After the Dallas Cowboys’ 27 – 16 win over the Green Bay Packers Sunday night, a few things became clear about the current state of the NFL. First, Dallas is the team to beat. Second, the Packers are not that bad. Third, the West Coast Office, like its founder Mike Walsh, is no longer with us.
The West Coast Offense refers to a style of play designed by Walsh first as an assistant coach in Cincinnati then as head coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, where he won 3 championships. Unlike other schools of thought about football strategy, the WCO does not rely on the running game. Instead, the WCO places an emphasis on the pass, using timed routes by receivers to stretch the defense and create running lanes up the middle. The West Coast philosophy has brought Super Bowl championships to San Francisco, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
As of last year, though, the greatest teams in the game and their coaches relied on the fundamental principles of the game, emphasizing a strong, consistent running game to allow for the pass. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick used a face-breaking style of play that made the WCO in comparison look less like a game of finesse than of fear. Running hard up-the-middle (pause) forced the defense to stack the box in anticipation of running plays, creating space in the middle of the field for wide-receiver routes and long yard passing.
Yet the WCO system still persists, and poor performance early this season by stalwart teams like New England and Indianapolis seems to indicate a game of finesse with intricate offensive play-calling and quick quarterback releases could be the path to success. There’s just one thing, though. Bill Parcells and his hard-nosed style of play is standing in the way. Parcells and the NY Giants defeated Walsh and the Forty-Niners in the 1985 Playoffs. After the game, Parcells famously said, “What do you think of that West Coast Offense now?”
He could have said the same after last night’s Packers-Cowboys game. The Flozell Hotel Parcells built had the Packers beat before half time. Halfway through the second quarter A-Rodge and McCarthy seemed to give up on the running game, despite Ryan Grant’s proven ability to gain a minimum of four yards per carry. The argument made on the sidelines, if the philosophy of the WCO is to be trusted, was probably that Rodgers and the Packers would have to prove the efficacy of the passing game before Grant could find lanes through the middle of the field. Problem was the Cowboys knew to anticipate the pass on crucial third downs and repeated Three-and-Out offensive campaigns by the Packers allowed Tony Romo, Marian Barber and the Cowboys the opportunities to grind away at the Packers defense and depleted secondary.
On 3 different occasions during the first half last night, I text messaged friends and family members, asking why the Packers had given up on the run and posited that this would lead to an upswing of Cowboys momentum come the fourth quarter. Sure enough, that’s what happened? Why? Because football, like life, is a game in which things done early reap benefits later on. Without establishing any rhythm or threat with the running game, the Packers lost it as a viable weapon toward the end of the second half. The Cowboys, however, ground down the Packers defense with a commitment to the running attack, allowing them to rely on it later in the game to eat the clock (pause) and move the chains.
As the Packers thrashed through the second half last night, the game began to remind me of Japanese fishermen hunting tuna in the Pacific. The fishermen circle their boats and cast a massive net deep into the sea beneath a school of fish. The boats then systematically close-in, tightening the net incrementally until their hulls are nearly touching and hundreds of fish are herded together. The water soon runs red with the blood of dead tuna, and the fisherman haul their catch back to the island. The Packers were fish last night slowly suffocated by the net of the Cowboys. The only tuna on the field, however, was the Big one down in Miami who was in Lambeau only in spirit. His voice could be heard faintly through the speakers of the TV I was watching in the hotel, though. “What do you think of that West Coast Offense now?” it asked. Nothing, Big Tuna. Absolutely nothing.