Virgil Carter may not have had an overly productive NFL career, but he played long enough to make a significant impact on the future of offensive football.
After replacing Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback Greg Cook in 1970, Carter’s specific skill set was harnessed by assistant coach Bill Walsh.
Walsh completely changed the Bengals’ playbook to take advantage of Carter’s ability to connect on short to medium passes.
— obscure bengals (@obscure_bengals) June 21, 2023
Although coach and quarterback only worked together for four years, Walsh eventually took his new offense to San Francisco.
It was there that the West Coast Offense was officially born.
Meanwhile, Carter played a few more seasons of football before retiring to tinker in statistics, mathematics, and analytics.
During and after his career, the brainy ex-quarterback helped develop an advanced scoring metric that is still used in football today.
This is the story of Virgil Carter.
Utah to California and Back Again
Virgil R. Carter was born on November 9, 1945, in Annabella, Utah.
Carter’s father, Harold, was a teacher in Provo, Utah, meaning academics were front and center in the household.
When Virgil was young, the family moved to Folsom, California where he eventually attended Folsom High School.
While playing for the Bulldogs, Carter developed into a quick-thinking quarterback who could throw on the run and was deadly accurate in short-range passes.
Carter was lauded for his athletic accomplishments at Folsom while also being recognized for his academic achievements.
He was twice named a Scholastic All-American and had his sights set on majoring in statistics in college.
Carter narrowed his college choices to BYU and Stanford until he got a unique offer from BYU.
Cougars assistant coach Lavell Edwards wasn’t completely confident that Carter could play in the program’s single-wing offense.
So, the school offered Carter an academic scholarship with an opportunity to play on the BYU team.
He took them up on the offer and returned to the Beehive State.
Carter Becomes the “Blue Darter”
When Carter began his college career in 1963, the Cougars were coached by Hal Mitchell.
As Mitchell’s varsity team struggled to a 2-8 record, Carter started as the quarterback for the BYU freshman team.
He proved to be a natural and led his teammates to a 4-0 record while displaying a confidence that belied his age.
40 day countdown. Top 40 BYU rushing yards gained all time.
#27 – Virgil Carter; 1964-66
Total yds: 1225 (18 TDs)
Career Passing: 327/736, 5125 yards 50 TDs
Leading passer on WAC
‘65 and ‘66 WAC OPOY
Drafted by Bears in ‘67. Played on several teams. Retired in ‘76 pic.twitter.com/tzplvCLE5K
— SouthEndZoneForLife (@OpenSourceCoug) August 6, 2023
Due to the Cougars’ blue uniforms and Carter’s playing style, he was nicknamed the “Blue Darter.”
Carter and a New Coach Change BYU’s Fortunes
Before Carter’s sophomore year in 1964, Mitchell was replaced by Tommy Hudspeth, a former college and Canadian Football League coach.
One of Hudspeth’s first orders of business was to turn around the fortunes of the BYU football program.
At that point in time, the Cougars had fielded only a handful of winning teams in its history.
In order to beef up the roster and add some toughness, Hudspeth went to the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot in San Diego and signed 11 former Marines to play ball for BYU.
At the same time, Hudspeth moved away from the heavy ground game the Cougars used in the past and mixed in more passes.
That proved to be perfect for Carter as he was named the program’s starting quarterback.
In 1964, BYU fared slightly better than the year before and went 3-6-1.
— BYU News (@BYU_News) July 24, 2016
Carter was in his element and attempted 193 passes for 1,154 yards, nine touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
He also had 388 rushing yards and five scores.
During one of BYU’s rare victories that season, Carter met his future wife.
“You wanna hear a really corny story?” asked Judy Carter in 1974. “Well, we met on a football field. I was the homecoming queen, and we played a really big game, against Utah State, and when we won, all the cheerleaders ran on the field and hugged players. I found No. 14. I’d heard about him, but I’d never met him. ‘Congratulations,’ I said. ‘We did it for you,’ he said. I mean, is that one of the corny stories of all time. Ours is really a hotsy-totsy All-American story. We met after that, and even though Virg was hesitant because he was a sophomore and I was a junior, we started going out and got married.”
A year later, the Cougars improved to 6-4 while Carter attempted 250 passes for 1,789 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 13 picks.
Additionally, he rushed for a career-best 474 yards and four touchdowns.
He was named All-Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and WAC Player of the Year after the season.
By 1966, Hudspeth’s makeover of the Cougar program was finally starting to take shape.
The team shot out of the gate with a 3-0 record before losing to Arizona State by three points in mid-October.
On November 5, BYU met Texas Western University (which would later be renamed UTEP).
During the contest, Carter was nearly unstoppable as he accounted for an astounding 599 yards of total offense in a 53-33 victory.
On this day in 1966, Virgil Carter became the first BYU QB to throw for more than 400 yards in game. He also became the first to pass for 500 yards that day.
— BYU Stats, Man (@BYUstatsMAN) November 5, 2020
His yardage total set an NCAA record.
Even more incredible is the fact that Hudspeth took Carter out of the game during the fourth quarter with the lead safe in hand.
The Cougars ended the season with an 8-2 record and Carter wrapped his final year with 293 attempts, 2,182 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.
On the ground, the quarterback accumulated 363 yards and nine more scores.
That year Carter led the nation in total offense and passing touchdowns.
He was selected as an honorable mention All-American, All-Conference, and WAC Player of the Year for a second time.
Carter became the first BYU athlete selected for the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-American.
Additionally, during Carter’s time in Provo, he set 24 program records, 19 WAC records, and six NCAA records.
Carter also made his parents proud when he was selected as the top senior in the BYU College Of Physical Engineering Sciences when he graduated.
Chicago Selects Carter
All of Carter’s impressive accomplishments in college were mostly overlooked by NFL talent evaluators.
He was generously listed at 6’1” and 192 pounds with a decent arm and pro scouts didn’t envision a successful NFL career.
It wasn’t until the 142nd pick in the sixth round of the 1967 draft that Carter was finally selected by the Chicago Bears.
Even with his selection, the Bears stashed him on the team’s practice squad since the franchise was loaded at quarterback.
In 1968, Carter split time with Jack Concannon and attempted 122 passes for 769 yards, four touchdowns, and five interceptions while adding 265 yards and four touchdowns rushing.
— Seb 🇱🇰 (@CJ28MTL) July 26, 2017
Carter won four of the five games he started but fractured his ankle in his fifth start and was done for the year.
Chicago went 7-7 in 1968 and then cratered to 1-13 in 1969.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) July 5, 2023
Head coach Jim Dooley desperately tried to find a reliable starter to save the season and cycled through Carter, Concannon, and rookie Bobby Douglass.
Carter’s contributions that season were two starts, 343 passing yards, two touchdowns, and five picks.
Carter Gets Sassy
Late in the 1969 season, Carter started a game in December and passed for over 300 yards in a loss.
Dooley then told the quarterback that he would start the following week only to renege and pull Carter after one half of work.
— Gregg Elkin (@gelkin24) December 20, 2015
Frustrated at his lack of opportunity, Carter did not take the demotion well.
After the game ended, the media asked the quarterback for a comment and he was only too happy to oblige.
For several minutes he ranted about Dooley’s broken promise and expressed his displeasure about quarterbacks coach Sid Luckman.
Then, in a statement heard around the nation, Carter surprisingly called out Bears team owner George Halas.
Angry that he wasn’t given a chance to replicate his success from 1968, and exasperated that Chicago was mired in yet another disappointing season, Carter called Halas a “chicken- – – -.”
“Virg never even says darn, then one day he says bleep, and it’s quoted in every paper in the country,” said Judy Carter, in 1974.
While the organization recoiled in horror, Bears fans cheered Carter’s assessment of the team.
He had become a favorite of the local populace due to his play in ‘68 and the fact that he was an intelligent and likable guy.
That didn’t stop Halas and the Bears from giving their disgruntled QB the ax.
Carter Becomes a Bengal
Shortly after Carter was dumped by Chicago, the Buffalo Bills signed him.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the Bengals were going through the paces in training camp before the 1970 season.
As camp progressed, it was clear that rocket-armed starting quarterback Greg Cook was struggling with a shoulder injury that had plagued him since his rookie year in 1969.
The injury had not healed and the Bengals placed him on the injured list.
Desperate for a veteran arm, Cincinnati traded a draft pick to the Bills for Carter.
Carter Inspires a New Offense
After he arrived in the Queen City, head coach Paul Brown turned Carter over to quarterbacks coach Bill Walsh.
It didn’t take much for Walsh to realize that Carter was no Greg Cook.
“Cook was just a great quarterback,” said Walsh in 1985. “Maybe the best to ever play the game.”
Carter didn’t have the arm strength like Cook to throw a pigskin 75 yards down the field.
However, Walsh saw that his new quarterback was extremely bright, could move around the pocket, and had good arm strength for short passes.
“If you tied a string on Virgil it would have a radius of about 30 yards where he was effective, if that,” Bengals owner and president Mike Brown recalled in 2017. “Beyond that, it was just a hope shot.”
Acknowledging that Carter wouldn’t be able to thrive in Cincinnati’s offense, Walsh began tinkering with a new offensive system, designed with the talents Carter possessed.
“The only choice we had,” Walsh remembered in 1985, “was to build our offense around what Virgil could do. And believe me, the short pass was all he could do. He was a great competitor, and a great team leader, so we just played into his strength.”
Walsh, Carter, and Brown began brainstorming and Walsh designed a new playbook that featured ball-control passing with short to medium routes.
What no love for Virgil Carter? The QB that Bill Walsh built his future West Coast offense around? pic.twitter.com/QIEQj1mZ4f
— Ol' Toonabeard #ZSHQ💛💖🧡 Hail Billy&Winston (@tbootsc) January 17, 2023
Some of the routes were designed for tight ends and some for running backs to catch passes out of the backfield.
Receivers were still highlighted, of course, but they ran shorter patterns that were designed for high-percentage completions.
Growing Pains Lead to Success
After implementing Walsh’s new offense, Carter and the Bengals had trouble adapting to it at first.
“It certainly didn’t overwhelm anybody initially” continued Mike Brown. “But it’s what we could do with the people we had. I would credit Bill Walsh with that idea when he was here.”
Cincinnati began the 1970 season 1-6, then Carter caught fire and the club wrapped the year with an 8-6 record, the most wins in the franchise’s short history.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) September 9, 2018
The Bengals then lost their first playoff game at the hands of the Baltimore Colts in the divisional round, 17-0.
“It really isn’t a complicated philosophy,” Walsh explained years later. “We try to control the ball and build up a number of first downs. If we can get 25 or 30 first downs, it generally means the defense has had time to regroup. It’s a systematic ball-control style of offense.”
Carter played in 13 games and threw for 1,647 yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions along with 246 rushing yards and two more scores.
— Brandon (@NastyNati740) August 30, 2023
Even with Carter’s success in Walsh’s new system, the Bengals ended 1970 with the NFL’s 20th-ranked offense.
With that in mind, the organization selected Augustana College quarterback Ken Anderson in the third round of the 1971 NFL Draft.
The rookie mostly sat on the bench in ‘71 while Carter started 10 games, led all NFL quarterbacks with a 62.2% completion rate, and passed for 1,624 yards, 10 touchdowns, and seven picks.
He was named the Bengals’ MVP after the year.
Carter Shows Off His Intellectual Side
When Carter was playing in Chicago, he found time to get his master’s degree from Northwestern University.
Then, when he moved to Cincinnati, Carter worked part-time at Xavier University as a math and statistics instructor.
During his first year with the Bengals, Carter and his wife, Judy, undertook a project where they coded over 8,300 football plays from the 1969 NFL season.
Their coding resulted in 440,000 pieces of game information that Carter typed into a computer.
The result of his findings was game-changing.
Due to the many variables that Carter included, the computer showed that many times a team’s field position was more important than ball possession.
Also, the position on the field helped determine the probability of a team’s scoring chances.
Eventually, Carter’s early work led to the football metric now known as “Expected Points.”
— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) November 22, 2020
Carter’s findings flipped a number of long-held football maxims that were disproven.
They included how to use the kicking game and where to punt, how teams react to turnovers, “momentum” not mattering as it relates to scoring, when a fumble was most likely to occur in a game, and why coaches should not be too conservative with play calling on their side of the field.
However, even with all his information, Carter recognized that it was humans running the show, not computers (at least at the moment).
“If you wanted to use this.” he said in 1972, “you’d have to tie in your personnel, and then you’d have to adjust it to your desires as a coach. You’d have to interpret it with respect to your own philosophy. A computer will never make coaching decisions. The idea is ridiculous. You’re dealing with probability, and you can’t assign a number to all probable events. You can’t give a number to how players are going to react to their pregame meal. You can’t program desire. That’s why a coach has to adjust this stuff to his own team.”
Carter is Traded
In 1972, Walsh decided it was time to start Anderson and Carter was left to analyze offensive football while sitting on the bench.
He got one start and saw action in 10 other games while passing for 579 yards, three touchdowns, and four interceptions and also netting 57 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The following season, Carter broke his collarbone and Anderson continued to run Walsh’s offense.
After the year concluded, Cincinnati traded Carter to the San Diego Chargers.
Walsh would continue coaching the Bengals quarterbacks through the 1975 season, then leave for the Chargers himself, before coaching Stanford in 1977 and 1978.
Carter Joins the WFL
By the time he was traded by the Bengals, Carter was growing weary of the NFL.
Thankfully, the World Football League (WFL) was beginning play in 1974 and Carter wanted in.
He reached out to the commissioner of the WFL who in turn made a call to the owner of the new Chicago Fire franchise.
Tom Origer, a native of Chicago and a longtime Bears fan, was only too happy to sign Carter.
“I knew Virg was perfect for Chicago,” Origer said in 1974. “I used to be a Bear fan, and I was damn upset when they got rid of him. I thought he was better than Douglass, Concannon and whoever else they had. Chicago fans really relate to him because he was the underdog with the Bears, and he never really got a shot. But now that he’s an established quarterback with a good NFL track record, they know he’s good. He’s our bread and butter.”
Origer gave Carter a six-figure deal that made him the highest-paid member of the team.
Then, through the first nine games, Carter and the Fire were competitive with a 7-2 record.
— Dead Football League (@_deadfootball) March 5, 2023
Carter was the WFL’s best quarterback and made headlines with a four-touchdown day against the Southern California Sun.
The hoopla was short-lived, however, after Carter broke a finger and was lost for the remainder of the season.
That was the first of a rash of injuries to Chicago’s roster that led to a 10-game losing streak.
Near the end of the year, Origer was out of money and did not fly the Fire to Philadelphia for the final game.
Philly got a forfeit win and Chicago ended its one and only season with a 7-13 record.
With the Fire now bankrupt, Carter made his way back to San Diego in 1975 and rode the pine with his former Bears teammate, Bobby Douglass.
Carter started one game and passed for 24 yards and an interception while the Chargers went 2-12.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) October 11, 2019
In 1976, he was traded back to where it all began, the Chicago Bears.
Bob Avellini was the Bears’ starting quarterback and Carter attempted just five passes for 77 yards and one touchdown as a backup.
When the season concluded, he retired.
During his career, Carter passed for 5,063 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 31 interceptions.
He also ran the ball for 640 yards and eight touchdowns.
Carter was never selected as an All-Pro or to the Pro Bowl but was the NFL’s completion percentage leader in 1972.
After retiring from the NFL, Carter continued his work in mathematics and analytics.
His “Expected Points” metric developed early in his Bengals career has been expanded upon and is one of the most heavily used analytical tools by coaches and teams today.
Although Carter’s short NFL career wasn’t exceptional, his place as a footnote in Bill Walsh’s development of the West Coast offense ensures that Carter’s name will always be remembered.
We can thank Virgil Carter’s “abilities” for “inspiring” Bill Walsh enough to create the “West Coast” offense after Cincinnati lost Greg Cook. Virgil Carter, the first “great” Brigham Young QB leading up to Steve Young, another disciple of the San Fran’s Walsh genius. pic.twitter.com/nPOm6D7N8o
— Tabrightmyre (@rightmyre) September 13, 2019
Not only is he a relevant footnote in NFL history, but Carter is also the defacto godfather of BYU quarterbacks.
Shortly after he left for the pros, Carter’s play for the Cougars inspired Lavell Edwards (who took over the program in 1972) to develop a pass-happy offense of his own.