Coryell recalled, "Gene Klein told me, 'I hired you to throw the football. Now throw it.' I said, 'That's a damn good idea.'"
It would be the true birth of what came to be known as Air Coryell. For one season Coryell moved conservatively, but the Chargers won seven of their last eight to finish at 9--7. In the off-season Coryell brought in Gibbs and his old buddy Zampese. Fouts was already positioned as the quarterback, and wide receiver Charlie Joiner had come by way of a trade from the Bengals in '76. Wideout John Jefferson had been the Chargers' first pick in the '78 draft, and in the spring of '79 Coryell would take 6'5", 251-pound tight end Kellen Winslow, a transcendent athlete from Missouri.
What resulted was a splendid blend of players and system. Joiner was a brilliant, cerebral receiver, perfectly suited to an offense in which he had to make decisions based on how he was played by defensive backs. "I learned more from Joiner than he learned from me," says Zampese. Winslow was a wideout in a tight end's body. "If you put him in the conventional tight end position, linebackers would just pound him every time," says Gibbs. "So we started putting him on the move and getting him spread out so they couldn't hammer him. And then they couldn't cover him, either." And Fouts had the unflagging courage to set, stand, throw and take the pounding that inevitably followed.
To a system already revolutionary in its spreads and routes, Coryell now added motion and screens and more formations every day. "[We had] a chance to make a big play on every snap," recalls Fouts. "I would get in the huddle on the first series on Sunday, and I'd just say, 'O.K., boys, 40 [points] today.' Or, '50 today.'"
There was, always, a quirkiness to Coryell. He had an odd voice—anyone who knew him could imitate his urgent nasal inflection—and he had a piercing focus that disarmed his colleagues, or made them laugh. One morning Coryell climbed into his car for the drive to work after putting the family's garbage cans into the trunk, planning to leave them at the bottom of the driveway. Before he put the car in gear his mind had turned to football, and he arrived at work with the garbage still in the trunk, where it fermented throughout the day.
Over the next four seasons the Chargers went 39--18 and twice played in the AFC title game. They led the NFL in passing offense for six consecutive years beginning in 1978.
Signature plays emerged from the weekly brainstorming. Joiner caught 213 passes for 3,328 yards from 1979 through '81, almost exclusively on crossing routes in the middle of the soft zone defenses that were typical in those years. "Charlie wasn't very fast, and neither was I," says Fouts, "but my drop-back and his routes seemed to just time out perfectly."
A single play dominated the offense: F Post. There were dozens of variations, called endlessly by Gibbs and then by Zampese, who dialed up the F Post so often that it became known simply as an Ernie route. The most common call was 525 F Post Swing. Both outside receivers would run 15-yard comeback routes, carrying the corners to the outside. The Y receiver would run a 20, or a shallow cross, occupying the vision of the linebackers and safeties. The F receiver—a running back or a second tight end, depending on the formation—would then run an option post route, finding his own open path. A running back would run a short swing pattern. "It got to be the best play in the whole system," says Zampese, "and they still run it."
In NFL front offices across the country, team execs watched Air Coryell take off. And, no surprise, it wasn't long before they began plucking off Coryell's assistants in hopes of replicating this new thing. The first to leave for a top job in the NFL was Gibbs, hired to coach the Redskins in 1981. He installed the Coryell offense, then sought to take away any semblance of predictability by adding dozens of new formations and shifts from which to run the same plays. He also built in a power running game centered on counter plays. Gibbs's Redskins lost their first five games in 1981 but won the Super Bowl in '82, lost it in '83 and won twice more, in '87 and '91.
"No matter what you have in football," says Gibbs, "you need something you can do really well, and run it over and over again. We had the counter game." For much of the '80s the Redskins operated the counter like a fine piece of machinery, using the inside zone counter and the outside zone counter and then developing a third counter play that entered the language of football, fittingly enough, as the Counter Trey. The strong side of the offensive line delivered gap blocks while backside guard Russ Grimm would pull and trap the first defender outside the tight end; at the same time backside tackle Joe Jacoby would pull and lead first through the hole between the strongside guard and tackle, barrelling upfield, 305 pounds in full lumbering flight, leading John Riggins or George Rogers or Earnest Byner for big chunks of yardage.