Film

Let’s Get Ready to Fumble!

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Forget about Joe Montana. Erase those images of a sleek “West Coast offense” racking up 55 points in the Super Bowl. The spirit of this year’s New York Jets isn’t embodied in those San Francisco legends. Nor is it a reflection of the carefree Left Coast from where Gang Green’s new offense takes its name.

Truth be told, the heart of coach Herman Edwards’s club beats with the conservative lifeblood of a Midwestern town, namely Cincinnati, where Bill Walsh crafted what became known as the West Coast offense when he was an assistant with the Bengals almost three decades ago.

Fueled by the success Walsh enjoyed with the brainy and precise Ken Anderson in Cincinnati and the even brainier and more precise Montana in San Francisco, the West Coast offense has been adopted at varying times by almost every team in the NFL, always with the promise—or expectation—of an offensive explosion. The Jets are the latest to adopt Walsh’s brainchild, recruiting former 49ers quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett to turn Giants Stadium, er, the Meadowlands, into a pinball gallery of passing and points.

But Jerry Rice doesn’t wear green and white.

Far from igniting the fireworks that many in the media have come to advertise (with a short passing game taking the place of a ground attack), Hackett’s scheme will take a more Midwestern approach, if you will. “They’re going to run that damn ball,” says former New York Giants quarterback and current CBS commentator Phil Simms. “It takes a meticulous person and a strong-willed person to run the football in the NFL. Paul’s meticulous.”

During his last NFL tour of duty as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator from 1993-98, Hackett designed a scheme that ran the ball 47 percent of the time and accounted for more than a third of the Chiefs’ yardage. In contrast, Al Groh’s Jets of last season handed off less than 40 percent of the time, from which little more than a quarter of the Jets’ total yardage was gained. Deceiving? Admittedly. “Most of their running game was all deception,” Simms says of former offensive coordinator Dan Henning’s scheme. “And it was mostly draws, which means making the defense think you’re going to throw it and then sneaking Curtis Martin through there.”

Rather than trying to slide a man responsible for 30 percent of the team’s offense through a slow-reacting defensive line, Hackett refers to Martin as the ignition of the Jets’ attack and intends to run him straight into the defense behind an offensive line entering its third season as a unit. Rookie running back Lamont Jordan is not only expected to provide Martin a breather but also provide a different style. “He can run it physically and in a powerful fashion,” said Hackett during the preseason. “We need that. We need that change of pace.”

A change of pace is also responsible for the “wow” factor many ascribe to the West Coast offense. According to Walsh’s thinking, disguising plays isn’t as important as how fast you execute the plays. From the (hopefully) quick three- and four-step drops Vinny Testaverde will make after the hike to the moment Laveranues Coles turns his head to look for the ball, the moment when something happens is as crucial as what happens. “The coaches have been stressing a fast tempo when we play,” says Testaverde’s backup, Chad Pennington.

“We’re trying to take the action to the defense and not receive the action from the defense.”

As initially diagrammed in the Queen City, receivers ran their routes based on timing patterns, changing directions based on those inner clocks. The quarterback selected his target in conjunction with those patterns, progressing through each receiver until he found one who was open. If the routes were run correctly, the quarterback would be looking to each receiver as he was finishing his pattern. The idea was simply to hit the open receiver. And with a set of cues known only to the offense, a receiver would in theory find himself open more often than usual.

In theory, that is.

“The toughest thing is learning the timing and the adjustments,” said wide receiver Windrell Hayes. “It’s difficult to see what the quarterback sees out there as far as coverages and blitzes and how our routes adjust to that.”

Hayes isn’t the only one who will have trouble digesting a new scheme that gives everyone on the offense new responsibilities—all in the name of versatility. The offensive linemen not only need the beef to hold their blocks when Testaverde reads his receiving options, but they have to have feet nimble enough to clear a path or two through which Martin can scamper. Martin, for his part, will continue a role he and backfield mate Richie Anderson assumed last year as pass-catching options. As for the traditional pass-catchers, they’ll make their living over the middle of the field, running slants and crossing patterns, causing enough havoc with the interior of a defense so that someone can gain that half a step in front of a defender.

“There’s a lot of pick-and-shovel work for receivers,” says Randy Cross, a former offensive lineman for Walsh’s 49ers and now a CBS analyst. “Going to see Mr. Linebacker and saying hello to Mr. Safety—who’s taking a free shot at you. Things like that.”

With everything going on in front of him, Testaverde’s job appears simple: Just distribute the ball. Hell, even Hackett likens his quarterback’s role to that of a basketball point guard: “As you get the ball in the hands of people like Curtis Martin and Laveranues Coles, it’s up to them to be able to make the big play. The quarterback’s job is just to dish the ball around.”

But with a playbook that wouldn’t fit on a wristband reference chart if it covered him from hand to shoulder, Testaverde will have to fight the impulse to dump the ball off rather than waiting for a Wayne Chrebet to squirt open in the corner of the end zone.

“It’s difficult for the receivers, but it’s a real caseload for the quarterbacks,” Cross tells the Voice. “It’s not as simple as ‘Read A, Read B, Read C.’ In the offenses that I was in, our quarterbacks went through, say, a 90-play checklist in Week 1. On Monday or Tuesday of the following week, they might get another 90 plays. They may have had the same names, but the patterns might be different, the [offensive-line] protection might be different, and the read sequences might be completely different.”

Just during training camp, Hayes estimates, the Jets learned 15 to 20 new plays each day, a figure that doesn’t bode well for a smooth start to the season. And in the long run, Hackett plots the learning curve at three years before a team can master the West Coast’s intricacies, a time frame that calls into question the role Testaverde will ultimately play. “You don’t install something like this so you can ease a 37-year-old into his forties,” says Cross. “Of course, there’s no such thing as job security in this league, either.”

Nor is there such a thing as a perfect offense, especially for a team headed by a quarterback in the twilight of his career, a fact that this version of the West Coast offense seems to acknowledge in spreading the workload. While Gang Green’s new offensive system opens possibilities undreamed of in the Bill Parcells-Al Groh era, it also opens the door to heretofore unseen frustration as the club feels its way about the field like a blind man who’s lost his cane—one the Jets will find was made not in glamorous San Francisco but in Cincinnati.