Air Coryell, page 2


Flying High With Air Coryell

Don Coryell, offensive mastermind

Coryell's 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.

Coryell 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."

It 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."

Much 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.

"He 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!'"

Coryell 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."

But 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.

Just 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.

The 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 Coryell arrived.

"It 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."

But 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 acquainted.

More than twenty years later, now enjoying retirement, Coryell still remembers the situation.

"I 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."

Five 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.

"Gene 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 the offense."

The 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.

"Our 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."

The 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.

"Jefferson 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.

"Joiner 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.

"And 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."

Fouts was the first QB in history to pass for 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

When 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.

Unlike 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.

"It was a timing system," Coryell explains, "and I only had one rule: Never pass up an open receiver. You look…you look…and 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 of bounds."

It was a surprisingly simplistic scheme. But defensive backs found nothing simple about stopping it.

"They 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 playing catch."

"I 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.'

"Another 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."

Charlie Joiner (Photo: John McDonough/NFL Photos)
Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner

Coryell 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.

"His 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."

At 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.

During 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.

Twice, 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.

They 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.

A 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.

"For 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."

(Excerpted from the Official Super Bowl XXXII Game Program)

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