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Football 101: Understanding Basic NFL Offensive Concepts

While the running game has very few concepts or components, the passing game has a lot of different components. In this article we will explore the various components of an offensive system. Also I will propose that the old way of classifying an offensive system is both out dated and misused.

The good old days.
The good old days.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

As far as the overall philosophy of an offense, there are two components to that philosophy. A passing component and a running component. In other words, if you asked the offensive coordinator how he would describe his offense, you would find that he might describe how his passing game attacks the defense and how his running game attacks a defense.

In the past people would take a few of these components and call it an offensive system. They might break down the "systems" into four main offenses. The Air Coryell offense, the Erhardt-Perkins offense, the West Coast offense, and then all others that didn't neatly fall into one of those would be the "other" offenses.

They would break down the differences this way:
  1. Air Coryell Offense -  This system is built upon a numbering system for the receivers that starts with the premise that the main route is the go route, also called the fly or the seam, where the receiver runs straight up the field. All the other routes are numbered based upon where and how they break off the main trunk of what they call the "route tree." I won't go into the route tree, but if you want more see my Football 101 post named, "What are all these numbers and letters" in the drop down at the bottom of the article.
  2. West Coast Offense - One of the concepts of the West Coast offense is to get five skill players involved in the passing game. While the run plays use the standard two digit numbering system, the pass plays are not numbered but have to be memorized by their route types. Initially the primary receiver had route names that were easy to remember, such as X-In or Z-Hook, etc, but the names have become much more cryptic such as "Green Right Strong Slot Spider 2 Y Banana." This makes them very difficult to memorize.
  3. Erhardt-Perkins Offense - The unique trait of this offense is the way plays are organized. Instead of long cryptic names or a numbering system, they are organized by "concepts" that are visualized often by a single word. The word might be "Choice" or "In." All receivers memorize all of the routes associated with this concept which allows a great deal of flexibility by allowing different receivers to line up in any of the alignment positions. And it is much easier to learn, and thus leads to less mistakes. And it also has a lot of different looks and is not simple to defend.
  4. Other - This one is a combination of two or more of the ones listed above.
Here is a link that tries to describe the offensive systems into the above categories. I paraphrased the systems above into my own words, and I tried to shorten the summaries, but I wanted to give the credit to one of the posts that used this method of classifying them into only a few systems.

However, I would propose that those methods of trying to classify the different types of offensive systems are not really a good way to logically divide the differences because there are too many nuances that are not alignment differences that need to be considered a philosophy or system.

So, with that being said, let's break down the different systems by the passing game philosophy and the running game philosophy and let's start with the running game.


There are really only three basic running game concepts. The man-blocking scheme, the zone-blocking scheme and a combination of these two. Each of these concepts or schemes run the same basic plays for each scheme.

This scheme is basically just blocking the man you are assigned to. The assigning usually starts with the quarterback calling out who the Mike linebacker is, and then the center will usually call out the blocking or protection patterns as to who blocks which position or player from there including how to pick up stunts and blitzes. In man blocking you are usually trying to move your man when he is trying to stay if front of you, so you are forced to use a lot of pure strength and some leverage to push him where you want him to go which is often straight backwards.

This scheme is basically blocking which ever man is in your zone. This scheme has lots of advantages that are missing in the man blocking scheme. First it uses physics to gain a leverage advantage. One advantage is that you are usually trying to block the guy that is in your zone and you are usually trying to move him by engaging him from his side where he has much less leverage and you have more leverage. The offensive linemen are normally going towards one side line or the other so this makes that side leverage a natural outcome. Another advantage is that the defense can't use the "hi-hat", "low-hat" keys to determine if it is a run or a pass like they can in the man blocking scheme. This is because the linemen are usually going east-west and they are always in a "hi-hat" position.


Next, I will discuss the philosophy as far as the way a team will attack a defense with their passing game.  I have broken it down to seven components. They are the setup mode, tempo,  huddle, length of passes, QB position, route description and timing. Let's examine each of these seven components.

The set up mode means is there a conscious decision to choose from one of these basic three concepts:
1. Run to setup the pass - The philosophy will be to make a conscious effort to be conservative and run the ball as often as possible, and then when it is time to pass the defense will have cheated up to stop the run.
2. Pass to setup the run - The philosophy will be to pass often to drop the defenders back away from the line of scrimmage and then when you want to run, you will have more room.
3. Take what the defense gives you - This philosophy says that there is no conscious effort to run the ball more than pass the ball, but instead the pre-snap read will dictate whether the play should be a run or a pass. If there are seven or less in the box, then run the ball, if there are eight or more in the box, then pass the ball.

1. Normal tempo - The play being signaled to the quarterback who is in the huddle, and then the quarterback calls the play and the offense runs up to the line of scrimmage.
2. Hurry Up tempo - The team will try to get a significant increase in the number of offensive plays in a game from the normal 60 offensive plays in a game to 75 or more.

1. Normal Huddle - This is generally only used with the normal tempo.
2. No Huddle - This can be used with both the normal tempo and the hurry up tempo.
  • When used with the normal tempo, teams will take more time to study the defensive alignment before deciding which way to attack them, as opposed to getting up to the line of scrimmage and only having a few seconds left on the clock to get the pre-snap read.
  • When used with the hurry up tempo, the quarterback will quickly try to get a pre-snap read of the defense if the route assignments don't  rely on option reads by the receivers or the quarterback, and if they do rely on option reads then there is not much need of a long pre-snap read because the option read will determine where the ball goes.
1. Short to Intermediate length passing game - The teams philosophy might be to not take many 5-7 step drops in order to decrease the number of opportunities the defense will have to get sacks. Quick releases to get the ball out quick will be the normal philosophy.

2. Vertical, Intermediate to deep passing game - Teams will consciously try to attack the medium to deep passes often during a game. Kurt Warner once said that Mike Martz's philosophy was to attack deep at least eight times a game. Al Davis loved the "vertical" passing game philosophy. You need a great offensive line to make the vertical game or deep passes worth the risk. Martz should have realized this in Chicago and almost got Jay Cutler killed.

1. Under Center - This is the old style for old school coaches that have not got the message yet that you can run the ball just as effectively from the pistol depth as you could in the past by being under center. Some teams timing depends upon making a cadence between the number of steps in the drop back and when the ball comes out, but this is in my opinion not a good enough excuse to not see the light of not playing under center.
2. Pistol Depth - One of the true innovations that has percolated up from the lower environments, (high school, or college), that the pros have not been afraid to use now that Chip Kelly has broken the taboo. It has the most benefits to teams that want to be balanced in the run-pass ratio.
3. Shotgun Depth - Still a very effective concept for teams that are a pass first or heavy passing philosophy team.

1. Route Tree Assignments - Air Coryell is where the receivers all have the basic run straight up the field, which is the trunk of the tree, and then the numbers in the tree determine at what depth and what angle they branch off that main trunk. Most of the breaks happen at 5 yards and 15 yards and this gives corners a big advantage in order of how to study the game films to see which alignments foster which depth breaks for which receivers.
2. Group Assignments - This is much simpler and easier to learn than the route tree and you can use much more diversity in the way you line up your receivers because each receiver can be lined up in any of the positions in the group. This is the basic concept of the Erhardt-Perkins and the Chip Kelly offensive philosophy in that these groups can be given a single name which cuts down on the confusing and cryptic west coast names and will shorten the huddle time a small amount, or make audibles much easier as well.

1. Predetermined Pass to a spot before the break - The quarterback will throw to a spot planning that the receiver will be there when he is supposed to., This means that the quarterback will throw before the receiver makes his break. This is some times referred to as a "timing based" offense, such as the Air Coryell offense, but as you can see, the when and where you throw is only a small part of the over all system.
2. Predetermined Pass to a Person after the break - The quarterback waits until the receiver makes his break and then throws to the receiver. He may lead him a little, but the quarterback can see where the receiver is heading.
3. Option Pass to a Person after the break - Instead of a predetermined route the receiver will decide which way to break depending upon where the defensive player is playing him. Inside leverage, outside leverage, straight up leverage, or in the case of the "run 'n' shoot", you could use their saying...."If he's up, I go deep, If he is deep, I go short, if he is in, I'm out, if he's out, I'm in."


The basic building blocks of all the offensive systems remain the same. Probably at least 80% or more of the NFL teams use these main blocks, but again, with some minor variations. Also, we need to mention that formations can be used in any system or concept, so the spread formation, the pistol formation, and the wildcat formations are not offensive systems, they are formations.

While I believe that you could argue that there are only three main offensive systems, and all the others could fit into a forth category called "other", I think the argument is weak when compared to the nuances that I have described above.

On the other hand, I think I should mention two of these other systems. One is the Adam Gase / Peyton Manning offense, and the other is the Chip Kelly offense. They both are not afraid to step out of the box.

I might also mention that Adam Gase may be the smartest of all the offensive coordinators around and he not only installed the offense that Peyton runs, he has taught Peyton Manning a lot about offensive philosophies and Manning has called him the smartest man he knows. He is very innovative and an out of the box thinker.

"Adam is a lot like me in that he’s always thinking of how we can do something better or different — or both," Manning said. "And he has an almost photographic memory. He can recall a defensive scheme we saw from eight games back and remember our exact formation and the play called."  ---

Article Here.
The No-Huddle, Hurry up is not really a offensive system - It is a concept that can be part of any of the actual systems listed above. It's purpose is to play so fast that the defense will not have enough time to get lined up properly and will get confused and make mistakes that will lead to easy scores.

Now, let's try to list all of the teams and the offense that they run. This table (from an article here) may not be completely correct, and I am using it because it was making my point as to how you can't classify the offensive systems neatly into the four types that most people try to put them into. In fact, while the author talks about the above Coryell, West Coast, and Erhardt-Perkins systems, when he gives the descriptions of which of these categories they belong to, in many cases he fails to do so. Probably because the offensive coordinator does not describe his system in these over simplified words himself but rather he chooses to use the words that are more in line with the way I have chosen to classify them.

I tried to update his data where ever I could, but if anyone knows where it is incorrect, please comment. We, here at BTB try to always be accurate for one thing, and we don't plagiarize either, so while I am giving credit to the author, I have found some of his definitions incorrect, and naturally so, since he put this list together in 2013.

Team Description
Arizona Vertical Passing with Zone-Blocking Scheme
Atlanta Vertical Passing, Power Running hybrid with Flex-Blocking Scheme (Power Man and Zone-Blocking)
Baltimore No Huddle, Ball Control hybrid with Man-Blocking Scheme.
Buffalo West Coast, No Huddle-hybrid with Zone-Blocking Scheme.
Carolina Run-first, play-action-hybrid with Zone-Blocking Scheme.
Chicago West Coast variation with flex-blocking scheme.
Cincinnati West Coast Hybrid with Flex-Blocking Scheme.
Cleveland Vertical, timing based with power running.
Dallas Air Coryell Hybrid with Zone-Blocking Scheme
Denver Up Tempo, No Huddle Scheme. (Well, not surprising, they are one of the few teams that really gets it.)
Detroit Pass-First, one-back spread set with Man-Blocking Scheme.
Green Bay Modified West Coast with Zone-Blocking Scheme.
Houston West Coast with Zone-Blocking Scheme.
Indianapolis West Coast focus with high-percentage passes and Flex-Blocking Scheme.
Jacksonville Up Tempo stretch spread with Zone-Blocking Scheme
Kansas City West Coast with Zone-Blocking Scheme
Miami West Coast with Zone-Blocking Scheme and some up tempo.
Minnesota West Coast with Zone-Blocking Scheme
New England Up Tempo Erhardt-Perkins with Man-Blocking scheme.
New Orleans West Coast/Air Coryell hybrid with Flex Blocking scheme. Also mainly Shotgun.
New York Giants West Coast hybrid with Multiple Screens and hurry up, no huddle.
New York Jets Timing based, West Coast Hybrid with Zone Blocking
Oakland Power Running Play Action Hybrid
Philadelphia Up Tempo Spread with Zone Blocking
Pittsburgh Up Tempo Spread Hybrid with Man Blocking
San Diego West Coast Hybrid with Power Blocking
San Francisco West Coast Hybrid, some read option with Flex-Blocking Scheme.
Seattle West Coast Power Running Hybrid with Zone Blocking
St Louis Air Coryell, Play Action Hybrid with Man Blocking
Tampa Bay Up Tempo Ball Control run based with Zone Blocking
Tennessee Some Pistol and Ball Control run first scheme.
Washington West Coast Hybrid, some read option with Zone Blocking

As much as I hate to admit it, I often look to the Patriots to see what they are doing in terms of offense because as a team they seem to "get it." It is not just Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that makes this team's offense so successful, it is the way they use their brains to come up with the correct thinking about the big picture, the 30,000 foot view, if you will. The most important goal of an offense is to score points. For the last 12 years, they have been in the top ten in scoring 11 times.

And my reason in talking about the system the Patriots use is that I believe they can score a lot of points even when Brady gets injured because they have the better scheme. They take the Erhardt-Perkins concepts and then add the two tight end formation to it when that is where their strength is. They change that when they have Randy Moss. They go no-huddle, up tempo when they see the advantage of that. But all along they maintain the core components of Erhardt-Perkins because it allows a lot of different looks to fool defenses and it is much easier to learn than the other two systems.

For more on the Patriots system read this article here.  This is a very worth while read as it gives some insight into why the Patriots are so good, (Innovation), even though the author still insists, as so many others do,  on using the old out dated, (IMHO), way of classifying offensive systems.

Chip Kelly, another innovator and someone not afraid to think outside the box, also uses easy to remember concepts based upon single words and also runs a lot of different plays from the same formation.


One of the main concepts of winning is to confuse the other side of the line of scrimmage in what ever way you can. This can be done in one of two competing concepts:

  • Do lots of different formations, but simple and limited number of plays that get lots of practice time.
  • Do the same or very limited number of formations, but have lots of high rep skill plays that look the same, and are run out of those limited number of formations, but they give the defense fits to get a key or read on.

So, when you design your offense, one of the keys is to use confusion to help get great match-ups or better yet, blown coverages because those plays are the big plays that often win the game. As Tom Landry pointed out on many occasions, most games boil down to two or three big plays and often it is because one team got confused or made a mistake, and so he would have one or two trick plays ready for every game and would use them as often as he thought he could. Well, if the idea is to get the most blown coverages or the best match-ups, then why not try to be innovative and be as unpredictable as possible on every play.

Let's look at some important points. First of all the NFL is very copy-cat in it's approach. Most of the teams run about 80 percent of the same stuff until someone takes a chance and it succeeds and then you might see some of the teams adapt some of the new innovations into their playbook. But for the most part the NFL is afraid of new ideas. There is a mathematical concept or rule called the 80/20 rule that is found in all areas of life and the NFL is no stranger to that rule.

For example, as far as the running game goes the NFL runs about 5 or 6 basic plays about 80 % of the time. Teams run the outside zone (or stretch play), the inside zone , the power, the counter and the draw. It is the other 20% where we see the innovation and then it is usually more about match-ups than real innovation. Most of the NFL coaches focus on details rather than "out of the box" innovation.

Oh, and I might add that defenses are like this as well. They basically adhere to the 80/20 rule as well.

So, one might ask why is this the case? Well, first one of my pet peeves is that anything new or innovative is automatically denigrated by calling it a "gimmick" and it is said that this trickery or gimmickry is some how bad because it is only used because of inferior personnel and therefore it is not as desirable to win that way.

Hogwash, is it some how "unfair" if one guy happens to have learned Kung-Fu and gets into a fight? Is he some how tainted if he tries to use his advantage? And if it is seen as some how unfair, then it is doing what you want to do on every play....make the play seem so well thought out and one-sided that it seems almost unfair.

The real reasons for this "conformity" has to do with the following:

  • Fear of failure by trying something new
  • The old adage of "but that is the way we have always done it"
  • There are very few new coaches that come from programs that have dared to try the new innovations. Coaches are just re-cycled, they get fired from one team and are hailed as the solution for the next team.
  • And finally there is the limited time for any new innovations to be inserted into the short time allotment for practices.
One of the things that takes an inordinate amount of time is the protection schemes that are needed to protect the quarterback. A huge amount of the allotted time is spent trying to insure the most valuable asset is kept healthy. And because of this, very few new things will be considered due to the limited amount of practice time left over.

Teams forget that the best way to protect the quarterback is by using formations that discourage or even keep teams from blitzing in the first place.

My wish is that we would add some innovation, even if it is just a trick play every now and then. The teams that evolve every year make it tough for the other teams to game plan for because each year has some new wrinkles to prepare for.

Now, to be fair, if you stick with the same system, it makes it easier for your skill players to build off of what they did the year before.

So, some trick plays every now and then would still be nice.

Well there you have it once again. Hope you enjoyed it. If so, you know what to do.

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