Last year when I was attempting to get a grip on what kind of offense Mike Tice was going to run given Tice's history in Minnesota, the presence of Jeremy Bates, and the holdovers from the Martz playbook, I said the following:
I'm forced to wonder how all three of these influences (the Ghost of Martz, Tice/Linehan, and Bates/Shanahan) are going to gel into one coherent offensive scheme this year.
Unfortunately, as anyone who watched the team last year knows, the answer was that they just didn't. Tice's playbook consisted of a sometimes random assortment of ill-timed deep balls, inside zones with guards who couldn't run-block and a runningback who makes his living bouncing outside the tackles, and a motley jumble of other concepts. Tice ended up throwing deep more often than his seemingly mad predecessor, but lacked Martz's deft hand with screens and hot routes to enable the team to move the chains between the twenties.
The biggest problem with Tice's offense was that it just wasn't an offense, frankly. A true offense starts with a philosophy. This doesn't have to be Lovie Smith's "we get off the bus running" or Martz's bombs away aerial approach, but you have to have clear, delineated goals and concepts to match. What pass plays do you have that you believe will always work against Cover 2? If it's 2nd and 1, do your players know and have faith in what you are going to call, or are you just guessing? Mike Leach once rejected the description of play-calling in football as a chess match in favor of boxing. You're taking way too much time if you're trying to guess or dial up the perfect play for that moment. It should be punch-counterpunch, with an instinctual response to every situation that is honed by repetition and consistency.
Marc Trestman, at least, brings a true offense with him. Trestman is as old of a disciple as one can be in the West Coast offense without having sat in the room with guys like Paul Brown and Bill Walsh as they first put the concepts together. He's run some version of it since the 1980s, adjusting it to suit quarterbacks as different in arm strength, mobility, and accuracy as Bernie Kosar, Steve Young, Scott Mitchell, Jake Plummer, and Rich Gannon. Through this all, he's remained true to the core philosophy of the system, which is to move the ball methodically down the field with a controlled, timing-based short passing offense.
This is a welcome relief for Jay Cutler, most of all, because this was exactly the system that Jay was drafted to run in Denver (it's worth noting that Trestman took over as 49ers offensive coordinator in 1995, replacing Mike Shanahan). It would seemingly run counter to logic that Cutler, with his cannon arm and his sometimes erratic accuracy would be a perfect fit for this system, but consider that some of the most successful operators of the West Coast were guys, like Jay, known for strong arms and sometimes questionable decisions like Brett Favre and John Elway. The West Coast is perfect for these type of players as it places structural limitations on their recklessness and carefully manages when and where they attack the defense vertically. Trestman, unlike Tice and Martz, seems unlikely to give into the temptation of Jay's arm strength and be seduced by lower % big play attempts instead of a more efficient approach.
Simply being a West Coast Offense guy, however, is relatively meaningless in today's NFL, where a good portion of the league's coordinators will lay claim to a similar lineage. The Green Bay Packers under Mike McCarthy and the Cleveland Browns under Pat Shurmur and our old friend Brad Childress both ran the West Coast as their base offense last year, and one would hardly say they had much in common. Trestman will be judged not on what his offense has done in the past but on what adjustments he has made to suit the modern NFL, and for that it's worth looking at his experience up North.
The CFL, with only three downs, seven skill position players, and a wider, longer field seemed an odd fit for a West Coast guru. Traditional West Coast formations (remember, for years the shotgun was an almost foreign formation in the scheme) and run plays simply wouldn't work. What was Trestman's response?
Not much, actually. In Canada, Trestman still ran traditional West Coast concepts like Snag and Stick, with the routes run out of the shotgun instead of a pro set, and with extra wide receivers or tight ends running routes that previously belonged to the fullback or runningback. By doing so, Trestman could present new looks to the defense and utilize the horizontal passing game in place of the run while leaving the basic concepts and strengths of his offense in place.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it probably should, because it's not much different, schematically, from what the Saints and Packers have done in recent years, and that's also no surprise since Trestman was actually offered the opportunity to be the Saints OC in 2006 and served as an offensive consultant for them in 2007. These teams are running more or less the same plays that the 49ers ran with Joe Montana, with a few added wrinkles, out of different formations and with different personnel, taking advantage, for example, of the mismatches created by splitting someone like Jimmy Graham or Jermichael Finley out wide.
So, going back to my main criticism of Tice, that his offense lacked a true philosophy or identity, what can we expect from Trestman? It would seem the Bears are likely to lead with the pass, although in a much less reckless fashion than Martz's deep drops. As Cutler has said, the emphasis of this offense is definitely protecting the quarterback by getting the ball out as soon as possible. Forte will get over twenty touches per game, most likely, but those touches will definitely vary between rushes and receptions based on the situation. It would also seem, from observers' comments at the first mini-camp, that Trestman believes in the boxing approach, as many said the Bears got in and out of the huddle and to the line faster on their first day of install with a new playbook than they ever did at any point under Tice or Martz. Trestman himself said that he wanted each play to "build muscle memory." It would appear that Trestman is less concerned with out-scheming or out-smarting is opponents (a difficult thing to do in the NFL where too much is made of "genius" as it is) and more with ensuring that his players understand their roles and their objectives and can execute them on each play.
If that's the case, then we'll hopefully see a more confident offensive unit in the fall, one that wastes fewer timeouts, has fewer false starts, and overall seems to be a lot less confused than the mess we saw last year. It's hard to say right now that this approach will be successful, but it seems logical to assume that you'll be able to do a lot more on offense if you know, at least, what it actually is you want to do, and Marc Trestman has at least gotten them started on that path.