49ers Clubhouse 

Comparing the West Coast Offense Teams in 2001 

by James Parrott
Clubhouse Staff Writer

The old cliche' says that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In that case the San Francisco 49ers should be feeling extremely flattered at this point in time. As it stands, more than a dozen other NFL teams run variations of the 49ers celebrated West Coast offence, a system that helped the team to five Super Bowls in fifteen years.
Aside from those successes, the Green Bay Packers under former San Francisco Offensive Co-ordinator Mike Holmgren reached successive Super Bowls in the mid-1990's, winning one. His successor at San Francisco, Mike Shanahan led his Denver Broncos to NFL championships in the next two seasons. The Minnesota Vikings haven't missed the playoffs in half a decade running their variation of the system. And even Arizona won a playoff game with a west coast style offence. 
So some teams have managed to successfully imitate the Niners, but what is needed from each position and how do some of the teams match up with 2001's San Francisco offensive unit? 


The 49ers: Jeff Garcia may not be the athlete that others around the league are but he is smart, agile and quick enough to escape from pressure and can get the ball to its target quickly and cleanly. A suprise to the league in 2000, is looking good for more of the same this year.

The rest: Brett Favre had his best years playing within the limits of the offence, his worst trying to go beyond it. John Elway managed to win his two Super Bowls with Shanahan as his head coach. Randall Cunningham came out of nowhere to make the Pro Bowl in 1998 while a backup at Minnesota. Around the league now, Favre and Green Bay could still challenge for the NFC's spot in the big game. Donovan McNabb has been aided by playing in a short passing offence and Charlie Batch has a great opportunity to make up for the years wasted in Detroit's limited offence under Bobby Ross. Rob Johnson could have used being in the system since being drafted as his tendency to be clobbered while holding onto the ball too long could reduce his career by a few years. Brian Griese (Denver) and Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota) are looking good for the next decades Pro Bowl teams and Super Bowl Championships. 

To sum up: In most cases teams have found their man. In terms of efficiency and the ability to make plays Garcia matches up well with the Griese's and the Favre's of the league. 

Running Back

The 49ers unearthed a superstar in Garrison Hearst, who became one of the three best backs in the league in 1998. Back after a two year lay-off, Hearst is a wild -card in that no-one actually knows how effective he will be. Third round pick Kevan Barlow was labelled the best back in the draft by Broncos mastermind Mike Shanahan. A look at Denver's halfback situation shows that that is praise indeed. A big powerful back, Barlow could be the future of the Niners running game. Fullback Fred Beasley can run, catch and block.

The rest: Denver has three 1000 yard backs to choose from. None was drafted on the first day of their respective drafts. In New Orleans Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister will make teams think run first against the Saints. New Detroit head coach and ex 49ers offensive co-ord Marty Mornhinweg has stated that he'll look to get workhorse tailback James Stewart more involved. Washington and the Jets have two powerful backs in Stephen Davis and Curtis Martin. Both are on big money contracts and their importance to their teams are impossible to underestimate. Philadelphia finds itself in a similar situation to San Francisco with their starter returning from career threatening injury and their top backup being a rookie. Seattle has seasoned pro Ricky Watters and future starter Shaun Alexander in is backfield. The Raiders look set to run and run this year with their loaded backfield. Vikings fullback Jimmy Kleinsasser could have a real breakout season this year. Dennis Green had predicted it so look out for it. Virtually every other team uses it's fullback as a blocker with limited carries and/or as a pass catcher; see Larry Centers, Bills.

To sum up: The Niners have a shaky situation at tailback but look to have as good a fullback as anyone's. At this time their running game stands a few steps down from the leagues best.


The 49ers: Terrell Owens is up there with Randy Moss at the top of the profession. With Owens as the go to guy it's highly unlikely that the team will miss Jerry Rice. Owens has it all; a great pass catcher who can gain yards after the catch, get open down field, make plays in tight coverage and block well down field. A superior blocker and more of a leader than Moss. JJ Stokes needs to make up for a couple of wasted years. Tai Streets could be something, pretty soon. All three are big receivers, which is something the league and this offence in particular requires right now.

The rest: Moss is the most lethal deep threat in the game. His partner Cris Carter catches everything. Everything. The Broncos have two 100 catch, 1000 yard receivers. The Lions have three big receivers, each with 1000 yard seasons to their names. Buffalo's Eric Moulds is the best receiving threat in the AFC, and is similar to Owens in many respects. The Jets, Packers, Seahawks, Eagles and Redskins all have major questions at wideout. Tim Brown has been the most consistent raider for nearly a decade. Carolina need their receivers to play up their 1999 levels if they are to avoid a total collapse this year.

To sum up: San Francisco are as strong as any team this year. Terrell Owens should make the Pro Bowl again and JJ Stokes should make up for Rice's loss. Top teams are Denver, Detroit Minnesota and San Francisco in no particular order.

Tight end

The 49ers: Greg Clark hasn't been able to match Brent Jones' production due to injuries. He has two thirty catch seasons in succession but will miss the start of this year. Eric Johnson may be the second coming of Jones, but it's too early to say. 

The rest: Shannon Sharpe is the man in Baltimore after last season. The best NFL tight end of the nineties will now try to pass his skills onto 2001 first rounder Todd Heap. Denver see a potential star in Desmond Clark and have a solid starter in Dwayne Carswell. Ex Bronco Byron Chamberlin could breakout in Minnesota. Jay Riemersma is one of Buffalo's few proven weapons on offence. Bubba Franks hasn't quite made it to Mark Chmura's level although it is early in his career. Cam Cleeland should have a big year for New Orleans. Ditto Steven Alexander in Washington.

To sum up: When it comes to the west coast offence teams, an Francisco have fallen behind. When healthy Greg Clark could be a Pro Bowler. Worth mentioning that Tony Gonzalez played in the system last year and was the best tight end in the league by some way.

Offensive line

The 49ers: A solid group of veterans, with only one player that the club drafted highly. Jeremy Newberry has a good shot at being the latest Randy Cross or jesse Sapolu. derrick Deese is undersized and was undrafted but is still a starter. Ditto Dave Fiore. Scott Gragg is a reliable and tough right tackle, while Ray Brown gets better with each passing year. New(ish) coach Pat Morris prefers bigger linemen than Niners legend Bobb McKittrick.

The rest: The Eagles seem to have found the line that it spent over two decades looking for. Tra Thomas is the best blocker here. Denver has a small line that still keeps it's passer clean and escorts it's halfback to 1000 yards each year. Green Bay have got younger but still figure to be effective. The Vikings have lost 80% of it's line from the 15-1 season but still figure to have a potent offence. Matt Birk emerged as a top center last year. Buffalo and Detroit could have some trouble on the o-line. For Seattle see Philly only less so. New Orleans and New York too. Washington have two excellent tackles. Jonathan Ogden is the man on Baltimore's line, but he stands head and shoulders above his line mates in terms of skill. Carolina need their rebuilt line to gel quickly.

To sum up; Though they don't have one of the leagues top lines, the Niners have a unit that can get the job done. Denver's line is praised annually. Donovan McNabb couldn't be a league MVP candidate without that line. Watch it this year. 


The original West Coast offence is still going strong, and should put up further big numbers. The top five here are Denver, San Francisco, Minnesota, Oakland and possibly New Orleans. The pieces are all in place for the Saints. The Seahawks and Eagles should improve on last years rankings. The Lions, Bills and Redskins are essentially starting again on offence with the West Coast system marking a radical departure from last years playbooks. 
So while imitation of the 49ers has led to great success, don't look for the original to be shown up anytime soon.

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