People love to say that the NFL is a "copy cat" league, "copy cat" doesn't accurately describe it at all. Incestuous is a more appropriate word to describe the NFL when you really start to dig and learn about the game inside and out. Whether it’s on offense or defense, all teams use a variation of offensive and defensive sets & philosophies which have been learned from generation to generation. The two dominant coaching trees in the NFL are from the three "Bill's", Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick trees. The result of this is NFL inbreeding and familiararity with each other amongst all of the teams. Many coaches from these coaching trees are employed on various NFL teams have implemented what they have learned from these three men to their respective teams. When you have so many coaches who have been taught the same offensive and defensive philosophies, you create this incestuous league that we have today. An early example of what was to come in the future happened in the 1998 NFC Wild Card game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco Forty-Niners. Its known as one of the most memorable games of all time that was capped by a Steve Young 25 yard TD pass to Terrell Owens with time expiring. This game has been very well documented as to how familiar that both teams were with each other due to both having coaching staffs who came from the Walsh coaching tree and all use to coach together. Steve Young once commented on the fact that he and Brett Favre could have switched uniforms and called each others plays for the other team. Situations like this happen more and more than what some people realize. Instead of dissecting offense and defense today, I'm just going to talk about offense. We will get to the defensive side of the ball of Wednesday.
There are basically five to six major offensive philosophies in the NFL today, but really only three are being used routinely. The three main offensive philosophies used in the NFL today are the West Coast, Erhardt-Perkins, and Air Coryell. The West Coast offense is the most complicated of the three. Ironically, 60% of the NFL is running the West Coast or some variation of it despite the complexity of it. They say that it takes a quarterback and the rest of the team four to five years to fully grasp the system. When you think about every quarterback that has run the West Coast offense, it’s usually in year four that he and the team become explosive offensively. Walsh created the West Coast offense while he was an assistant in Cincy under Paul Brown. Brown wasn't a fan of neither Walsh nor the offense, but used it because the Bengals were lacking talent on offense and couldn't move the ball. Cincy went on to become one of the best if not the best team in the league with the offense. Once Brown stepped down, he didn't hire Walsh as the head coach, so Walsh went to San Francisco and created a dynasty.
The offense utilizes short, horizontal passing plays to stretch the defense, which then enables them to have bigger run plays and longer passes. Typical plays happen within ten to fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage. By the quarterback taking short drops, it makes the defense focus on the intermediate short routes & not on the running backs coming out of the backfield. The term "West Coast" is a term that Bill Parcells gave the offense back in 1985 after the Giants beat the 49ers in the playoffs. As people know, Parcells believes in hard nose football and tough defense over finesse football which everyone said the 49ers played finesse football back then. Parcells exact comment after the win to a reporter was "What do you think of that West Coast offense now ?” The offense today isnt considered to be a "finesse" offense, but it does have its short comings which seem to be universal no matter what team runs it. Usually the inability to run up the middle is something that plauges the offense except for when Gruden ran his version in Oakland and Tampa.
The Air Coryell offense is one that is being used by a handful of teams in the league today. Oakland and San Diego use it, New Orleans runs a variation of it along with some Erhardt-Perkins, and Chicago will be using it this year now that Mike Martz is the offensive coordinator in Chicago. It’s an offense that was created by Sid Gillman back in the 60's while with the Chargers. Later Don Coryell perfected it or made it what it eventually became remembered for while with the Chargers in the 70's and 80's. Another notable name to be associated with this offense is none other than Al Davis who was an assistant under Sid Gillman and took the offense to Oakland. The offense is based on timing and precession with the emphasis being on deep passes to stretch the field, and make the defense over commit to certain aspects of the passing attack. This offense isn't as complicated as the West Coast offense as noted by the nomenclature that it uses. An Nomenclature is the terminology in which a offense calls its plays. Air Coryell uses a naming system with routes for wide receivers and tight ends having three digit numbers, and the running backs have a different system. So a pass play in the offense would be "Slant Left 787 check swing, check right". It’s an efficient way to call many different plays with minimal if hardly any memorization. The West Coast uses a much complicated system which requires a lot of memorization, but gives a lot of freedom to the players on offense to add lib. Their formations are typically named after colors (ie,"Blue Left").
The last of the three core NFL offenses is the Erhardt-Perkins offense. This offense was created by Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins back in the 70's while with the New England Patriots. The teams who have made this offense famous are New England, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Carolina, Kansas City, and recently Denver. New Orleans runs a variation of this offense also along with a variation of the Air Coryell. The system is known for its multiple formations and personnel packages that vary on a core number of foundation plays. Each formation and play is separately numbered, words can modify the plays. A typical play you would see in this offense is the first play Weis called in Super Bowl XXXVI as noted on the NFL films New England Patriot Super Bowl video. (Zero Flood Slot Hat, 78 Shout Tosser) In the beginning it was known as a run oriented, smash mouth type of offense when the Patriots of the 70's, and the Giants of the 80's under Parcells. The offense started to evolve in the early to mid 90's into what we see today with the Patriots, Broncos and to displeasure of Steeler fans, the Steelers. It’s become a spread type of offense at times with the ability to run the ball. Out of all of the offenses, this is the one offense that when ran well, it can dictate to the defense better than any offense out there. The evolution of this offense happened when Ron Erhardt was the offensive coordinator with the Giants and Steelers in his last few years in the league. After that, every diciple that had learned or played under him went on to other teams and implimented this new evoluted offense.
Charlie Weis can be credited for installing the heavily modified version of this offense that we see in New England and Denver. His version of the offense became the complicated, very intricate and versatile passing attack that we have witnessed over the past ten years. He even went as far as to run five wide out sets a lot during the course of a game which was unheard of back in the day when Erhardt and Perkins created this offense. Weis left for Notre Dame which open the door for the young protege Josh McDaniels to run what he had learned under Weis as the QB coach in New England. Josh took it to another level back in 2007 with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. He made the offense almost exclusively a spread offense that teams weren't ready for nor knew how to stop with Moss & Welker needing to be double teamed. In leau of the expanded wide open passing attack, he was able to keep the running game portion of this offense a key component in the Patriots record breaking season. Josh has since then moved on to Denver and has implemented the same offesive philosophy there. Last year the Broncos got off to a 6-2 start with this offense, and Kyle Orton put up career numbers that no one expected from him.
So as you can see, the offenses that are being run in the NFL today are offenses that have been passed down through generations. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a "copy cat" league; it’s incestuous when you think about it.