Cardinal Numbers: Wherefore the Walsh WCO?

The Cardinal "Dropped" the ND Game

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data, The Bootleg's Contributing Columnist and Senior Statistician Terry Johnson laments lost opportunities vs. Notre Dame and examines whether head coach Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator David Shaw are actually running a Bill Walsh-style "West Coast Offense". Read on for the surprising answer...

Last Saturday, Stanford had more yards than Notre Dame (327 to 313). Stanford had the edge in turnovers (+2). Stanford had better success on third down (35% to 31%). Stanford had more time of possession (34:15 to 25:45). Yet the Cardinal came up on the short end of the score, because Stanford simply blew too many opportunities.

Stanford repeatedly moved the ball into Notre Dame territory but came away with nothing to show for it. Stanford got to the Notre Dame 41- yard line or closer on eight different drives, but scored on only two of those drives:

QuarterFarthest Point
of Drive
Result of
Drive
1Notre Dame 29Missed field goal
1Notre Dame 0Touchdown
2Notre Dame 31Missed field goal
2Notre Dame 0Touchdown
2Notre Dame 41Interception
3Notre Dame 8Missed field goal
4Notre Dame 31Missed field goal
4Notre Dame 6Failed on 4th down

Notre Dame did a better job of taking advantage of its opportunities. Notre Dame had only six drives that reached the Stanford 40 yard line, but Notre Dame scored touchdowns on three of those six drives.

Stanford's offense also failed to come up with big plays. Stanford's offense had just one play longer than 25 yards – a 42 yard completion to Mark Bradford that set up a touchdown. Stanford's defense did come up with four turnovers, but the offense failed to convert any of them into points.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, took advantage of several big plays. Notre Dame's three touchdowns all were set up by big plays: an interception at Stanford's 14-yard line, a 44-yard gain on a screen pass on third & 20, and a 44-yard run in the latter part of the fourth quarter. Notre Dame got just enough big plays, and managed to take advantage of them. Stanford, on the other hand, did not.

So this game goes down as a painful missed opportunity, a game that Stanford should have won, but let slip away.

Harbaugh and the West Coast Offense

Since Jim Harbaugh was hired, there has been some talk in the press about Harbaugh's west coast offense. There is sometimes some confusion about the term "west coast offense." Football historians tell us that the west coast offense originally was developed by Sid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers back in the 1960s, and later was used by Don Coryell, Al Davis, and others. The term "west coast offense" sometimes is used today to refer to the various descendants of the Sid Gillman offense.

However, most football fans probably think of the "west coast offense" as the offense Bill Walsh honed at Stanford and popularized with the 49ers. The Bill Walsh west coast offense adopted some of the characteristics of the old Gillman offense, but Walsh gave it his own entirely original stamp. Walsh, as an assistant coach with the Raiders, learned the Gillman offense from former Gillman assistant Al Davis. While Walsh was with the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh incorporated the principles of the Gillman offense into a new offense of his own design. The Walsh offense, like the Gillman offense, is built on exact timing, precise pass routes, and a "pass to set up the run" philosophy. But unlike the Gillman offense, Walsh's offense is designed to control the ball through a high-percentage passing game featuring a lot of short, precise passes. Statistically, Walsh's version of the west coast offense is characterized by high completion percentages and large numbers of short completions to the halfbacks, fullbacks, and tight ends.

Walt Harris' offense sometimes was described as a west coast offense. But it wasn't really a Bill Walsh-style offense. Harris did not consistently attempt to control the ball through short completions to his backs. Some of us, myself included, hoped that Jim Harbaugh would install something closer to Bill Walsh's version of the west coast offense here at Stanford.

With Harbaugh's first season coming to a close, we now can see what Harbaugh's passing game looks like. At this point, it's obvious that Harbaugh isn't running a Bill Walsh passing offense. We don't need statistics to tell us that – we can see it on the field. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to see where Harbaugh's offense fits statistically on the spectrum of recent Stanford offenses.

 Comp.
pct.
Yds.
per
comp.
Yds.
per
att.
Pct. of
receptions
RBs/FBs
Pct. of
receptions
TEs
Pct. of
receptions
WRs
Walsh
1977-78, 1992-94
62%12.37.638%15%47%
Willingham/Bible
1995-1997
58%12.07.023% 10%67%
Willingham/Diedrick
1998-2001
52%14.67.614%9%77%
Teevens
2002-2004
50%11.55.713%22%65%
Harris
2005-2006
57%11.96.829%16%55%
Harbaugh
2007 (11 games)
53%11.46.016% 20%65%

These numbers illustrate the statistical characteristics of Bill Walsh's west coast offense. Jim Rutter's article in the Bootleg Magazine, "Beauty and the Balance" (November 2007), does an excellent job of breaking down the statistics of Bill Walsh's Stanford offenses. My analysis draws from Jim's article, which I highly recommend.

During Walsh's five seasons at Stanford, the completion percentages for Walsh's quarterbacks were well over 60%. An exceptionally high 38% of the completions went to the backs (with the fullbacks being used extensively as receivers, having about 21% of the receptions). On one of Walsh's teams, the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl team, the backs accounted for 44% of the receptions. The wide receivers, on the other hand, accounted for fewer than half of the completions in the Walsh offenses. Because many of the passes involved shorter routes, the yards per completion were not particularly high – 12.3 yards per completion is around Stanford's long term median. Due to the high completion percentages, Walsh's teams averaged an excellent 7.6 yards per attempt.

At the other end of the spectrum was Bill Diedrick's Stanford offense from 1998 through 2001. When Diedrick went with Tyrone Willingham to Notre Dame, some of the fans in South Bend somehow spent three years under the misimpression that Diedrick had installed a Bill Walsh west coast offense. But Diedrick's philosophy was quite different from Walsh's. Diedrick did not try to control the ball through short, high-percentage completions to his backs. Only 14% of Diedrick's completions went to the backs, compared to 38% in Walsh's offense. Rather, Diedrick ran a "vertical" passing offense featuring downfield passes to the wide receivers. The wide receivers accounted for 77% of the completions during Diedrick's four years. In our Rose Bowl season, the wide receivers accounted for 84% of the completions. Diedrick's quarterbacks had relatively low completion percentages, but their completions went for a lot of yardage, averaging an exceptional 14.6 yards per completion. Diedrick's passing offenses could be very effective. Troy Walters and DeRonnie Pitts became the two leading receivers in Stanford history while playing in those offenses.

Harbaugh's offense may be a "west coast offense" in the sense that it can trace its principles back to Sid Gillman. However, Harbaugh's offense isn't a "Bill Walsh-style" west coast offense. Harbaugh does not emphasize short passes to the backs – only 16% of Stanford's completions have gone to the backs this year (14% to halfbacks and 2% to fullbacks). Rather, Harbaugh's passing offense runs mostly through the wide receivers, who account for 65% of Stanford's completions. With the low number of passes to the backs, it's not surprising that the completion percentage in the Harbaugh offense is relatively low compared to the completion percentage we would see in a Bill Walsh offense. It is somewhat surprising that despite emphasizing passes to the wide receivers, Harbaugh's offense has a sub-par average of just 11.4 yards per completion. With the emphasis on passes to wide receivers rather than the backs, I would expect to see higher yards per completion.

Statistically, the problem with Harbaugh's passing offense is that it has achieved neither high completion percentages, like the Walsh offenses, nor high yards per completion, like the Diedrick offenses. A good passing offense needs one or the other, or some combination of both.

Harbaugh has said that his offense, which he first installed at the University of San Diego, was based on the Oakland Raiders' offense. Harbaugh was an assistant coach with the Raiders in 2002-2003, when the Raiders were coached by Bill Callahan. Callahan's offense has been widely described as a west coast offense. The offense Callahan ran in Oakland did share some of the statistical characteristics of Walsh's west coast offense, particularly in 2002, when the Raiders had a 68% completion percentage, with 32% of the completions going to the backs. Likewise, this year at Nebraska, Callahan's offense has a 62% completion percentage, with 32% of the completions going to the backs.

Although Harbaugh may have based his offense on Callahan's offense, Harbaugh's offense at the University of San Diego had a different emphasis. At San Diego, Harbaugh's offense didn't involve a lot of short passes to the backs, instead concentrating more on the wide receivers. In fact, Harbaugh's offense at San Diego looked statistically similar in some ways to the offense Harbaugh is running this year at Stanford:

 Comp.
pct.
Yds.
per
comp.
Yds.
per
att.
Pct. of
receptions
RBs/FBs
Pct. of
receptions
TEs
Pct. of
receptions
WRs
San Diego 200667%13.59.016% 14%68%
Stanford 2007
(11 games)
53%11.46.016% 20%65%
Note: 2% of receptions at San Diego in 2006 were by QBs and DBs

Harbaugh's distribution of passes to various receivers this season at Stanford is similar to the distribution of passes last year at San Diego. Both offenses featured a relatively low number of passes to the backs, with the backs accounting for 16% of the completions in both offenses (with an identical breakdown of 14% to the halfbacks and 2% to the fullbacks). However, Stanford's completion percentage this year is considerably lower than the completion percentage for Harbaugh's USD team last year. Also, Stanford's yards per completion are lower than USD's yards per completion were last year – USD was up at 13.5 yards per completion, which is the kind of figure I would hope to see in an offense that runs mostly through the wide receivers. In short, USD appears to have run an offense that was similar in approach to Stanford's offense this year, but USD executed it more effectively.

Random Numbers

Stanford ranks sixth in the nation in tackles for loss (8.36 per game), and ninth in the nation in sacks (3.27 per game)...

Stanford's 1,214 rushing yards so far this season are the most rushing yards for a Stanford team since 2002...

Stanford has not thrown a touchdown pass in its last four games. Stanford's last touchdown pass was from Tavita Pritchard to Richard Sherman in the first half against Arizona. Since then, Stanford has 155 pass attempts with no touchdowns...

Since mid-October of 2004, Stanford has lost 18 of its last 20 home games, including 14 losses in its last 15 home games...

With seven catches against Notre Dame, Mark Bradford now has 164 career receptions, moving into fifth place on Stanford's career receptions list. Bradford is behind Troy Walters (244 receptions), DeRonnie Pitts (222), Darrin Nelson (214), and Brad Muster (194)...

Mark Bradford's 111 receiving yards against Notre Dame give him 2,347 career receiving yards. Bradford now is sixth in Stanford history in career receiving yards, behind Troy Walters (3,986 yards), DeRonnie Pitts (2,942), Justin Armour (2,482), Ken Margerum (2,430), and Darrin Nelson (2,368)...

T.C. Ostrander now has 3,632 career passing yards, which places him 13th on Stanford's career passing yards list. With 50 yards last Saturday, Ostrander passed John Brodie and is 105 yards behind Dick Norman...

Bo McNally has 101 tackles this season, which makes him the first Stanford player with 100 tackles since Tim Smith had 109 tackles in 1998...

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