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Don Coryell’s Case for Canton

The NFL has been flooded with revolutionary passing attacks for decades. One of the most explosive attacks in league history is “Air Coryell” which was implemented by coach Don Coryell and quarterback Dan Fouts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Recently there has been some debate about whether Coryell is worthy for the Hall of Fame. His teams never won a championship but were routinely setting league records. The following explores the nuances of Air Coryell and argues why he should be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A Revolutionary Offense

Prior to 1978 the NFL relied heavily on the running game. This changed with the advent of the “Mel Blount Rule” which forbade defensive backs from pushing receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers took advantage of this rule and won two more Super Bowls in the subsequent years. The Steelers were a phenomenal dynasty filled with Hall of Famers but they did not revolutionize the way the game is played. The teams who revolutionized the game because of this rule were the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers.

While the West Coast Offense is well known due to the championships won and Hall of Famers bred in the system, Air Coryell was even more explosive just without the accolades. In Ron Jaworski’s detailed book The Games that Changed the Game Fouts described the attacking style of the offense “’The first thing in our offense was always the bomb.’ stated Fouts, ‘It was built into almost every pas play, where the quarterback initially looks for that chance to hit the big one. And I think if you start with this premise and then work your way back toward the line of scrimmage, that’s the Air Coryell offense’” (Jaworski 87) This is completely different from the West Coast Offense which has the quarterback look to the closest receiver and then progresses upward.

Air Coryell was much closer to the Air Raid Offense mostly used in today’s college game. There were many more deep passing patterns with the occasional run.  

The revolutionary aspect of this explosive attack begins with tight end Kellen Winslow. He entered the league an imposing 6’5” 250 lbs and initially had trouble playing in the Chargers high flying offense. Much of this trouble was due to where he was lined up on the offense. Linebackers constantly had an angle on him and were able to disrupt his routes which delayed his timing routes and made him ineffective as a pass catcher.

Coryell saw this as an opportunity to expand his offense and started putting Winslow in different parts of the formation. On any given play, Winslow could line up at fullback, tight end or wide receiver. Defenses had to plan for each situation or they would get burned.

While he experimented with the “Roving-Y” he plugged in an extra tight end to take the brunt of the blocking duties Winslow was no longer required to execute. With six down linemen and a roving tight end, defenses were suddenly overwhelmed with the endless possibilities on every play.

Joining Winslow were receivers Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson who were able to stretch the defense with their electric speed. In 1980, they became the first trio to receive over 1,000 yards in a season with the same team. Jefferson was traded before the 1981 season but Wes Chandler joined the starting lineup and the offense did not miss a beat.

Despite the liberal passing, Coryell also employed a power running back in his arsenal. Chuck Muncie was a powerful running back who piled up yards and touchdowns with ease as the rest of the offense blew the top off of NFL defenses. His best season in San Diego was 1981 when he rushed for 1,144 yards and 19 touchdowns. With his threat on the ground and Fouts cannon of an arm, defenses were left bewildered game after game.

1981 was the height of Air Coryell. For the third straight year Fouts set a league record for passing yards (4,802) and the team set a league record for points scored in a season (478). Both records would fall within the next couple of seasons as the league explored the intricacies of a pass first offense.

The team was not as successful in the playoffs. In 1979 they lost 17-14 in the Divisional Round to the Houston Oilers after Fouts threw an ugly five interceptions. They reached the Conference Championship Game the following year but lost to the Oakland Raiders 34-27 at home. One year later the Chargers found themselves in the Conference Championship Game again, this time at the Cincinnati Bengals. With the wind chill the game was -56 Fahrenheit which made it extremely difficult to operate such a high flying offense. The Chargers lost 27-7 as the offense succumbed to the merciless weather.

Hall of Fame?

All great coaches have a coaching tree, followers who take their blueprints to success even further. Walsh is seen as a genius not just for his offense but also for the followers who perfected the concept. Coryell’s coaching tree is not as extensive but it is still impressive. The only coaches on his coaching tree are Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins and John Madden of the Oakland Raiders.

Gibbs used the two tight end concept to great success in Washington and won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks using an intricate downfield passing attack and a devastating running game. Madden’s passing attack was perfect for the Raiders who have always prided themselves on the bomb. His running game was underrated but highly effective behind the blocking of three Hall of Fame players: Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, and Jim Otto.

Despite the low number of coaches directly influenced by Coryell, his system has been used for decades by various Super Bowl-winning teams. The Dallas Cowboys in the 1990’s ran a more conservative version of Air Coryell. This was implemented by offensive coordinator Norv Turner who had learned the system from Ernie Zampese who was an assistant on the Chargers staff under Coryell. The Cowboys mainly used running back Emmitt Smith behind a dominant offensive line while having quarterback Troy Aikman throw timed passes to receiver Michael Irvin. Led by these three Hall of Fame players, the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the decade.

Mike Martz was greatly influenced by this passing offense and successfully implemented it in Saint Louis as the Rams went to two Super Bowls. However, his offense was slightly different from Coryell’s because he’s focused on the running back as the focal point of the offense, not the tight end. The running back for Martz’s offense, Marshall Faulk, had great running and receiving ability. He is the only other player after Roger Craig to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

Coryell’s offense produced Hall of Famers Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow. League records were set and an entirely new way of seeing offense was introduced to the league. Coryell’s influence reverberates throughout the league to this day as players such as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are matchup nightmares at tight end but are used in a large number of ways throughout the offense. Even though he never won a Super Bowl, his influence in undeniable and should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

David Hegler

Author David Hegler

BS in Business Management from Azusa Pacific University. Fanatical 49er fan. Avid fan of all Bay Area sports teams.

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