By Jason La Canfora
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Perhaps only a Wisconsin-raised, Big Ten-influenced, smash-mouth-loving center could come up with the perfect name for the Washington Redskins' hybrid offense, a system that mixes a heavy dose of Joe Gibbs's power football and a smattering of Jim Zorn's West Coast concepts.
The Midwest Coast offense.
At the moment, Casey Rabach's label has yet to spread much farther than his close pal, tackle Jon Jansen, a fellow Midwesterner and Big Ten product (Michigan), but it very well could, particularly if the Redskins continue to win. To build a 6-2 record, Washington has used a mode of attack that has been a throwback to the Gibbs coaching philosophy, with Zorn emphasizing the run even more than his predecessor and tailoring his scheme and play-calling to the preexisting talent base.
The telltale signs of a prototypical West Coast offense -- as invented by Bill Walsh and funneled to Zorn through his coaching mentor and former boss, Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren -- are rarely present. Zorn has reined in his desire for a varied and robust passing game in favor of an approach that required a minimal learning curve for his players. The Redskins are the league's most proficient running team and while it's not the aerial attack Zorn eventually wants, the Midwest Coast offense will certainly do for now.
"I had an epiphany," Rabach said, describing the day roughly four weeks ago when the name popped into his head. "I was just thinking about how every West Coast coach has his own spin on it, and we're running the ball so damn well and we kind of have this Midwest attitude on offense -- working hard, keeping it simple. So it's the Midwest Coast offense."
There are no Midwest Coast T-shirts in the locker room yet, the surest sign that a nickname or phrase has stuck, but the players are embracing Zorn's willingness to tailor his tactics to his personnel and limit the scope of his offense.
"Coach Zorn came in and said, 'This is what they did well last year, let's not change that, and maybe we'll add some of this,' " said Jansen, who, as the longest-serving Redskins player, is playing for his sixth coach since 1999. "He didn't come in and say, 'We're going to take our lumps this year and learn my offense and this is how we're going to do it because this is my way.' "
Zorn has been a more aggressive play-caller than his predecessors, more inclined to go for it on fourth down, to throw late in games. He uses more four-receiver sets and certainly has empowered quarterback Jason Campbell to a greater degree, with Campbell calling more audibles and setting protection at the line. There is far less shifting and motion and the pace is much faster.
It took the Seahawks three years to master the West Coast offense during Zorn's time under Holmgren, and Zorn sought to minimize that here by retaining Gibbs's run game and sprinkling in just enough of the West Coast passing principles to allow Campbell to blossom.
"The only thing we need to do if we're going to make it into what my idea [of the West Coast] would be, would be to rev up the passing game as far as being able to go faster, being able to be more multiple on some of the things we're doing," Zorn said. "But we're inching our way there."
Normally in a West Coast offense, teams use the pass to set up the run, making defenses adjust to dropping more players into pass coverage, then hitting them with the ground game. Quick passes serve as de facto runs, with quarterbacks taking short three-step drops (often in four-receiver spread formations), making immediate decisions on who will get the ball and then dinking and dunking throws down the field. There are occasional deep passes. Often teams throw the ball more than 60 percent of the time.
The Redskins are employing virtually none of that. They are running the ball 33.4 times a game -- most in the NFL and two carries more per game than under Gibbs last season. Last year, with Zorn in Seattle, the Seahawks ran the ball 42 percent of the time; the Redskins are at 54 percent. Running back Clinton Portis leads the league in carries and rushing yards.
By the end of training camp Zorn figured he was going to have to run more than he expected to help the passing game, but never quite to this extent. "I wouldn't have predicted that we'd be leading the league in rushing," he conceded.
Washington is on pace for 534 rushes this season, most by the franchise since 1991, the last Super Bowl season, when Gibbs rode a three-headed rushing monster (Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and Ricky Ervins) to 540 carries and a 14-2 season. Campbell could recall just two three-step drops he executed in the victory over Detroit last week.
"It certainly looks like the Gibbs offense to me," said one NFL executive who has scouted the Redskins several times this season. "It's the old Gibbs concepts -- protecting the quarterback, trying not to expose him to turnovers, using the run to set up the pass, play-action, then taking the deep shots. You have to give Zorn a lot of credit for adapting to his personnel."
As the season evolved, Zorn has given the players a larger stake in the offense. Campbell preferred deeper drops and going to the shotgun more; Zorn has some philosophical aversion to that formation but granted Campbell the freedom to use it any time. The Redskins have thrown from the shotgun 53 times this season; Seattle did it just 69 times all of last season. Campbell has already attempted five passes on which the ball traveled 41 yards or more; Seattle attempted just six such passes all of last season.
"With Coach Zorn, it's about the best of what the receivers can do, and what I can do," Campbell said. "When it comes to me, is it always going to be a three-step drop, or are we going to let him utilize his arm to make throws to the whole field? I think that's Coach's whole mind-set."
Tight end Chris Cooley asked that he be able to move more before the snap, rather than take the stationary three-point stance of most tight ends in the West Coast system. Zorn has actually taken to using Cooley more as an H-back in recent weeks -- a position that was a staple of Gibbs's offense but does not exist in the West Coast offense.
"Zorn said when he came in that I haven't ever had a tight end who can do what you do, and I have to learn," Cooley said. "And I think if you go back and watch our offense over the last eight weeks you'll see that every week more and more I'm in different places and moving around, and it's become a lot more like what I've done in the past. I can't believe how much lead blocking I'm doing, but I'm having a blast."
Portis requested more draw plays -- including one that clinched a win at Philadelphia -- and more pitches to the outside when the Redskins run "gut" plays, which have resulted in some big gains. "It's not like, 'We do the coaching; you do the playing,' " offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said. "If they suggest stuff, we'll listen."
The Redskins are relying on an abundance of outside plays in a zone-blocking scheme, much like in their playoff run in 2005, creating creases outside the tackles, a tactic the Seahawks almost never used. "The scheme is solid and not that complicated," backup quarterback Todd Collins said, pointing across an imaginary line of scrimmage. "It's really just moving the line, like Coach Gibbs would say, that way."
Tailback Shaun Alexander, who spent eight seasons in Seattle before signing with Washington a few weeks ago, hit the wrong hole on his first three carries with the Redskins. He was used to more traps and counters in Seattle and didn't at that point understand just how different things are on this side of the country.
"I was going where the ball would have gone back in the day in Seattle, but this offense and this line is different," Alexander said. "We got away from the outside zone stuff for about six years there, but now I see it here and it's like, 'This is going to be great.' This line blocks it well and Clinton runs it well."
Gibbs's longtime lieutenant, offensive line coach Joe Bugel, remains on the staff, a vital link between the old and new, his presence alone signaling to the linemen that they won't stray too far from those hardnosed running principles. "Buges is the Boss Hog," Smith said. "He sets the blocking assignments. It all goes through him."
All of which raises the questions: Are the Redskins really a West Coast team at all? Do they resemble Seattle or Philadelphia or Denver? Should we just call it Ground Zorn or the Midwest Coast until further notice?
"Of course, we're a West Coast team," one veteran said, all sly smiles. "Of course."
He gave a slow, exaggerated wink. Then he winked again.