Even in the Coryell system, added words were necessary to describe formations and added letters (H and F) to designate the routes of running backs—as in Scat (formation) 435 (receivers' routes) F Cross (an inside crossing route by a running back). But every play was built from the foundation of the digits.
"It was always a great thing for me," says former NFL quarterback Trent Green, who played in the Coryell system under Turner in Washington and later Martz in St. Louis. "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,' you're saying, 'R 428 H Stop,' and that tells everybody what to do, instead of relying on their memorization."
The spacing element of the Coryell offense—in which every route was designed to make distance receivers more difficult to cover—had its roots in the Meyer book that Coryell studied. "It's one of the huge keys to the entire offense," says quarterback Kurt Warner, who operated the system for the Rams. "It's so emphasized to all the receivers: Get off the ball and get downfield, get great separation between your deep route and your six- to eight-yard route." If the Coryell system was executed properly, defenders were forced to cover huge chunks of earth to blanket receivers.
The final component was timing; from the early days Coryell harped on wedding speed and precision. "We put a timing element on every one of the routes," says Zampese. "Say we were asking the X receiver to run a 1 route. We would tell the guy, 'Three steps, and when your third inside foot hits the ground, that's when you break! Just go ahead and change direction. No fakes, just timing.' And the key was to run as fast as you can. We told them not to round off their cuts, but we had them running the routes so fast that they had to round them off a little bit."
Just as important was the speed of the quarterback. Anyone who has played in the Coryell system can still hear an assistant—Zampese, Turner, Garrett—screaming in his ear as he drops back from the center, Get it out! Get it out! Get it out! "On Don's pass routes, normally there were three parts," says Gibbs. "There's always a deep portion. And you'd have a medium portion and a short checkdown. Don's reads [for the quarterback] would always start with the deep shot, so you didn't have to guess and gamble by calling a specific deep shot. It was already there."
Coryell drilled two other principles into his quarterbacks' heads: 1) Never pass up an open receiver. Stop reading and throw it to him. 2) Never, ever worry about an incompletion. You don't give a damn about incompletions. Just go back and get it the next time.
When Coryell arrived in St. Louis in 1973, his first move was to restore eight-year veteran Jim Hart, 29, as the starting quarterback. Hart was the classic Coryell QB: durable and decisive, with a quick release. "Don came in and looked at film on Jim Hart," says Jim Hanifan, who came to the Cardinals with Coryell from San Diego State. "Jimmy had been sitting on the bench. Don looked at the film and said, 'Screw that. This is my quarterback.'"
Coryell gave Hart one order: Don't get hit. (Translation: Get rid of the ball.) The Cardinals took a year to master Coryell's system and then won 31 games in three years, including two division titles. Coryell expanded the offense, adding multiple formations and putting in several screen passes to best use his speedy little running back, Terry Metcalf. In 1974 and '76 Hart led the NFC in touchdown passes.
"Back in those years," says Hanifan, "a lot of teams would just sit back on defense and Don would feast on them. So they started to bring pressure, and Don would just say, 'We are not going to let this happen. We're going to attack.'"
Four games into the 1978 season, the Chargers hired Coryell as coach. Coryell, who had been let go by the Cardinals (their owner got antsy after a 7--7 season in '77), was introduced to the players on the morning of Monday, Sept. 25, one day after a 24--3 loss to Green Bay, the team's third consecutive defeat. More eerily, it was also the day on which 144 people were killed when a 727 jet collided with a Cessna 172 over San Diego. "Don stands up there," says Fouts, "and he says, 'People think I'm crazy to take this job. I'm still getting paid by the St. Louis Cardinals. But I'm a little bit crazy. I'm crazy enough to turn this thing around.' And we're all just looking at each other, and I'm thinking, Holy s---, what a refreshing attitude. And from that point on, we were just ready to take off."