Don Coryell coached his last NFL game 29 years ago. Needless to say, he has been eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for over two decades. Yet, he has no bust in Canton, Ohio. Tonight, perhaps, that could change.
It should change.
Known as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the history of the league, you still see so much of what he created in today’s game. The NFL, without a doubt, is primarily a passing league. Many teams feature spread formations which focus on the vertical passing game. These concepts were brought about by Coryell.
After putting the San Diego State Aztecs on the college football map, Coryell moved on to coach the St. Louis Cardinals. He turned around that franchise prior to making his way to America’s finest city to take on the head coaching job for the Bolts.
Despite never coaching the Chargers to the Super bowl, the “Air Coryell” offense was tops in the league for 5 consecutive years in the passing game from 1979-1983. After a one year “break”, the 1985 passing offense return to the top of the NFL charts.
While most teams empowered a two-back set during his era, Coryell preferred lining up one ball carrier. He believed in employing an athletic tight end that could work the seam vertically. Regardless of the down and distance, he was always in favor of his quarterback dropping back to pass and slinging it down the field; it was encouraged on third and short, as well.
The covering defenders in today’s NFL are not allowed to breathe on receivers. Pass interference and defensive holding calls happen early, often and have actually helped win some games, to a degree. That was not the case while Coryell was coaching. Defenders could mug wideouts and they were coached to do just that. The offensive innovator decided that placing his offensive skill position players in motion could help counteract that by making it easier for them to get off the line of scrimmage. This also enabled quarterback Dan Fouts to establish whether or not the defense was in man or zone coverage.
The coaching tree that was spawned from the teachings of Coryell includes the likes of John Madden, Joe Gibbs, and many others. Both Madden and Gibbs are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Don Coryell was far ahead of his time. Every single NFL game you watch includes some form of his imaginative air passing attack. He was quoted as saying, ” I gave my life to football”. It is now time for football to give back to him.
Here’s to hoping the man who belongs with his apprentices is finally awarded with what he earned.
Thanks for reading.
Sid Gillman, the father of the “West Coast Offense” is also the father of one of the richest coaching trees in the NFL, including the Chargers’ own Don Coryell. This year, Coach Coryell was again snubbed by the writers who vote players and coaches into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Why isn’t Coryell in Canton? Only one remotely justifiable reason comes to mind. He never won a title. There was always the criticism that he was too focused on offense and neglected the defensive side of the ball. There is far more justification for his induction into Canton if you look at who IS in the Hall BECAUSE of him.
Among his disciples, understudies, former assistants Joe Gibbs and John Madden are both in Canton. Gibbs played and coached under Coryell at San Diego State University, and was an assistant twice with Coryell in the NFL: from 1973-77 as running backs coach with the St. Louis Cardinals and 1979-80 as offensive coordinator of the Chargers.
Madden was an assistant on Coryell’s staff at San Diego State in the mid-1960s. Both men were heavily influenced by Sid Gillman. Madden went on to a stellar career as Head Coach in Oakland.
Among the players who played under Coryell who are enshrined in Canton are OL Dan Dierdorf, QB Dan Fouts, WR Charlie Joiner and TE Kellen Winslow. Fouts once said that if it wasn’t for Coryell, he wouldn’t be in Canton.
Just what impact did Coryell have on the NFL? He revolutionized the passing game. He was a master at creating mismatches in coverage. He took player’s skill sets and built his game plans around what his players were best at doing. Closer to home, he turned around a franchise that had been awful since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. In 1978, his first year as Head Coach, he led the Chargers to their first winning season in almost a decade.
From 1978 to 1983, the Chargers led the league in passing every year, and then again in 1985. They led the league in total offense 1980-83 and again in ’85.
Madden, Gibbs and Fouts all have lobbied on his behalf for enshrinement, but that honor continues to elude. Named to the 50th anniversary coaching staff, Coryell passed away in 2010, never reaching the one recognition he truly deserved: enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.