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Whose offensive system is this?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In the comments the last few days I’ve noticed quite a few fans attempting to discern the origins of the shortcomings of the offense the Seattle Seahawks have displayed at times this season. Specifically fans have attempted to look back at offseason comments about how much the offense actually changed from 2017 under Darrell Bevell to 2018 under Brian Schottenheimer.

Specifically, what has been bandied about is the idea from earlier this year that the Hawks under Brian Schottenheimer would keep roughly 70% of the offense from the 2017 season heading into 2018, and fans are trying to understand why the offense looks so much different this season compared to last. In particular, it seems fans want to understand how much of the team’s struggles this season have been the result of switching from an offense based on West Coast principles to an offense based on Air Coryell principles.

My quick response to attempting to discern this is as follows: don’t.

My long response to attempting to discern this is as follows: don’t waste your time.

That may seem harsh, but it’s the case because the breakdown of the playbook is largely irrelevant. The Hawks could have a playbook that is 70% based on West Coast concepts, but call plays drawn out of Air Coryell concepts on 100% of plays. Likewise, an offense can be 70% based on Air Coryell concepts, but the playcalls could be comprised of 100% West Coast concepts. In short, the actual breakdown of the playbook is irrelevant, as the only thing that is important is the actual deployment of the offense and the patterns and tendencies that the playcaller creates.

Further complicating the matter of attempting to understand the origins of the playbook is the simple fact that the history of the Air Coryell and West Coast offenses are heavily intertwined and both use a foundational principle of stressing the defense by putting five receivers in the pattern. That is seen when the offenses are broken down to their simplest fundamental element. Specifically,

  • Air Coryell is built around putting five receivers in the pattern and stressing the defense in order to create favorable matchups for the offense, while
  • the West Coast offense is built around putting five receivers into the pattern and stressing the defense in order to create favorable matchups for the offense, while also using dynamic routes to adjust to actions of the defense mid-play.

In short, the two offenses are very similar in their base concept of using five receivers to stress the defense. To represent the similarites of the offenses in a manner that is easy to understand for most fans, here’s a rough ballpark of a Venn Diagram of the Air Coryell and West Coast systems.

The biggest difference between the two systems is the verbiage used by the system, which is nothing more than the specific language used to name a play. Basically, a lot of the plays and concepts are going to be similar, but they are going to be using different names to denote the same idea or concept.

Now, I know I’m going to get a lot of pushback from certain observers about what the systems are and what they represent, but it’s important to avoid getting too caught up in anything beyond the base concepts of the system. Specifically, I’m anticipating a lot of push back from commenters arguing that Air Coryell denotes a deep passing threat, while the West Coast offense is a pass-heavy timing offense. In reality, the truth of any offense lies in how the offensive play caller utilizes the offense.

So, while the then San Diego, but now Los Angeles Chargers used a pass heavy air attack in the 1980s for their version of the Air Coryell attack, the Kansas City Chiefs used a similar offense to attack defenses with a run heavy attack in the late 1980s and early 1990s. On the flip side, Mike Holmgren brought his pass heavy West Coast offense to Seattle in the late 1990s and used the system to put a run-heavy offense on the back of Shaun Alexander within the same system.

To explain this in the most simple manner possible, if you and I sat down and played a game of Madden we could play the game with the same teams, with the same playbooks, but call offensive games that would be completely different. The reason behind this is because the playbooks across the NFL are largely similar, with the big difference being the actual deployment of the offensive weapons by the play caller. Thus, trying to figure out the origins of the playbook is a task that will be little more than a waste of time. The important thing to remember is how the system is being deployed, because that will shed far more light onto the subject.

In particular this can shed more light on the subject because of how intertwined the two offensive systems are through recent decades. Specifically, the variation of the Air Coryell system Brian Schottenheimer runs traces back to the system that Cam Cameron runs, as Cameron spent multiple seasons with the Washington Redskins under Norv Turner. Turner’s use of the system traces back to Paul Hackett, who was at USC with Turner in the late 1970s. In addition, Brian Schottenheimer spent a year working under Paul Hackett in 2000, and spent another season working with the Chiefs under Jimmy Raye in 1998.

Now, all of that is important because the system the Chiefs ran for much of the 1990s under Hackett and Raye is a version of the Air Coryell with injections of West Coast offense concepts that Hackett and Joe Montana added in 1993 when they arrived in K.C. Or, if one prefers, it was a West Coast offense with Air Coryell concepts included. Then, Tom Rossley, who was the Chiefs quarterback coach in 1999 under offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye became the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator in 2000. This is important because from 2000 until 2005 while Rossley was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay they ran a version of the West Coast that included a lot of Air Coryell concepts, and a guy named Darrell Bevell was an offensive assistant coach for the entirety of that time frame.

In short, the concepts of the system the Hawks used in 2017 are very similar to the concepts used in 2018, but the difference in how the offense looks on the field is going to grow out of the individual responsible for calling plays.

Whether one wants to look at the differences as two chefs making different dishes out of the same ingredients, two baristas making different qualities of coffee out of the same grinds or two financial advisors making different investment allocations with the same funds in the same markets, at the end of the day, it’s the person in charge who is responsible for the end product more so than the system itself.

Yes, understanding the system allows for a better understanding of how the person in charge of the system is making use of the tools at his disposal, but just as Bill Walsh’s variant of the West Coast offense led to Roger Craig leading the NFL in receptions as a fullback in 1985, using the same system Mike Holmgren turned Shaun Alexander into the NFL’s leading rusher two decades later.

In short, it’s less the system itself than how the individual in charge makes use of the system.