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It's Don Coryell's NFL



*First - An Interesting Story*

At my workplace, we deal frequently with cab drivers.  One of these drivers, named Mickey (now deceased), told stories about when he used to bartend at the Red Lion Inn in San Diego during the 1960s.  This was a popular hangout for Chargers' players and coaches at the time.  He said that Al Davis, then Sid Gillman's receivers coach, used to check the tips that the players would leave behind, and would pocket the extra money if he thought the players left too much. 

He also spoke about coaches meetings that lasted late into the night.  Gillman and Chuck Noll from the Chargers, talking shop with Don Coryell and John Madden from San Diego State.  Obviously, Mickey couldn't remember specifics on the conversations, but it makes you wonder... how much of modern professional football was started in that bar?

More below the jump...

The Idiotic Argument

The argument against Don Coryell is easy to make.  He only won 111 games against 83 losses as an NFL Head Coach (though he is still the only person with over 100 victories in both college and the NFL).  He never won a Super Bowl.  The Chargers never played defense under Coryell.

It's also completely wrong.

Don Coryell, a member of the Holy Trinity of modern offensive coaches (along with Sid Gillman and Bill Walsh), has more than earned his place in the Hall of Fame.  While his on-field credentials look suspect upon initial review, they mask a legacy of offensive genius that revolutionized the NFL, a revolution that has produced NFL champions, rewrote the offensive and defensive playbooks of every team in the league, and continues to validate his legacy even today.

The Hidden Ingredient Behind "Student Body Right."

It's not talked about much today, but Coryell was a running coach early in his career.  While at Whittier College (1957-1959), he developed the I-formation as a means for featuring outstanding running backs.  He spent 1 year as an assistant under John McKay at USC before moving on to San Diego State.  Consider, in the years after Coryell took the I-formation to USC, how many Heisman-winning RBs were produced under McKay and later, John Robinson: Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, and Marcus Allen.  The list of great USC runners without a Heisman from that era would also include Ricky Bell and Anthony Davis.

San Diego State re-invents the college game

Don Coryell arrived at San Diego State in 1961, inheriting a floundering program.  By the time he left following 1972, he compiled a career record 104-19-2, riding the arms of QBs such as Brian Sipe, Rod Dowhower, Jesse Freitas, Don Horn and Dennis Shaw.  He demonstrated a gift for identifying young coaching talent - future Super Bowl champion head coaches John Madden and Joe Gibbs were on his staff, not to mention future great offensive coaches like Ernie Zampese and Jim Hanifan.

The Proto-Modern Offense in St. Louis

Coryell went to the moribund St. Louis Cardinals in 1973.  By the time he left in 1977, he had not only delivered 2 Division Titles (in the midst of Landry-Staubach dynasty in Dallas, no less), but behind QB Jim Hart, RB Jim Otis, WR/RB Terry Metcalf, WR Mel Gray, TE Jackie Smith, and OLs Dan Dierdorf and Conrad Dobler, he showed the NFL the shape of things to come.  The Cardinals were top-10 in both scoring and yardage from 1974-1976.  Coryell is still the winningest Head Coach in Cardinals history.

Air Coryell

Following his mid-season hiring in 1978 by the San Diego Chargers, Coryell proceeded to literally change the NFL. It has been stated ad nauseam that the Chargers led the league in passing from 1979-1983.  Below are some notable year-by-year accomplishments from their heyday of 1979-1981:


The Chargers finish with a 12-4 record, 1st in the AFC West and #1 in the AFC.  They scored 411 points (#2 offense in the league) against 246 points allowed (#1 defense in the league).

Dan Fouts sets NFL passing yardage record with 4,082 yards, 24 TDs and 24 INTs.  He becomes the 2nd player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season (Joe Namath).

The Chargers played both Super Bowl participants that season, and outscored them by a combined 75-23 margin (35-7 vs. Steelers, 40-16 vs. Rams).

WRs Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson finish with a combined 133 receptions, 2098 yards, and 14 TDs.  Jefferson averages 17.6 yards per catch, Joiner 14.0


The Chargers finish with an 11-5 record, 1st in the AFC West and #1 in the AFC.  They scored 418 points (#2) against 327 points (#18), but lead the league with 60 QB sacks.

Dan Fouts breaks his single season passing record with 4,715 yards, 30 TDs and 24 INTs.  He averages 8 yards per pass attempt.

WRs Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson, and TE Kellen Winslow combine for 240 receptions, 3762 yards, and 26 TDs.  All three of these receivers average over 14 yards per completion.  It's the 1st time in NFL history that 2 receivers and a TE all surpass 1,000 yards receiving.


The Chargers finish with a 10-6 record, 1st in the AFC West and #3 in the AFC.  They scored 478 points (#1) against 390 points (#26).

Dan Fouts breaks his single season passing record again with 4,802 yards, 33 TDs and 17 INTs.  He becomes the 1st QB in NFL history to average 300 yards passing per game.

WRs Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and TE Kellen Winslow combine for 210 receptions, 3,120 yards, and 22 TDs.

RB Chuck Muncie runs for 1,144 yards on 251 carries and scored 19 rushing TDs.

This is the postseason of the epic 41-38 playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, widely regarded as the greatest game in NFL history.

Coryell would return the Chargers to the postseason in the strike-shortened 1982 season, where Fouts would set one more record - averaging 320.3 yards passing per game over 9 games.  If this was stretched out to 16 games, Fouts would have become the NFL's 1st 5,000 yard passer at 5,124 yards - this would still be an NFL record today. 

Only 4 quarterbacks have bettered Fouts' 4,802 yard passing season in 1981: Dan Marino, Drew Brees (2008), Kurt Warner (1999), and Tom Brady (2007).  Of those 4, only Marino's 5,084 yards came in the same timeframe (1984), and as noted below, Warner's numbers were produced in the Coryell offense.

Coryell's Legacy...

Offensive Coordinator Joe Gibbs took the Coryell offense to Washington, and he produced 3 Super Bowls from 1981-1992.  In their lone Super Bowl loss, the Redskins produced the highest scoring NFL offense until 1998, with 541 points.  It should also be noted that Gibbs won his Super Bowls with 3 different starting QBs (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien).  Other notable players included WR Art Monk, RB Joe Washington, WR Ricky Sanders, WR Gark Clark, TE Clint Didier, RB John Riggins, and "The Hogs" (Mark May, Russ Grimm, and Jim Lachey, among others).

Gibbs' successor, Ernie Zampese, took this system with him to the Los Angeles Rams.  In addition to making stars of QB Jim Everett, WRs Flipper Anderson and Henry Ellard, he also produced a young offensive assistant named Norv Turner.  Zampese later went to New England, and helped QB Drew Bledsoe, WRs Shawn Jefferson, Terry Glenn, TE Ben Coates, and RB Curtis Martin post huge numbers.

Turner took the Coryell offense to Dallas, which won 3 Super Bowls in 4 seasons, helping to make QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, and WR Michael Irvin Hall-of-Fame players.  This list of other contributors would include TE Jay Novacek, FB Daryl Johnston, WR Alvin Harper, WR Kelvin Martin, and OLs Mark Tuinei, Erik Williams, and Nate Newton.

Hanifan and later Coryell assistant Al Saunders, along with young offensive coordinator Mike Martz, took the Coryell offense to St. Louis, and produced "The Greatest Show on Turf" winning a Super Bowl in 2 trips from 1999-2001.  The players included QB Kurt Warner, WRs Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az Hakim, Ricky Proehl, RB Marshall Faulk, and OL Orlando Pace.

Sanders took the Coryell Offense to Kansas City in 2001-2006, producing a strong offense with the help of QB Trent Green, TE Tony Gonzalez, RBs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, and OLs Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, and Will Shields.

Cam Cameron (Turner's QB coach in Washington), after arriving in Baltimore in 2008, has helped develop QB Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice into the core of Baltimore's future on offense.

In 2009, the NFL saw 10 QBs throw for at least 4,000 yards.  Until 1983, it had only been done 5 times (3 of them were Dan Fouts, the others were Namath and... Brian Sipe).

Don't Fix What's Not Broken (I mean you, Kevin Gilbride).

The Chargers kept the Coryell offense through 1996, making productive players out of QB Stan Humphries, RBs Marion Butts and Natrone Means, WR/RB Ronnie Harmon, WRs Anthony Miller and Tony Martin, and OL Courtney Hall. These were the key offensive playmakers that got the Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance.

The Chargers brought the Coryell offense back to San Diego in 2001, and under the tutelage of Cam Cameron  and Norv Turner, have made stars of LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, and Darrren Sproles.

This may be the lasting legacy of Coryell's genius.  Compare players from the 1981 San Diego Chargers to their counterparts from the 2009 San Diego Chargers.  Some of the similarities are striking:

QBs Comp. Att. Pct. Yards TD INT Yds/Attempt
Fouts (1981)
360 609 59.1 4802 33 17 7.9
Rivers (2009) 317 486 65.2 4254 28 9 8.8
WRs Rec. Yds. TD Yds/Rec
Joiner (1981)
70 1188 7 17.0
Jackson (2009)
68 1167 9 17.2
Chandler (1981)
52 857 5 16.5
Floyd (2009)
45 776 1 17.2
TEs Rec. Yds. TD Yds/Rec
Winslow (1981)
88 1075 10 12.2
Gates (2009)
79 1157 8 14.6


Just to recap - Don Coryell created an offense that has:

  • Produced 7 Super Bowl victories in 9 appearances.
  • Created many of the greatest offenses and statistical seasons in NFL History, not mention a few current and several future Hall-of-Famers.
  • (Along with the Walsh offense) Forced numerous defensive changes, including free substitution - leading to the nickel and dime defenses, Buddy Ryan's blitzing "46", the Parcells / Belichick 3-4 defenses of the mid-late 80s, the Capers / LeBeau zone blitz, and Dungy's Tampa 2.
  • Continued to be effective more than 30 years after it was introduced to the NFL.

Now, explain to me that Don Coryell doesn't deserve the Hall of Fame with a straight face?

If you even make the attempt, you just don't know football.