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The football world lost a man of great importance when Don Coryell passed away at the age of 85 yesterday. Many of us (including me) are simply too young to have any substantial memories of watching him patrol the sidelines. We have all heard of the "Air Coryell" offense, but the only images many of us have of Dan Fouts orchestrating one amazing drive after another are from watching NFL Films. The graininess of the non-HD footage of those San Diego teams almost has the effect of marginalizing the lasting impact that they certainly had on the game. Isn't that something? The high octane, high scoring, high performance schemes of Don Coryell would have looked great in high definition.
I won't pretend to be an expert on Don Coryell, but I do know a little something about the offense he revolutionized. We all do, because it is one that became a staple of our town when Joe Gibbs took over as head coach in 1981. When Jack Kent Cooke hired Joe Gibbs, it was his interest in what Don Coryell was doing out in San Diego that attracted him to the future Hall of Fame coach. The game was starting to change and the rules were beginning to favor the offense (coincidentally, this was a trend that would continue through the 90's and into the current decade where more often than not, the league goes out of its way to restrict the defense).
Don Coryell, as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, was not against having his quarterback throw the ball all day long. He put as many recievers on the field as he possibly could and dared defenses to try and stop him. He designed a scheme that had Dan Fouts setting up in the pocket and obliterating passing records. In the strike-shortened season of 1982, Fouts averaged 320 yards per game! Coryell also had a tight end in Kellen Winslow that enabled him to wreak havoc. Up until then, it was rare indeed to have a deep pass-catching threat at tight end that could outrun any linebacker and run over any defensive back. Another staple of his offense was a running back that could kind of do it all: run, catch, block, etc. He employed Terry Metcalf, James Brooks, and Lionel James--Metcalf and James each set the NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season. Coryell's receivers were also prolific and record-setting. Wes Chandler still holds the record for 129 receiving yards per game. (I love Wikipedia).
Jack Kent Cooke wanted offense in Washington. So he brought in Joe Gibbs to try and capture some of that Coryell magic. Gibbs did Cooke one better by taking everything he had learned from Don Coryell and tweaking it to achieve the kind of success that had eluded his mentor--Lombardi Trophies.
One thing Gibbs did in Washington was create a group of small, speedy, elusive receivers that would cause defenses countless headaches. "The Smurfs", or Alvin Garrett, Charlie Brown and Virgil Seay were all 5'10" or shorter. Gibbs utilized them in the open field and found ways to get them the ball on the run. He utilized the tight end in the running and passing game, employing such legends as Don Warren, Doc Walker, and Clint Didier to get it done. Over Gibbs' career in Washington, there were certainly running backs that were capable of beating you in a variety of ways, but I always think back to the year when instead of having one guy who could do 3 things reasonably well, he had 3 guys who could each do one thing very well. Who can forget the trio of Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and Ricky Ervins?
Don Coryell also directly impacted the careers of John Madden, Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, and Jim Hanifan. Norv Turner came up under Zampese, and Mike Martz came up under both Zampese and Turner.
It is an absolute joke that this man died before entering the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Here's hoping that injustice is properly dealt with posthumously...though the shame will of course remain.
Don Coryell: 10/17/1924 - 7/1/2010