clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

San Diego Chargers Passing Offense 101

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Getty Images

First of all, now that football season is here, it makes sense for me to write a post that talks about the basics of the Chargers' pass offense. Second, I finally have a decent computer at home that allows me to make some of my own diagrams. Third, this is not a god-forsaken stadium post (or lack of any significant news whatsoever). Fourth, it's not another one of those pro-Norv Turner screeds that I sometimes write that really seems to make people angry.

I'm hoping that this will also complement Orz's terrific Playbook Confidential posts that we'll see throughout the season.

More below the jump... but a nod to this forum: Jerry Campbell Football: Coryell Offense Play Calling. It was immensely helpful in constructing the diagrams in this article.

What is past is prologue. A brief primer on the Coryell Offense.

The Chargers have been running this offense since October 1978, excepting the 1997-2000 stretch operated by Kevin Gilbride, June Jones, and Geep Chryst.

Norv has been coaching the Coryell system ever since he was an assistant coach under Ernie Zampese with the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1980s. Most everyone who runs the system has their own spin on the system.

The emphasis on power running led Joe Gibbs to develop a run-heavy version of the offense for the Washington Redskins, which eventually led to the Counter Trey...

"The whole counter started, to tell you the truth, when we saw some film on Nebraska in the early '80s. Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front... so we stole it.

-Joe Gibbs on the Counter-Trey, from Tim Layden's "Blood, Sweat, and Chalk," page 86

Coryell himself, and some of his more stringent adherents (i.e. Mike Martz), would be extremely reluctant to put quarterbacks in the shotgun, because the quarterback's drop is related to the route depth. When the quarterback's foot hits the ground on the last step of the drop, the ball comes out.

Martz is also not interested in leaving extra players in to block, he wants everyone in the pattern (cue Hacksaw). This leads to lots of point scored ... but also to quarterbacks getting killed with big hits when the offensive line isn't top-notch - see Warner, Kurt and Bulger, Marc as Exhibits A and B.

"With all the zone blitzes, what happened with offenses was they wanted to know where every defender was coming from. So offenses got real conservative again ... we decided to do just the opposite... we spread 'em out and said 'Good luck finding the guy we're throwing to.'"

-Mike Martz on spreading defenses out , from "Blood Sweat, and Chalk," page 88

Al Saunders uses pre-snap movement to dictate coverages, a trick he developed with Coryell in San Diego, when moving Kellen Winslow Sr. around changed the defense. He then employed this trick to great effect in Kansas City with Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez.

But the basics are the same...

Anyone who has played in the Coryell system can still hear an assistant coach - (Ernie) Zampese, Turner, (Cam) Cameron, (Jason) Garrett - screaming in a quarterback's ear as he drops back from center: Get it out! Get it out! Get it out!

"Never pass up an open receiver. If he's there, stop reading and throw it to him." - Don Coryell

"Never, ever worry about an incompletion. You don't give a damn about incompletions. just go back and get it the next time." - Don Coryell

- from "Blood, Sweat, and Chalk," page 80

And, of course, the Passing Trees.

Passing Trees

it goes without saying that there are other routes, most notably option routes, plus variations for zone versus man defense, but still, it starts with these trees.

The Outside Receivers (usually X and Z) use the Passing Tree in Figure 1. Here's the basic route breakdown.


  1. Hitch - break at 5 yards.
  2. Slant - break at 5 yards.
  3. Out - break at 13 yards.
  4. In - break at 13 yards.
  5. Comeback - break at 15 yards.
  6. Curl - break at 15 yards.
  7. Post-Corner- break in at 15 yards, out at 16-17 yards.
  8. Post - break at 15 yards.
  9. Go.
The inside receivers use the Passing Tree in Figure 2. This is usually Y for the TE, although backs and slot receivers may use these patterns as well.

  1. Flat - run to 4 yards, then parallel to the line of scrimmage.
  2. Cross (or Drag as the Walsh Acolytes might call it) - break at 7 yards.
  3. Out - break at 10 yards.
  4. In - break at 10-12 yards.
  5. Comeback - break at 10-12 yards.
  6. Curl - break at 10-12 yards.
  7. Corner - break at 12 yards.
  8. Post - break at 12 yards.
  9. Seam.
What's beautiful about this system is that instead of memorizing hundred of different plays, all you have to do is memorize the tree branches and the sight adjustments for those branches.

An actual play call in this system might go something like this: Texas 525 H Flat S Go (Figure 3). I have omitted any information about pass protection calls for the line (and backs) because I have no clue how those tie-in.


  • Texas = personnel + formation. For this example, Playbook Confidential would call this an "11" personnel look (3WR, 1 TE, 1RB). This "11" formation shows an even distribution of receivers (i.e. 2 WRs to the left, TE and WR right). There's no telling what the Chargers (or any other team) actually call their personnel + formation; I'd bet that the NFL's hyper-paranoid coaches change it regularly.
  • 5 = 15 yard comeback route by the X receiver.
  • 2 = 7 yard in route by the Y receiver.
  • 5 = 15 yard comeback route by the Z receiver.
  • H Flat = Flat route by the H receiver (usually halfback).
  • S Go = Go (or Seam) route by the S receiver (usually slot receiver).
Depending on the defense, these routes can be broken off, or adjusted slightly - allowing a receiver to "sit" in a zone gap would be one example.

"It was always a great thing for me... the first thing I do when a play comes into my headset is visualize it. In this system, with every play call, you're actually telling everybody what to do by what you say. Instead of saying 'I Right Omaha,' or something like that, you're saying 'R 428 H Stop,' and that tells everybody what to do, instead of relying on their memorization of something."

-Trent Green, former NFL QB under Turner, Martz, and Saunders (from "Blood, Sweat, and Chalk," page 79)

Check out the linked YouTube clips (not chosen for the highly annoying music), and see how many of these routes you can see in the highlights.

Norv will use motion, however it's usually the TE or FB moving to get a cheap pre-snap read (i.e. is the defense in man or zone). He has also introduced the lead draw (better known as the play that put Emmitt Smith in the Hall-of-Fame) as a bread and butter running play, changed the deep post to a skinny post (the aforementioned Bang 8), added a shallow drag and out-n-ups for Gates, and obviously has no problem putting Rivers in the shotgun.

In Closing

Those are the basics. When you watch the Chargers on offense, keep the Passing Trees in the back of your mind. See how the routes are combined to attack multiple levels of the field simultaneously (i.e. the vertical stretch, as the late Al Davis liked to call it).

Hopefully, as this season goes on, we can start tying together some play analysis.