The West Coast Offense, Lawrence Taylor and the NFL's Most Unique Rivalry
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
The San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants are two of the most storied franchises in the NFL. Between the two franchises, they have appeared in 12 Super Bowls and have won nine. Over the years they have had their share of battles but one decade truly defined this most unique of rivalries. The 1980’s was a major turning point in the NFL. Various philosophies dominated the competition and defined an era of change within the NFL. The 49ers and Giants had two of the most prevailing philosophies which hare very much a part of the NFL landscape today. It is only fitting that the two teams played each other numerous times in the playoffs during the decade and pushed each other to greatness.
The Ohio River Offense
The origins of the most revolutionary offense of the 1980’s actually began more than a decade earlier in Cincinnati, Ohio. After spending 17 years with the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown was fired by the team’s owner Art Modell. He spent the next five years out of football planning his comeback. While in Cleveland, he had installed a revolutionary offense which included timing patterns and option routes. The system worked and the Cleveland Browns quickly became a bedrock franchise in the NFL.
When an ownership opportunity came up in Cincinnati in 1968, Brown pounced on the chance to be his own boss and to once again build a team from the ground up. However, he was getting older and needed a young, intelligent mind to fuel his offenses aspirations. He chose former Oakland Raiders assistant Bill Walsh for that role. Walsh learned Brown’s system and together they would revolutionize modern NFL offenses.
In 1969, the Bengals drafted Greg Cook out of the University of Cincinnati. He had a
huge arm, was extremely well built and could run. He was the total package and the Bengal’s offensive minds were especially excited about his potential. Years later, Walsh would claim that Cook could have been the greatest quarterback he ever coached. The Bengals threw the ball all over the field, with deep passes on any given play. The short passing game was the furthest thing from their minds. Unfortunately, Cook tore his rotator cuff early in his rookie year. While he played the rest of the year and had surgery when the season ended, shoulder surgery in that era was very different than today. Doctors would cut through muscle and fiddle around in hopes that it would fix the shoulder. Cook’s career was essentially over and Brown and Walsh were left scrambling for a solution at quarterback.
The Bengals traded for the Chicago Bears quarterback Virgil Carter who had a much weaker arm than Cook. Since they were an expansion team and didn’t have the depth along the offensive line to develop a quality ground game, the Bengals were forced to improvise. They began with his footwork. Each number of steps equaled how deep the receiver’s routes were. Even though they didn’t have much of a running game, their running backs were agile enough to catch passes out of the backfield. Most passing routes were short which frustrated defenses as they had trouble reaching the quarterback in time. The shorter passing routes were also had a higher completion percentage than deep throws which helped the Bengals control the clock as well as the game. The constant short passes also wore out defenses as they were on the field far longer than they would have liked. In addition to the short passes, receivers often ran option routes where they could adjust their route based on what the defense was doing. Walsh was so meticulous that he even instructed the Bengals quarterbacks to target a foot and a half in front of a receiver so that the receiver could have more momentum running forward and gain more yards. It was a complicated offense, but it began to pay dividends.
The 1970’s were dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers who won four Super Bowls with a roster loaded with Hall of Famers. The Steelers happened to occupy the same division as the Bengals, making the road to the playoffs especially challenging. While the Steelers were building a contender, the Bengals won the division in 1970 but lost to the Baltimore Colts in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bengals drafted Ken Anderson out of tiny Augustana College in 1971 as Carter’s replacement. Anderson would bring the Ohio River Offense to another level, going to the Pro Bowl four times and being named NFL MVP in 1981. With him under center, the Bengals had a slim chance against the mighty Steelers. However, even when the Bengals could put a scare in the Steelers defense, the depth of the rosters would eventually show and the Bengals would usually lose. During Walsh’s time in Cincinnati, the Bengals went 4-8 against the Steelers. The offense was revolutionary enough but the team as a whole struggled against elite competition.
Tension was brewing in Cincinnati. For years, Walsh had been lead to believe that he would eventually take over as head coach whenever Brown retired. When Paul Brown retired following the 1975 season, he selected Bill Johnson, the Bengals offensive line coach, to take his place. Walsh was crushed and left town soon after. He wound up taking a job as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers where he mentored a young Dan Fouts who was struggled in that early part of his career. During their lone season together, Walsh gave him the pointers he needed to eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame.
Walsh yearned to be a head coach and was hired as Stanford’s head coach in 1977. In his first season at Stanford, Walsh tutored quarterback Guy Benjamin and led the Cardinal to a 9-3 record, a top 15 national ranking and a win over LSU in the Sun Bowl. Benjamin earned the Sammy Baugh Award given to college football’s top passer. Steve Dils followed in Benjamin’s footsteps the following year and he also earned the Sammy Baugh Award. The Cardinal went 8-4 and was ranked 17th in the nation in 1978 but in those days USC ruled the Pac-8 Conference and Stanford struggled to recruit quality athletes to regularly compete with USC. During those two years at Stanford, Walsh not only groomed two quarterbacks, he also proved himself worthy of a shot as an NFL head coach.
It was during this time that the 49ers were struggling through arguably their worst year ever. A once promising roster had been gutted with extremely poor trades and weak draft classes. They went through three head coaches in just two seasons, each lacking the leadership abilities to be a head coach. Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers owner, saw what was happening at Stanford and noticed how quickly Walsh had turned around a once mediocre program. After meeting each other, DeBartolo offered Walsh the job which Walsh emphatically accepted.
Bill Walsh’s final game at Stanford was a legendary one. Down by 22 points to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Bluebonnet Bowl, the Cardinal players started executing the offense Walsh had introduced to the program just a year earlier. Steve Dils threw three touchdowns in the third quarter and Stanford was suddenly tied with Georgia. Stanford kicked the winning field goal in the fourth quarter to earn an improbable 25-22 victory.
Upon joining the 49ers organization, Bill Walsh realized that he needed to figure out their quarterback situation. Steve DeBerg was the 49ers incumbent starter and he had potential for future success in Walsh’s offense. However, DeBerg often struggled with the game on the line and tended to throw costly interceptions. Walsh decided to keep DeBerg for the time being and to pursue his possible replacement in the draft. Joe Montana of Notre Dame intrigued Walsh with his quick feet and soft touch with his every pass. Montana was selected in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft and wide receiver Dwight Clark was selected in the 10th round. The 49ers already had wide receiver Freddie Solomon and four offensive linemen who would start in Super Bowl XVI. The pieces were in place for the NFL’s next dynasty but it would take three years for it to come into fruition.
Even though the 49ers repeated their 2-14 from 1978, their offense showed life. DeBerg led the league in pass attempts and completions which helped bring excitement to every game. Unfortunately, Walsh failed to correct DeBerg’s constant mistakes in critical points of the game and by 1980 Montana was in the running for the starting spot.
DeBerg started the first few games but after a 59-14 thrashing at Dallas, Walsh decided to change quarterbacks permanently. Late in the 1980 season, the 49ers were losing to the New Orleans Saints 35-7. Going into the second half, Walsh told the team to just do the little things right and to keep fighting. The 49ers listened and they executed the Ohio River Offense to perfection the rest of the game. Short passes going for large chunks of yards, defensive backs being left flat footed with the various option routes in the 49ers arsenal and the well timed running game sprung the 49ers into life. Tied at 35, the game went into overtime where Ray Wersching kicked the game winning field goal. It was at the time the largest comeback in NFL history and from that day forward, the NFL was put on notice of what the Ohio River Offense could accomplish.
Though the 49ers finished 1980 a dismal 6-10, there was optimism in the Bay Area going into the 1981 season. It didn’t start off well with the team beginning the year 2-2. They went to Washington where they clobbered a team which would win the Super Bowl the following year. The 49ers then went on an eight game win streak which launched them into the post-season.
While the Ohio River Offense was making an impact in the NFL, there was a new phenomenon lurking in the shadows. This phenomenon would put undeniable fear in the minds of quarterbacks everywhere and would establish what position on the offensive line was the most valuable. This new phenomenon goes by many names but its originator goes by one: Lawrence Taylor.
Before Lawrence Taylor came to the NFL, the standard way to block a blitzing outside linebacker from the quarterback’s blind side was to use a running back or a tight end. Taylor proved to be too destructive for that strategy and teams had to focus on protecting their quarterback’s blindside.
Lawrence Julius Taylor was born on February 4, 1959 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Though he didn’t play football until his junior year of high school, Taylor proved to be a quick study. He wasn’t very highly recruited but still managed to attract the attention of the University of North Carolina. He played on the defensive line as a freshman but switched to outside linebacker before his junior year. He was a natural at the position and recorded 16 sacks his senior year.
The Giants took notice and drafted him second overall in the 1981 NFL Draft. Taylor struggled mentally his first year in the NFL and relied solely on his athleticism. It worked wonders as he would often sack the quarterback when he was supposed to be back in coverage. The NFL didn’t officially record sacks until 1982 so Taylor unofficially recorded just nine and a half sacks his rookie year, a decent number these days. It was the way that he attacked quarterbacks with reckless abandon and a violence unknown to outside linebackers that made him an instant attraction in the NFL.
He was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1981. His rookie year was also a year of resurgence for the Giants who made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. After dismantling the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round, the Giants went to San Francisco to battle the 49ers who were in the middle of a revival themselves. Little did anyone know that it would be a clash of two of the most prevailing ideologies of the decade.
The First Playoff Match
The 49ers and Giants had never played each other in the playoffs and their first playoff matchup would set a precedent of future games. Throughout the season, the 49ers had relied on Dan Audick as an undersized left tackle. While he had played admirably, he didn’t stand a chance against the likes of Lawrence Taylor. Bill Walsh had a unique plan to stymie Taylor. He decided to have left guard John Ayers “Molly block” Taylor. If no blitz showed up the middle, Ayers was supposed to swing to the left tackle’s outside shoulder where he would block Taylor. While this did open up the middle, in those days the Giants only blitzed either from the outside or the inside, never at the same time.
The strategy caught the Giants off guard and the 49ers scored 38 points. Protected for most of the day, Joe Montana was only sacked three times, once by Taylor. Montana passed for 304 yards and two touchdowns. Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark caught a combined 11 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. After the 38-24 demolition, the 49ers would go on to win their first Super Bowl.
1982 was a rough year for the NFL and both the 49ers and Giants were affected. Neither team made the playoffs in a strike shortened season. However, Lawrence Taylor was still named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, recording seven and a half sacks in just nine games
Bill Parcells took over the Giants in 1983. The Giants former linebackers coach brought the attitude and bravado the Giants needed to win the Super Bowl. The Giants struggled mightily in Parcells’ first year at the helm, going an abysmal 3-12-1. Taylor was their lone bright spot during that dark season, recording nine sacks.
Meanwhile, the 49ers rebounded from an abysmal 1982 season. They went 10-6 in 1983 and added both running backs Rodger Craig and Wendell Tyler. Craig would become arguably one of the greatest running backs for Walsh’s system and was immensely elusive, catching passes and running with the ball with a distinct athletic grace. A major aspect of Bill Walsh’s offense is that the running backs are usually the “dump-off guys”. If the quarterback is in trouble he can dump the ball off to the running back who is usually open in the backfield. Roger Craig took that part of the offense to another level in 1985 when he became the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. Since then, only two other players have accomplished that feat, Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey.
The 49ers lost to Washington in the NFC Championship Game that year but came back stronger in 1984. It was a special year in San Francisco. Motivated by the devastating loss to Washington the year before, the 49ers tore through their schedule and earned a 15-1 record, an NFL first. Their opponent in the Divisional Round: the Giants
Three Playoff Meetings
Under Bill Parcells, the Giants were making strides as one of the best teams in the NFL. However, their offense was much different than the 49ers. Instead of a pass first offense, the Giants featured a more traditional run first approach. Their defense was even better than their last playoff appearance in 1981 with the additions of linebackers Carl Banks and Gary Reasons. As usual, Lawrence Taylor was one of the most intimidating forces in football, recording a then career high 11.5 sacks.
Joe Montana struggled through the fierce pass rush, being sacked four times and throwing three interceptions. With left tackle Bubba Paris protecting his blind side, Montana was sacked by Taylor twice during the game. Montana pushed through the adversity and threw three touchdown passes to lead the 49ers to a physical 21-10 victory.
While the win was satisfying, it highlighted the 49ers weakness on the offensive line. In 1981 they used a rotating guard, John Ayers, to block Taylor. Ayers had to have quick and agile feet to make that kind of maneuver on every passing play. Bubba Paris struggled with his weight his entire career and struggled to maintain the kind of agility needed to block a force such as Lawrence Taylor. It would be another couple of years before Bill Walsh drafted Paris’ replacement.
After the win over the Giants, the 49ers went on to defeat Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl in a battle of very different offensive systems. While Bill Walsh wanted to throw short, high percentage passes, Miami wanted to throw on nearly every play despite the percentages. San Francisco won the game and cemented it’s status as the most revolutionary offense in the NFL.
Incredibly, that offseason the 49ers drafted possibly the greatest player in NFL history, wide receiver Jerry Rice. San Francisco already had some good receivers but Rice’s speed and work ethic were second to none.
Over the next two years, Lawrence Taylor would make his name in the NFL in ways which were not previously planned. On Monday Night Football in 1985, the Giants were playing Washington when Taylor sacked Joe Theisman. The weight of the sack resulted in a compound fracture which could clearly be seen on television. It was the moment which truly made it vital that teams absolutely had to have a reliable left tackle to protect a quarterback’s blindside. Though his leg would eventually survive, Theisman would never play another down of football again.
The Giants would go on to defeat the 49ers 17-3 in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs before losing to the Chicago Bears. After beating the 49ers, Bill Parcells asked the media “What do you think of that West Coast Offense now?”. From that point forward, Bill Walsh’s offense would forever be known as the West Coast Offense. The best was yet to come for the New York Giants.
The 1986 season was a special year for New York as well as for Lawrence Taylor. While the team gutted through a 14-2 record, Taylor dominated the competition and in addition to collecting his third Defensive Player of the Year Award became the first and only linebacker to win the NFL MVP after collecting 20.5 sacks. The Giants mauled the 49ers 49-3 in the playoffs that year, their fierce running attack and pass rush proving to be too much for San Francisco. The Giants would win their first Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos 39-20. In that game, their linebackers provided one of the game’s greatest goal line stands.
1987 was another strike shortened year but this time there would be replacement players who would play the games that the regular players were holding out on. Some teams took the strike seriously and signed quality replacement players while other teams when the opposite route. The 49ers took the strike seriously and had a league best 13-2 record while the Giants did not take the strike seriously and missed the playoffs. It was during this season when the 49ers offense truly started to click. Jerry Rice set an NFL record with 22 touchdown receptions and it was the 49ers first season with two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the roster, Joe Montana and Steve Young. As great as they were, Bill Walsh wanted to develop their deep passing attack before the playoffs. They spent so much time refining that aspect of their offense that the team was exhausted when they faced off against the Minnesota Vikings, a huge underdog. The Vikings stunned the 49ers to a score of 36-24.
The 1988 season was a rough year for the 49ers. They had the greatest quarterback controversy in history which distracted them as they stumbled to a 10-6 record. However, they did go on a crucial four game win streak late in the year which put them back in the playoffs. At this point they had drafted tackles Steve Wallace and Harris Barton, both were agile enough to block against the game’s best pass rushers. Roger Craig also ran for a career best 1,502 yards and led the league with 2,036 total yards and was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.
They won the Super Bowl that year where they demonstrated the West Coast Offense in a very memorable fashion. Down 16-13 and backed up to their own eight-yard line with a little more than three minutes left in the game, Montana led the 49ers down the field by throwing short passes to Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. He threw the game winning touchdown to wide receiver John Taylor with less than a minute left. Bill Walsh retired shortly after the game and the 49ers hired their defensive coordinator, George Seifert, to take Walsh’s place. Quarterback’s coach, Mike Holmgren took over play calling duties and the 49ers West Coast Offense didn’t skip a beat. They dominated the competition the following year on their way to a second straight Super Bowl win.
The Apex of a Rivalry
The 1990 season was memorable for both San Francisco and New York. Both teams started 10-0 before losing. Each were 10-1 when they played each other on Monday Night Football at Candlestick Park. In one of the lowest scoring Monday Night Football games of all time, the 49ers prevailed 7-3. The 49ers were inspired all year to “three-peat”, or to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls. They were a great team with Joe Montana winning his second consecutive league MVP.
The 49ers hosted the Giants in the NFC Championship Game in one of the hardest hitting championship games ever. The 49ers led 13-12 when Montana was knocked out of the game by defensive end Leonard Marshall. In stepped Steve Young who led the team past mid-field. Lawrence Taylor stripped Roger Craig of the ball and the Giants recovered. The Giants marched down the field and kicked the game winner as time expired, ending the 49ers dreams of a three-peat. The Giants would go on to win the Super Bowl that year over the Buffalo Bills 20-19.
The End of an Era
One of the game’s most unique rivalries ended in 1993. Lawrence Taylor’s final year in the NFL was good, recording six sacks, but it was clear that age had caught up to him. The Giants made the playoffs where they faced the 49ers in the Divisional Round. Running back Ricky Watters scored a playoff record five touchdowns as the 49ers won 44-3, ending Lawrence Taylor’s legendary career.
Since Lawrence Taylor entered the NFL, there has been a never ending search for the next great pass rusher. There has also been a premium placed on left tackles who have become one of the highest paid positions on the field. When Taylor retired, the NFL had a new crop of elite pass rushers, not just outside linebackers but defensive ends as well. Players such as Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas and Charles Haley are just a few of the great pass rushers of the 1990’s
The West Coast Offense has produced a large number of Super Bowl winners from Bill Walsh’s ever growing coaching tree. Nowadays, there is nary an offense that doesn’t use at least some variation of the West Coast Offense. Coaches such as Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan have each won the Super Bowl using some variation of the West Coast Offense. The 49ers and Giants had a great rivalry in the 1980’s which produced six Super Bowl winners within a decade but their greatest impact on the game is still felt to this day.