High With Air Coryell
Coryell, offensive mastermind
intensity was legend. So, too, were his motivational techniques,
which ranged from heartfelt pep talks to benches bounced off locker-room
walls. Among the most fabled examples of his tunnel-vision speeches
came on the eve of one of the Cardinals' games against the Washington
Redskins, which was to be played in freezing weather in St. Louis.
reminded his players that they had practiced all week in the cold,
that they had toughened themselves for this battle. He likened
them to Eskimos who had helped construct the Alaskan pipeline,
without the need for fur-lined boots, heavy coats, or hand warmers.
"You're tougher than the Redskins," he bellowed. "You
are the Eskimos, and Eskimos don't feel the cold."
was then that all-pro tackle Dan Dierdorf spoke up, mischief in
his voice, and innocently asked the coach: "What if I get
out there tomorrow and find an Eskimo lined up across from me?"
Coryell didn't even flinch. "I've watched the waiver wire
all week long," he said. "The Redskins don't have any
new players on their team."
like their coach, Coryell's teams were focused, as opponents came
to learn-even the Redskins and Cowboys, who had dominated the
NFC East. In 1974, the Cardinals swept both meetings with the
Redskins, to the anguished chagrin of Washington coach George
Allen. In each of his last four seasons in St. Louis, from 1974
through 1977, Coryell never failed to beat Tom Landry's Cowboys
at least once. In two games in 1975, the Cardinals totaled 62
points against the Cowboys' heralded Flex defense.
never had enough," Hart says. "He always wanted to throw
the ball. It could be third-and-inches or fourth-and-inches, and
while we're standing on the sideline with the assistant coaches
deciding what running play to call, Don's saying, 'Let's throw
it! Let's throw the ball!'"
pleads innocence: "I don't remember doing that." But
his next remark betrays him. "Hey," he says, "you
have a better chance of completing the pass when they think you're
going to run. That's when you might get the big gain."
the talent pool had its limits in St. Louis. Lofty expectations
and a fiery temperament eventually took their toll on a man who
was driven to succeed. By 1977, Coryell's string of miracles had
played out. When he left the club after watching a 7-3 start dissolve
into a 7-7 season, he took with him a record of 42-29-1. Twenty
years later, it remains the winningest record for any coach in
the franchise's 78-year history.
that quickly, Don and his wife Aliisa repaired to San Diego, where
they had raised their family and made friends. But football still
pumped through his veins. He sat at home, with no team to coach,
diagramming plays and wondering what lie ahead. Four weeks into
the 1978 NFL season, Gene Klein, owner of the San Diego Chargers,
called. Coryell, who lived only three miles from the stadium,
replaced Tommy Prothro as the club's new head coach.
Chargers, who had gone eight seasons without a winning record,
were desperate for a change. They had ended the 1977 season with
6 losses in their last 10 games, and they had begun '78 with three
losses in their first four. Fouts remembers his reaction when
was like someone had sprayed air freshener in the room,"
he says. "The difference was like night and day. As a player,
all you ask of a coach is to give you a way to win with a good
game plan. The thing that set Don apart was he wasn't afraid to
try anything-new formations, motions, and shifts."
the innovations did not arrive all at once. Coryell was hesitant
to unravel a system that had been installed since training camp.
Moreover, he inherited a coaching staff with whom he was not well
than twenty years later, now enjoying retirement, Coryell still
remembers the situation.
was trying to be tactful," he says. "We used a lot of
plays that weren't really from my offense. I tried to stay within
the framework of what they had in place."
victories in his first eight games hardly reflected the Coryell
touch. Only once in that span did the Chargers score as many as
29 points. Twice they were held to 14 or fewer. Then the bottom
fell out on November 26 in a 23-0 loss to Kansas City. Klein had
been attracted by Coryell's reputation for high-scoring offenses,
and a shutout defeat was hard to accept.
came into my office," Coryell remembers, "and he said,
'What the hell, I hired you to throw the damn football! Why don't
you get out there and open it up?' I decided that maybe that was
a pretty good idea. I put in some of my own plays and we changed
difference was impossible to miss. The Chargers won their final
three games by scores of 40-7, 37-10, and 45-24, securing the
club's first winning record since 1969. NFL defensive coordinators
were put on notice.
plays were basically the same," Fouts says, "but the
way we presented them was different each time. We'd throw a basic
screen or a post route, but we'd do it from three or four different
formations, or we'd do it with motion or with different personnel.
It was sound and easy for us to adapt to each week, but it would
confuse our opponents. But Don's real genius was in using his
personnel to their utmost ability."
Chargers were blessed with a seemingly endless supply of receiving
talent. Raiders strong safety Davis can close his eyes and see
them running pass patterns-wide receivers Jefferson and Joiner
and tight end Winslow. Later, when Jefferson was traded after
a contract dispute, Wes Chandler stepped into the mix.
was the best receiver there's ever been at adjusting to a pass,"
Davis says. "His speed was effective, but that wasn't what
you noticed. The thing about him was, he would catch the ball
no matter where it was or who was on him.
was as crafty and as silky as could be. He had the experience
and the communication with the quarterback to adjust his route
after the ball was snapped.
Winslow was just tree-top tall all day long, no matter if he was
hurt and no matter the score. You could expect him to come after
you on every play. He could take apart entire defenses by himself."
was the first QB in history to pass for 4,000 yards in three
the Chargers were at their offensive best, which seemed nearly
every week, their attack only could be slowed, not stopped. Depending
on the play call, Fouts retreated from center with a three-, five-,
or seven-step drop. He could send as many as five receivers into
pass patterns, and he could position them in multiple sets. Often
a receiver would go in motion before the snap.
most other quarterbacks, who looked to the right or left as they
dropped back, Fouts kept his shoulders squared, all the better
to scan the breadth of the field.
was a timing system," Coryell explains, "and I only
had one rule: Never pass up an open receiver. You look
you look, but if number one or two is open, you get the ball to
them. Don't wait and hope that number three or number four might
be open deeper. And if you have any doubts, throw the ball out
was a surprisingly simplistic scheme. But defensive backs found
nothing simple about stopping it.
gave the quarterback a lot of options," former Patriots and
Raiders cornerback Mike Haynes explains. "If they had called
a pass to the strongside and we were in the right defense to stop
it, Fouts would turn quickly and hit the receiver on his weakside
on an end route or a post pattern. When you thought you had everything
covered, they had this little slant pattern that they'd run against
one-on-one coverage. Fouts always knew where to put the ball.
And don't even think about using a zone. The Chargers would pick
that apart. For them, that was like the quarterback and receiver
remember certain things Don would tell me," Fouts says. "He'd
say, 'If you don't like the play that's sent in, change it.' A
lot of coaches say that, but he really meant what he said. He
told me, 'Who's to say you don't have a better idea than the coaches
do? If you see something, take it.'
thing about him: If I went out there and missed on my first six
or seven passes, he'd say, 'Screw it, you've got forty more to
go.' With Don, the feeling always was: Don't worry about things-just
throw the ball."
of Famer Charlie Joiner
was open to nearly any offensive notion. He sought out assistants
who were anxious to flex creative muscles. Hanifan later would
serve for six years as head coach of the Cardinals and as an assistant
on the Redskins' 1991 Super Bowl team. Ernie Zampese would become
the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas
Cowboys; he was in charge of the offense when the Cowboys won
Super Bowl XXX. Joe Gibbs, who later coached three Redskins teams
to Super Bowl titles, landed a spot in the Pro Football Hall of
Fame. With Coryell as the head man, they schemed late into the
nights, repositioning Xs and Os.
staff in San Diego was the foundation for today's modern schemes,"
Winslow says. "All the offenses of today seem to be a version
of what Coryell started. The Run and Shoot is a version of the
one-back set we had in San Diego. The West Coast offense is a
variation of what we started. The Hogs in Washington was a variation,
but they took
it more to the running level. But all of these things are a version
of Coach Coryell's offense."
times, the Chargers seemed unbeatable, even with a defense that
often paled by comparison. During the 1979 season, after which
the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams would meet in Super
Bowl XIV, the Chargers pounded both. They defeated the Steelers
35-7 and the Rams 40-16.
the 1982 season, the Chargers faced both of the previous Super
Bowl contestants. They piled up 538 total yards in a 41-37 victory
over the defending-champion 49ers, and nine days later amassed
661 yards in stomping the runner-up Bengals 50-34.
Coryell's Chargers found themselves within one victory of pro
football's biggest game. His 1980 team even earned home-field
advantage for the AFC Championship Game. But after falling behind
the Raiders 28-7-and rallying furiously before losing 34-27-the
Chargers were left with only a pile of remarkable offensive statistics.
had passed for 4,531 yards (the league average was 3,153). They
had thrown 30 touchdown passes (the league average was 22). Their
three leading receivers-Winslow, Jefferson, and Joiner-each had
eclipsed 1,000 yards, a milestone reached by only five other players
in the entire league that season.
year later, on the heels of an unforgettable divisional playoff
game-a 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins-the Chargers
again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. But the elements
conspired against them. A 59-below wind chill in Cincinnati grounded
Air Coryell, and the Bengals scored a 27-7 victory.
all the damage we did, as far as scoring, we never got to the
big one," Joiner laments. "But I sure enjoyed playing
for Coryell. When he was the coach, I couldn't wait for Sunday."
from the Official Super Bowl XXXII Game Program)