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THE WEST COAST OFFENSE: CHAPTER I

On Thursday, Mike Sheppard began what is sure to become an exhaustive, monumental task:

Explaining his offense.

The Buffalo Bills' offensive coordinator outlined the team's new philosophy for moving the football -- the West Coast offense -- to Western New York media. Over the next six months he'll undertake the project of introducing it to his players.

"The offense tries to take a standard personnel group -- which is two backs and a tight end and two wideouts -- and tries to find the best way to move the football against all defenses, and also provide answers for all coverages in the passing game," said Sheppard, starting off in the most general of terms.

"A lot of the offense we run has to do with getting the ball out on time and telling the quarterback exactly what that timing is," Sheppard said, "as opposed to waiting and hoping somebody comes open and trying to make a play yourself. It's more timing oriented."

The West Coast offense was popularized by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s.

It essentially is a ball-control passing game that sets up the running game. The quarterback takes mostly three- and five-step drop-backs (as opposed to seven-step drops) and tries to complete high-percentage passes. Running backs and tight ends tend to catch a lot of passes in the West Coast scheme. And when it works well, those rhythm passes create opportunities for receivers to make big gains after the catch -- like Jerry Rice and John Taylor used to do for the 49ers.

Sheppard, 49, has built a strong reputation as an offensive strategist over the past nine years in the NFL, working in Cleveland, Baltimore, San Diego and Seattle. It was with the Seahawks where he tutored as quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren, a disciple of Walsh.

"Very few have had the chance Mike has had to learn at the elbow of one of the masters of the West Coast offense in Mike Holmgren," said Bills head coach Gregg Williams.

Sheppard said the Bills' new attack will look a lot -- in terms of scheme -- like Seattle's.

"What we did in Seattle was try to take your basic personnel group and keep their base personnel on the field," Sheppard said. "And we'd threaten the pass and therefore be able to run the ball. You want to be able to blend both. The great West Coast offenses aren't just throwing teams. They're teams that can run as well."

Walsh's West Coast attack employed a finesse running game. Holmgren incorporated more of a power running attack behind Dorsey Levens in his Super Bowl seasons in Green Bay. He used a lot of power running plays in Seattle with Ricky Watters running behind a fullback.

Seattle, however, struggled at the quarterback position the past two years, with unheralded Jon Kitna running the attack. Seattle ranked 23rd on offense two years ago and 19th last season.

As with any offense, good quarterbacking is essential. The West Coast offense requires an accurate thrower capable of making quick decisions in picking out the proper receiver. A guy who locks onto one target isn't going to perform well.

"The quarterback has to understand what you're trying to do and be able to pull the trigger and in essence be a coach on the field," Sheppard said.

The two-back set will be the base offense, although like every other team, the Bills still will use multiple formations -- three wides, four wides and two tight ends.

"Good teams have tendencies," Sheppard said. "If we're switching around all the time, I think that's a little bit hard. You'll see us in what you saw Seattle in."

Naturally, Sheppard refused to tip his hand on the Doug Flutie vs. Rob Johnson question.

He acknowledged he has been watching video of the two quarterbacks since he reported on the job in Orchard Park on Monday.

"There's so many factors," he said. "If you choose Doug is it because he's more elusive, because it just seems everybody plays well when he's in there? Do you choose Rob because of what his physical abilities look like and because he's 10 years younger?

"There's all kinds of factors involved in the whole thing, and you really do toss them all around and weigh them and try to make the best decision," he said.

Sheppard got an up-close look at the Bills' offense under Flutie in the season finale in Seattle, which the Bills won, 42-23.

Asked about the Bills' offensive talent, Sheppard said, "We're still in the middle of evaluating this personnel, but all I know is it kicked our tail in Seattle. So we feel like we're walking into a pretty good situation."

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