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Whittier went 23-5-1 in Coryell's tenure there. After his one year at USC he was hired to salvage football at San Diego State, winner of just seven games in the previous four seasons. Coryell made the Aztecs better immediately, winning 38 games in his first five seasons. Yet they also lost two games a year, and those losses galled him. "Two games, every goddam year," he said. Coryell concluded that the best way to win was to make full use of quarterbacks and wide receivers, and beat more complete teams with the pass. "I decided, hell, you can't just go out and run the ball against better teams," he said. "You've got to mix it up. So we started throwing the ball."
Over the next six seasons San Diego State was 55-9-1, becoming a national phenomenon. The Aztecs sometimes drew more fans than the Chargers, who were then a power in the AFL. Among Coryell's assistant coaches were Gibbs, Zampese and John Madden.
In 1964 senior Rod Dowhower (who later coached Stanford and the Indianapolis Colts) led a passing attack that gained 2,083 yards, nearly double the '61 total. Junior flanker Gary Garrison (who would become an AFL All-Star with the Chargers) caught 78 passes from Dowhower in '64 and 70 from Don Horn a year later, for a total of 26 touchdowns. Wide receivers Haven Moses, Ken Burrow and Isaac Curtis would follow Garrison into pro football. Horn was followed by Dennis Shaw, and Shaw by Brian Sipe; all would play in the NFL, as would at least another two dozen of Coryell's Aztecs players.
That was just the beginning. Coryell would guide the Cardinals to two division titles in the brutal NFC East and the Chargers to three division championships in the AFC West. So how, exactly, did he do it?
On that chilly winter afternoon in 2008 Coryell sat at the dining table in his waterfront home, ignoring a fruit and cheese plate as he became absorbed in explaining his offense. From a canvas shopping bag he pulled a thick three-ring binder with a small index card affixed to the front: SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: 1979. "Right here," he said, smacking the front of the binder with his right hand, which was adorned with a College Football Hall of Fame ring. "This is how we did it."
Coryell's offense was based on three elements: simplicity, spacing and timing.
It is unclear which early sideline mavens first used numbers, rather than names, to identify pass routes. What is unquestioned is that Coryell's numbering system has been the most enduring and efficient. The foundation: Routes for the outside receivers in a formation (typically designated the X and Z receivers) were assigned single digits, from 1 to 9; routes for an inside (or Y) receiver were assigned multiples of 10, from 10 to 90. A basic pass play might begin with the number 837, which meant the X receiver ran an 8 route, the Y receiver ran a 30 and the Z receiver ran a 7.
Coryell flipped through pages in the binder until he arrived at a page entitled "Routes for X and Y." Half the page was filled with a diagram showing half an offensive line and a single wide receiver. A series of lines emanated from the lone wideout, each one numbered. Below the diagram was a key, with a description of each route, in intricate detail. The numbering system would become intrinsic not only to the offensive language of football but also to the lexicon of the broadcast booth.
Here are some examples for the X and Z receivers, who can be split ends or flankers: A 1 route is a basic out. A 2 is a hard slant. A 6 is a curl. An 8 is a skinny post. A 9 is a go route, or fly pattern. The route descriptions are precise. For instance, on the list of routes for the Y receiver, who can be a slot player, tight end or running back, a 20 is explained like this: "Release inside and sprint across field aiming for 7 YD depth on the other side of formation." This is essentially a "drag" route or, in the West Coast offense, a "drive" route.
Coryell created the numbering system for two reasons. First, it was easy to learn quickly. At San Diego State, he relied heavily on junior college players, who would play for him for only two seasons. "You can get a guy and teach him the whole thing in two days," said Coryell. The second reason, and a key to the system's longevity, was that it was visual rather than cognitive. Whereas many offenses named each play with a word (say, Cowboy or Maverick), the backbone of every Coryell play was a two- or three-digit number that not only named the play but also told what it would look like. A play with the number 335 showed the X receiver running a deep out (3), the Y receiver also running a deep out (30) and the Z receiver running a comeback (5).