Bill Walsh revolutionized the passing game in the NFL because he had a quarterback who couldn’t pass.
In the 1960s NFL, passing the ball was barely a complement to running it. In 1960, for instance, there were 4,114 total passing attempts. That number has nearly quadrupled in today’s NFL. The boom began with an AFL expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
As an expansion team, the Bengals then offensive coordinator Bill Walsh said, “we got the dregs, players who never should have been in pro football.” But he got what he got, and his job asked much else but to make the most of what he got. So Walsh thought about how his Bengals offense might advance the football. In a league where offenses were built to run the ball, defenses were built to stop the run. Defensive players were big, strong, physical, and mean. The Bengals’ dregs were not, and so the Bengals were not going to have success running the ball, not through an NFL defense.
The Bengals, it was clear to Walsh, had no option but to pass the ball. At the time, Walsh explains, “[everyone] thought if you weren’t throwing the ball twenty yards downfield, you weren’t throwing the ball.” If Walsh had a quarterback who could throw the ball twenty yards downfield, Walsh would have had him throw the ball twenty yards downfield. But Walsh had the dregs. His quarterback, Virgil Carter, couldn’t throw the ball twenty yards downfield. “Virgil,” Carter was once told, “if you want to throw the football more than twenty yards you better fill it with helium.” ¹
Coach Walsh, Virgil Carter, and the Bengals, in other words, had an inability unique from any other team in the NFL.
The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote more than a dozen books. They are filled with clinical tales artfully woven through the science and medicine discovery, history, framework, or paradigm necessary to understand and appreciate those tales. Before we return to Coach Walsh and Virgil Carter, I want to tell you one.
In March 1986, Sacks received a letter from a Mr. I. Two months earlier, Mr. I was knocked unconscious in a car accident. When he came to, Mr. I saw the world as it looks in black and white movies. Mr. I could not make color—not with his eyes, not in his mind’s eye, not in memory or when dreaming. You are or aren’t born with color-responding cells—to Sacks’ knowledge, no one could or had ever become totally colorblind.
The sense of loss would have been felt to some degree by anyone. It was intensely strangled by Mr I. A successful painter, Mr. I before could identify—by the name and number listed in the Pantone hue chart he long referenced when buying paint—the green of a billiards table or the yellow of a mustard. Now, he couldn’t make stop or go of a traffic light.
Mr. I’s artistic sensibilities, his creative expression, his identity—his life—hinged on his unique ability to perceive color. That was lost and replaced with a unique inability. In everything and everyone, Mr. I saw a kind of statue of his inability. Chronically seeing what he could no longer see, Mr. I lived mostly in an “almost suicidal depression.”
Until he had an experience he’d later credit for his artistic and physical survival. He was driving one morning and over the highway, the sun was rising. It set in motion Mr I’s now-usual attempt to see what he couldn’t see: those glowing reds and oranges and yellows instead were smoldering blacks and grays and whites. What he would do to see the sunrise the way he once had, the way almost everyone does. But then, it happened. For the first time since the accident, Mr. I considered his new and unique
inability. “Had anyone,” he thought, “ever seen a sunrise in this way before?” An exciting thought made increasingly more so by the realization of it’s transferability. Had anyone ever seen anything the way Mr. I could?
The “apocalyptic” sunrise catalyzed Mr. I’s first black-and-white painting, Nuclear Sunrise, and his personal and professional resurrections. Now, in everyone and everything, Mr. I saw things no one else could. He saw textures and patterns embedded, and therefore invisible, in color. He saw shades, shapes, and silhouettes with a precision he couldn’t have before conceived. With it no longer cluttered by color, “my vision became that of an eagle—I can see a worm wriggling a block away. The sharpness of focus is incredible…I can read license plates at night from four blocks away.” He came to call his eyesight “privileged” because it allowed, no, forced him to see “a whole new world,” ushering in what became the most productive and celebrated “phase” of his artistic career. ²
And so because Bill Walsh had to throw the ball with Virgil Carter, a quarterback who couldn’t throw the ball twenty yards downfield, he had to look at the game of football in ways no one before thought to. Instead of looking just at the field vertically, endzone to endzone, Walsh looked at it horizontally, sideline to sideline. Instead of looking just at a quarterback’s throwing power, Walsh looked at their accuracy, agility, and ability to make good decisions quickly and under pressure. Instead of looking just at a wide-receiver’s ability to catch the ball, Walsh looked at their ability to pick up yards after the catch.
Coalesced, Walsh saw then engineered an offensive playbook full of passes thrown to wide-receivers who ran precisely-timed routes to exacting spots on the field within twelve yards of Virgil Carter. “No helium was required,” Walsh later joked. In Carter’s first season, he averaged just 5.9 yards per passing attempt. In his second season, 7.3.
“People made fun of it,” Walsh said of his new short-pass system. “They called it a nickel-and-dime offense.” In 1970, the Bengals won the AFC Central Division. In 1971, Carter led the NFL in completion percentage.
After Cincinnati, Walsh took his system to San Diego. The Chargers quarterback led the league in completion percentage. After a year in San Diego, Walsh took the head coaching job at Stanford. In his first season, Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin led the nation in passing. In Walsh’s second season, Benjamin’s replacement Steve Dils did the same.
Next, Walsh took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had the league’s worst record and lowest payroll when Walsh got there. His new quarterback, Steve Deberg, was coming off a 1-10 season where he completed 45.4 percent of his passes. In his first season in Walsh’s system, Deberg threw and completed more passes than any quarterback in NFL history. After that season, the 49ers drafted Deberg’s replacement with their third round draft pick. It was a quarterback “who everyone said was too small and had too weak an arm to play in the NFL,” Michael Lewis writes in The Blind Side. It was Joe Montana. In Walsh’s system, Lewis continues, “[Montana] would become, by general consensus, the finest quarterback ever to play the game.” ³
In 1991, Montana gave way to Steve Young. Before he got to San Francisco, Young played two seasons in Tampa, where he went 3-16 as the starting quarterback. It would take seven seasons in San Francisco for Steve Young to lose 16 games. In 13 years with the 49ers, Young only lost 33 times. In Walsh’s system, Young led the NFL in passing five times, went to seven pro bowls, won two NFL MVP awards, three Super Bowls, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
In the 80s, teams began to poach Walsh’s assistants to implement what was termed the “West Coast Offense” and by the mid-2000s, one General Manager would say, “Everyone in the NFL today runs Bill Walsh’s offense.”
“It all started,” Walsh said, “When I was forced to use Virgil.” When he was forced to look for “existing assets that only needed to be ‘seen’ and then capitalized on in new ways.” When he was forced to see a whole new game, ushering in what became “one of the most dramatic changes in football [history].”
“Defects, disorders, diseases, in this sense, can play a paradoxical role,” Oliver Sacks writes, “by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence.”
Latent meaning already existing but waiting to be seen. Will you see it?
 The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh
 An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks
 The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis
Thank you to Greg Shildkrout and Katie McKenzie for reading drafts of this.