range accuracy, allowed the new system to develop, just waiting for an external event to allow it to flourish.

Walsh bounced around after his time with the Bengals and took over as the head coach for the 49ers in 1979. It took a year before the entire organization bought into his idea to implement the “West Coast” Offense. Instead of being forced into a horizontal passing game because of the limitations of a quarterback’s arm, he now implemented the offense with a quarterback had no such a limitation. He also had running backs that could catch and run. Bill Walsh’s new and now robust offense used the horizontal passing game to keep defenders from concentrating on the run, but he was able to use the vertical game to also keep defenders from concentrating on the horizontal game. In short, defenses couldn’t cheat and concentrate on any level of the field.

The West Coast Offensive in its purest form thrived for decades, and the success of Walsh and his coaching tree are well known. But why did it take so long for the league to stop it and force it to become more diverse? The answer is that teams had a pretty good idea of how to stop it for a long time- with Cover 2 and more specifically, the Tampa 2. When a defense simply went into short, specific zones, it could effectively manage the multi-level attack strategy of Walsh’s offense. But was a team going to change their defensive philosophy for one team in the league? That would be foolish. As Walsh’s assistants took head coaching jobs, and other teams started to implement the West Coast Offense, defenses could more reasonably concentrate on stopping it through disciplined, zone defense.

Decades of Specialization

To this day, every NFL team has both Air Coryell and West Coast Offense plays and concepts in their playbooks. Many teams first identify with one or the other. But the days of running either system in their “pure” form are long gone. The West Coast Offense is definitely more intact than Air Coryell, but the Air Coryell DNA of routes and concepts run through every playbook in the NFL. The book is out on both of them, and defenses have figured out how to stop both in their purest form, and that is why they have both undergone many adaptations.

Both the West Coast Offense and Air Coryell Offense are hard to learn. The terminology is specific, and the time that it takes to get comfortable in either system is substantial. As previously mentioned, free agency further changed things as teams have a much larger turnover than in the 70’s and 80’s. What teams have done is to adjust their schemes to include a base scheme with another specialization. Common additions today are a power run game, read-option, play-action, or a lot of “12” personnel. This allows a team to be much more scheme diverse, not allowing a defense to concentrate on one primary scheme.

But what if you could eliminate the big learning curve and not only keep defenses guessing between a primary scheme/specialization but having to keep guessing EVERY PLAY?

May I Present Mr. Erhardt, and Mr. Perkins

West Coast, Air Coryell and Erhardt-Perkins were all described as offensive philosophies, and that is still accurate. But a separation does exist when you get more specific. West Coast Offense and Air Coryell are probably best described as “Offensive Schemes” that incorporate plays and routes and terms. Erhardt-Perkins is probably best described as an offensive “System” that involves concepts. Running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends aren’t as much positions, but loosely applied tags to where a player probably lines up most of the time.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins were offensive assistants in New England long before Parcells or Belicheck arrived in town. Their head coach, Chuck Fairbanks, really, really loved defense, and really, really had no time for offense. Erhardt and Perkins were told to create an offense that was run-heavy with a rudimentary passing game that was extremely easy for a quarterback to learn and run. The system was designed to work in cold, bad weather, by utilizing a run game and highly efficient passing game.

But what is so different about that? Of course teams would want to have an effective run game and high efficiency short passing game, but defenses are ready for that. What Erhardt and Perkins did (albeit, without knowing it) was Jedi. They didn’t write up any new revolutionary playbook. Defenses basically knew the plays out there, and were spending time and resources defending known plays. The Erhardt-Perkins system didn’t create anything.  What it does is show different looks, combinations, and formations of existing plays, making it extremely difficult to defend.

Beyond that, the system doesn’t use the cumbersome playcalls that the other two schemes use. Both the West Coast Offense and Air Coryell have intricate language and terms for each route.  Erhardt-Perkins works with “concepts.” You might hear a quarterback at the line of scrimmage call a combination of two words. One is for the players on the right side, the other for players on the left side. Changes can be made to just one side easily, so you don’t have to change a whole play. Furthermore, you are completely disguising the route with coded words.  The players just need to know the concept name; the burden of knowing the system is placed on the quarterback.

The traditional schemes are written with three highly specialized player types: wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Erhardt-Perkins isn’t locked down by this, which means that the same play can be run many different ways by simply moving around personnel – how about that 6’4″ slot receiver… I thought he was a tight end? It creates a play by play struggle for defenses to get the right defenders on the right offensive weapons. It is about mismatches.

When Erhardt-Perkins were creating this simplified offensive system, one that just used other people’s plays and threw in wrinkles on how each played look, they were not doing it to create the system that people know today. They were doing it out of necessity. Much like Bill Walsh’s second act, when he got a quarterback without the limitations that caused him to innovate years before, the Erhardt-Perkins system would take the next step. Bill Parcells ran it with the Giants, but mostly in keeping with the simple advantages that it offered.

Unlike the other schemes, Erhardt-Perkins doesn’t have a sort of “founding father.” The two coaches simply stumbled upon a way to maximize the complexity of an offense due to circumstances. Neither coach actually had much success at all running their idea in the NFL. It took Charlie Weis, decades later, to take the system to its next evolutionary step. Seeing that the offense can be run around a smart quarterback, with a few plays that you disguise with different looks, and it worked, he is the one that started to move around players, regardless of position from play to play.

What has been proven is that because this offense really revolves around a smart quarterback, and not from having an exact set of players at specialized positions, the system has been highly adaptable. The Patriots have used the Erhardt-Perkins system with a wide variety of wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. It’s great to have elite players, but when you have a system that has no real dependencies, you simply adapt to whatever your strengths and weaknesses are. So, even though they have run the Erhardt-Perkins “system,” they have had drastically different offenses over the years. It is not an apples to apples comparison with the other schemes, as the Erhardt-Perkins system is really just talking about HOW the plays are run and called, not about the actual playbook.

The most recent addition to the system is the hurry up aspect. Because there is a big advantage in the efficiency of play calling, and play changing at the line, Erhardt-Perkins was a no-brainer for the hurry up. Having trouble figuring out what we are doing when we huddle up and take our time?  How about we do the same thing but in just a few seconds.

What Does My Team Run?

Your team will be identified as either West Coast, Air Coryell, or Erhardt-Perkins. You might also hear things like spread, vertical, play-action, read-option, etc., but the base offense is one of the above. Many teams are hiring Erhardt-Perkins assistants, so more teams are transitioning to that base offense in the last few years. However, the West Coast and Air Coryell schemes are not going away. These two schemes provide most of the plays run in the NFL today. It is just that Erhardt-Perkins provides a more dynamic and efficient way to implement these plays. The simplest way to determine your team’s base offense is by the language at the line:

Plays called with three digit numbers: Air Coryell (example: “Jet Dart 368 Y-Flat Train”)

Plays called involving a long string of words and some numbers: West Coast (example: “flip right double-X jet 36 counter naked wagglet seven X quarter”)

Plays called using short phrases and code words: Erhardt-Perkins (example: “Circus/Kings”)

It is important to note that generally, offensive coordinators don’t want to use any term to describe their scheme. It is very difficult with the West Coast Offense, as the language is quite obvious at the line of scrimmage. Also, with Erhardt-Perkins, because it is not defined by any specific language, many offensive coordinators that have learned it are just putting their own spin on it and saying that they have their own offensive scheme.  Start with Josh McDaniels and his time in Denver and follow his coaching tree of Adam Gase on down.  These are Erhardt-Perkins coaches. And teams that are running “revolutionary” offenses that don’t last are normally running a West Coast or Air Coryell scheme with a one part of the scheme just dialed up to “11.” There are only about 5 or 6 offensive coordinators that will openly apply one of the three labels to their team.  Try it… find your offensive coordinator’s name, Google him with and see what he says about his offensive scheme or philosophy.

What About All The Spread Offenses In College?

The term “spread” is used in many different ways, often incorrectly, when describing football offenses. The origin of it was not to describe any specific scheme, but rather to describe the idea counter to having all of the offensive players at the line of scrimmage and running the ball in and around that region. Coaches discovered that sometimes the other teams’ players are simply bigger and stronger, and that was a losing proposition.  Even some teams that had the ability to run the ubiquitous power run game realized that they could be more dynamic and more effective if they could make the defense have to account for a larger part of the field.

So how new is the spread offense that you see primarily in college? A decade? A few decades? Not even close. Its roots go back to the 1920’s with  Rusty Russell at the Fort Worth’s Masonic Home and School for Orphaned Boys, whose team had undersized players that couldn’t compete. Russell contrived a system based on spreading out the players, which minimized the size disadvantage and maximized the speed of smaller players. In 1952, the head coach at TCU,  Leo “Dutch” Meyer, wrote a book entitled “Spread Formation Football.” This book would bring the spread ideas to the college game. The underlying premise was that the more you spread out your offensive players and routes, etc., the more you force the defense to cover more and more of the field.

The college and pro games would take somewhat different journeys with their use of the spread, and the style of play would have profound ebbs and flows. Even though the spread idea started in college, it would all but disappear for decades while just a handful of power teams would fight for championships.  At the pro level, ex college coaches like Paul Brown and Don Coryell would slowly start to bring in spread concepts, with the Mel Blount Rule allowing for the benefits of it to be realized.  Every NFL team uses spread concepts. If you want to watch a “spreadless” offense, watch some 1960’s college and NFL games where almost all of the plays are runs or short passes around the line of scrimmage. So while no team in the NFL can be described, in earnest, as a “spread offense” as its overriding guiding principle, most college teams do.

So why do most college teams identify themselves as running a “spread offense” and pro teams don’t? The answer is mostly due to practicality of personnel. Some college teams are simply able to horde all of the physical freaks, the biggest, fastest, best athletes. In the NFL the talent pool has a very equitable distribution. A silly argument is often made that why don’t other college teams run a more “pro-style” offense like Alabama, as they are the best team. The answer is that Alabama has elite talent at most every position, and they simply can run a low-risk offense because their talent is just better. Almost every other team needs to put in a system that allows for lesser athletes to succeed. This is best illustrated with the service academies that often run extreme versions of the spread offense because they don’t get the super athletes of many of the teams that they are playing against. For the most part, however, the difference is more muted than is described. Most of the power conference teams run offenses that are a lot more like NFL offenses than you would think. The schemes are often based in West Coast or Air Coryell concepts, but incorporate a lot more options in the run game, quarterback reads are minimized, and routes are simplified.

There are a few spread offenses in college that are markedly different than what you see in the NFL and worth mentioning. The most exciting of which is the “Air Raid” offense. Basically, you have a lot of wide receivers running a lot of vertical routes. Also, most of the receivers have the option to cut off their vertical route when they find a soft spot in coverage. So, it has the vertical aspect of Air Coryell, and the emphasis of yards after the catch of the West Coast Offense. It is exciting to watch when a defense can’t crack the code. Next is the “Read-Option.” This really just describes a single concept where the QB has one read. The offensive line will typically go one way and the QB reads the other.  The QB makes a decision based on the approach of the defender to either keep the ball or hand off to the back. Teams that run this will build a zone running game around this that includes many wrinkles to that single read and can look very differently. Many NFL teams have incorporated the read-option as a run play, but none currently uses it as a base offense. The term that you will hear the most in college is the “spread option.”  This is a very general term but basically describes an offense that uses a lot of passing plays with receivers, tight ends, and running backs all across the line, and also utilizes an option running game of some sort. This is a very flexible system that allows teams to adapt the offense to the strength of the personnel.  Why don’t NFL teams use this? Because linebackers in the NFL are really good and that same option from the QB to a running back that gets you 6 yards a pop in college will typically get you a 4 yard or more loss in the pros.

And The Big Finish: What Offense Is Best?

There is definitely a buzzword aspect to NFL offenses, and not to mention a preponderance of misused terminology. Understandably, fans want to know what works best and have their team implement it. However, teams win primarily with players and coaching. You have to have depth and stay healthy as well. There are some obvious advantages to running the Erhardt-Perkins system, but it depends on having a coach that knows it well, and even it is based on other schemes’ plays, so it is almost an addition to the other two major schemes. Yards and points are the two ways that almost any major “stats” listing will rate offenses, but interestingly, that is not how teams look at them. If you want to know if your offense is clicking or not, look at the following:

  • Number of first downs
  • Third down conversion percentage
  • Not turning the ball over
  • Time of possession
  • Red Zone success

Don’t feel like being a stats nerd? There is another good way to see if your team’s offense can stand up in the long run. Watch if your team “stays on schedule.” This is a stat that really holds up year to year, throughout any system. There isn’t an exact formula that everyone follows, but in general, a good offense does the following often:

  • Gain five or six yards on first down
  • Get into third and two or less
  • Convert third downs

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