King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Bill Walsh built on Sid Gillman's genius to become "the Genius" in his own right. Plus: Trade-deadline update.


Salon Staff
July 31, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Update: Baseball's trade-deadline deals

Bill Walsh spent an awful lot of time coaching teams I couldn't stand the very sight of, but it was always a whole lot more fun to have him around than to not have him around.

He was a hell of a coach and a three-time Super Bowl winner, of course, but more than that, he had an impact on the game equal to that of very few others, the kinds of guys who, because they did what they did for a younger league, have trophies named after them now.

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Walsh died Monday at his home in Woodside, Calif., following a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.

They called him "the Genius" in his prime, when he was coaching the San Francisco 49ers to those three championships in the 1980s. It's not coming across in the obituaries, but in some quarters there was at least a little derision in that term. Genius. Too smart to hand off.

The football purists, whatever that means but usually it means guys who like smashmouth football, didn't like Walsh's dink-and-dunk, short-pass-oriented attack, known forevermore as the West Coast offense, a term that has become all but meaningless since it was applied to Walsh's 49ers teams because now it's applied to just about any team that doesn't dive into the line on first-and-10.

And hardly anybody dives into the line on first-and-10. Thank you, Bill Walsh.

Walsh was the thinking man's football coach before Bill Belichick was the thinking man's football coach.

I liked that about him, even when he was coaching the 49ers and Stanford. He was every bit the tough, barking football coach, but he was also cerebral, almost professorial, an image he cultivated. He spent so many years as an assistant that when he finally got a chance at a top job at 45, he knew what he was doing.

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He was spectacularly organized and prepared, famously scripting the first 15 and eventually the first 25 plays of a game beforehand because he knew he could think more clearly about the offense on Thursday than during the heat of battle. Rather than having his teams beat on each other in practice, he had them save the hitting for Sunday, instead drilling them to be prepared for one contingency after another.

Walsh never worked for Sid Gillman, the offensive genius who coached the Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers in the early days of the AFL, but early on he coached for Al Davis, who had coached for Gillman. And he took Gillman's ideas and changed the game, led it out of an era of running backs and clouds of dust.

His great innovation, that short-passing offense, started out as a way to overcome a lack of talent. Walsh was the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, a sad-sack expansion team that had a glimmer of hope in 1969 thanks to a big, strong-armed rookie quarterback named Greg Cook. Cook put up jaw-dropping numbers for part of a season -- then he hurt his shoulder and was finished.

So the Bengals signed a squirt of a guy named Virgil Carter off the Chicago Bears bench. Carter moved well, made quick reads and good decisions and, despite not having a great arm, could throw with great accuracy.

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Sound like anybody who came along a decade later? Using Walsh's offense, Carter and the Bengals recovered from a 1-7 start by winning their last seven games and taking the AFC Central Division.

It was Gillman's old "West Coast" offense, really. The name got attached to Walsh's version through a mix-up.

Gillman stressed maniacal preparation, pinpoint timing, precise route running and quick decision making by the quarterback. He sent squads of receivers downfield to stretch the defense and open up passing lanes. Walsh took that whole system and turned the offense on its side, stretching the field horizontally instead of vertically.

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Asked what would have happened if Cook had stayed healthy, Walsh said he would have directed an offense that lived and died with the long pass. He was a pragmatist, is all. He didn't have a thing for the short pass. It was a good way to get the ball into the hands of his most athletic players, but if there'd been a good way to get the ball into those guys' hands downfield, Walsh would have gone with it.

His real genius may have been as a talent evaluator, most famously plucking the undersized Joe Montana out of the third round of the draft in 1979 and a year later handing him the reins to a system that by then fit Montana even better than it had fit Virgil Carter. A year after that, the 49ers, two years removed from back-to-back 2-14 seasons, won the Super Bowl.

When a legend dies it's always tempting to say we won't see his like again, but we see a lot of Walsh in one of his many protégés, the wildly successful Belichick. That's no knock on Walsh, who was a great teacher.

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Maybe he wasn't one of a kind. He was more like a prototype. In his later years he expressed regret for quitting as coach of the 49ers so early, after only 10 years, saying he should have stuck with it, pushed through the burnout and won more Super Bowls.

He didn't have to. He showed the NFL how it was done in the 1980s, and to this very day, right down to the pass-first defending champions, most of the league is still doing it his way.

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Teixeira headlines trade-deadline fun [PERMALINK]

3:50 p.m. EDT

The non-waiver trading deadline, which is coming up at 4 p.m. EDT Tuesday, is often one of the most disappointing moments of the baseball season. Feverish days of speculation and rumor-flying give way to a whole bunch of deals not getting made, with the odd carload of utility players and journeyman relievers switching uniforms.

This year, the run-up to the deadline has been better than usual, though we'll have to wait and see if it can top last year's humdinger, when about twice as many trades were completed on the last day as had been average for the century. There were a couple of blockbusters last year too, Carlos Lee from Milwaukee to Texas and Bobby Abreu from Philadelphia to the Yankees.

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The Texas Rangers are in the blockbuster business this year, sending slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a prized 22-year-old rookie catcher who'd been blocked by Brian McCann in Atlanta, and slick-fielding 18-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus, who's been at Single-A. Three minor-league pitchers are also headed to Texas, most notably 19-year-old Neftali Feliz, while veteran reliever Ron Mahay goes east.

It's an old-fashioned trade-deadline bombshell, even though we knew something like it was coming for several days. The Rangers were able to get the kind of return for Teixeira that teams used to get more routinely at this time of year before teams got stingy with their prospects. Teixeira is eligible for arbitration after this year and free agency after 2008.

The Rangers now have Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitter with power and a good arm, under their control for, in baseball terms, the foreseeable future, plus those four prospects, all of whom have at least some upside. Pretty good for a guy who hasn't been nearly the hitter in any other ballpark that he's been in Arlington. Teixeira's career OPS is .954 at home, .847 on the road. A good player, but not a great one.

Texas was also rushing to complete its rehab project on former superstar closer Eric Gagne by selling him to the Boston Red Sox. The deal hinges on a review of the medical records and, more importantly, Gagne waiving his no-trade clause, which would cost Boston some guaranteed money. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reports the return as lefty Kason Gabbard, Triple-A outfielder David Murphy and 17-year-old Single-A outfielder Engel Beltre. Again, not a bad haul for a guy who's a good candidate to have his career end on any given pitch.

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There have been lots of smaller deals in the hours and days running up to the deadline. The Yanks and Los Angeles Dodgers swapped Scott Proctor and Wilson Betemit, the Philadelphia Phillies picked up Tad Iguchi and Kyle Lohse, that sort of thing.

The NBA even got into the act by completing the mega-blockbuster trade of Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics for pretty much anyone who's ever worn green shorts and black shoes. It would have been nice for the NBA to have a big news story to make everyone forget, however briefly, the disastrous officiating scandal, but unfortunately most of the coverage of the Garnett trade is going to contain a sentence just like this one.

We'll talk trades some more tomorrow.

Previous column: While you were gone

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