The family tree for offensive coaching wizardry in the modern-day NFL usually begins with Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers and branches outward. And once again this season, it is a West Coast offense that is shredding defenses throughout the league.
But it is not the West Coast offense that is all the rage in the early stages of the 1999 season. It is not Walsh's offense. It is Don Coryell's offense, as implemented by Redskins Coach Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese and Mike Martz.
The NFL's highest-rated passers this season are, in order, the St. Louis Rams' Kurt Warner, the Redskins' Brad Johnson and the New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe. Those three teams also have three of the league's five highest-ranked offenses. The Redskins are second, the undefeated Rams are third and the Patriots are fifth.
And, thanks to Turner and offensive coordinators Zampese of the Patriots and Martz of the Rams, all three clubs run basically the same offense--the offense run by Coryell when he coached the pass-happy San Diego Chargers of Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow and Co. in the late 1970s and '80s. It also is basically the same offense Joe Gibbs used with the Redskins to win three Super Bowl titles with three different quarterbacks in the '80s and early '90s.
"Everybody has changed it a little bit through the years to fit their personnel," Zampese said yesterday. "Everybody has a little different something, but the basics are still intact from Don Coryell. It's all the same, really."
Even when the Redskins were en route to an 0-7 start last season, Turner stood firm behind his system and declared: "What we do works." Now they're 3-1 and tied for first place in the NFC East, and it's clear that his offensive system is part of the reason.
"It gives you a lot of different people to go to," said Johnson, who has been named the NFC offensive player of the week twice in his first four games with the Redskins. "It's very high percentage, if you have the weapons. I've seen a lot of offenses that don't take chances and are supposed to be high percentage. This one has both."
Martz, the Redskins' quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons before joining Coach Dick Vermeil's staff in St. Louis this year, said this week: "It's a quarterback-friendly offense. It allows the quarterback to get the ball out quickly."
It is not a clone of Walsh's famed West Coast offense. That system features three-step drops by the quarterback and plenty of quick throws to receivers on short patterns in the hope they can get loose for long runs after the catch. The Coryell passing attack also gets the ball to receivers on the run in seams of the defense. But it has more five-step drops by the quarterback and longer throws down the field.
"This is quick to get the ball out, but San Francisco was even quicker," Zampese said. "Bill figured you could throw a short pass and have a guy run a long way with it. This is designed to push the ball up the field more."
Turner said this week: "I think the basic philosophy of the system is a timing passing game. When teams allow you to--and we've been getting more coverages where we've been able to do it--you're able to get the ball to receivers on timing routes, on the run in seams. . . . The greatest thing about the system is, when you're going good, you're spreading the ball around to all five receivers."
Each of the Redskins' starting wide receivers, Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell, is averaging more than 20 yards per reception this season. Westbrook is on pace for an 84-catch season, and Connell is on course for 72 receptions. Fullback Larry Centers is on a 60-catch pace, tight end Stephen Alexander is on a 44-catch pace, and the Redskins haven't even utilized number three wideout Irving Fryar or third-down running back Brian Mitchell extensively.
Turner, Zampese and Martz all say an offensive player could be traded from one of their three clubs to another on a Monday and be ready to play for his new team the following Sunday. Each has added his own wrinkles to the offense--Martz, for example, is using four-wide-receiver packages with the Rams this season--but the plays and the terminology used to call them are basically the same. When the Patriots signed veteran running back Terry Allen, who was released by the Redskins during the offseason, the transition for him was minimal.
"He had no problem picking it right up," Zampese said.
Johnson was among the league's most valuable players in the first quarter of the season, yet Turner spent the Redskins' bye week getting the quarterback familiar with some of the aspects of the team's playbook that hadn't been introduced to him yet. Turner's offense features many formations and players in motion and has incorporated the power running game he learned under John Robinson at the University of Southern California.
Turner has spent time with Coryell, but the two never have been particularly close. Turner's ties to the Coryell system mostly came through Fouts, Turner's college teammate at Oregon, and two of the Chargers' offensive coordinators under Coryell, Gibbs and Zampese.
Turner was an assistant coach at USC when Coryell became the Chargers' head coach in 1978, and he had spent time watching Fouts run the "Air Coryell" offense on the practice field and sitting in on some of San Diego's coaches' meetings. Turner and Robinson were together again, this time with the Los Angeles Rams, when Robinson hired Zampese as offensive coordinator in 1987. The Rams' offense became a blend of the Coryell passing game and the old USC running game, and that remains the foundation of Turner's offense to this day.
He took the system with him to Dallas when he became the Cowboys' offensive coordinator in 1991, and brought it to Washington when he became the Redskins' head coach in '94. After altering the offense's terminology when he was with the Cowboys, Turner switched back in Washington to make things more comfortable for Gibbs's old offensive line coach, Jim Hanifan.
"When I left the Rams and went to Dallas, we put the offense in exactly in the form we ran in L.A., and then we added some things that fit [wide receivers] Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper and that fit [fullback] Daryl Johnston," Turner said. "And then you keep expanding. I'll pick up film, especially in the offseason, of Ernie's games in New England and see little wrinkles he's done, and add them to what we do. We talk a lot. There are things that you add to it, but the base is the same.
"When we won the Super Bowl in Dallas and beat Buffalo [in January 1993], Troy [Aikman] threw four touchdown passes. Fouts called me the next morning and named all four plays verbatim. They were the same exact plays."
NFL Quarterback Ratings
Player QB Rating
1. Kurt Warner 136.0
2. Brad Johnson 119.9
3. Drew Bledsoe 96.7
4. Jon Kitna 93.8
5. Peyton Manning 93.2
NFL Total Offense Rankings
1. Packers 414.0
2. Redskins 412.5
3. Rams 401.8
4. Colts 384.3
5. Patriots 383.0