- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The Counter Trey, among the most dominant plays in the game's history, sprang from an unlikely source. "The whole counter started when we saw some film on Nebraska in the early '80s," says Gibbs. "Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front, and we were watching it and thought, God, that's good stuff. So we stole it. We had no pride whatsoever, and really, nobody does in this game. We all steal things."
Behind the Counter Trey, Gibbs kept throwing Coryell's pass routes, sometimes bunching three wide receivers on one side of the formation. "We kept the numbering system, the pass tree, everything," says Gibbs. "The main thing we did that was different was that we ran the hang out of the ball to get [the defense] close to the line of scrimmage, and then we majored in the deep ball." Gibbs is as appreciative of Coryell's influence as anyone: "Mr. Cooke [longtime Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke] once said, 'There are no geniuses in football.' But Don really was a genius."
A continent away, the Rams were using their own version of Air Coryell. Zampese and coach John Robinson melded the Coryell passing game with the USC-based running game that Robinson had learned from John McKay and used at Tailback U. With quarterback Jim Everett and lethal F Post runner Henry Ellard leading the way, the '89 Rams came up one win short of the Super Bowl. They also launched another coach to prominence. After the 1990 season Turner, who had assisted Zampese with the Rams' offense, was contacted by Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. In two years since taking over America's Team, Johnson had improved it from 1--15 to 7--9 but wanted more from his offense. He interviewed Turner and offered him the job as offensive coordinator—on the condition that he bring the Coryell scheme with him.
Turner found an ideal set of players for the system. The third-year starting quarterback, Aikman, who had thrown 36 interceptions and suffered 58 sacks in two seasons, was a Coryell quarterback waiting to happen. "The entire passing game is predicated on having a quarterback who will turn the ball loose," says Turner. "Get on his fifth step, or his seventh step, and when that back foot hits the ground, the ball is out. And he has to have great anticipation, because you're throwing into holes. So in Dallas we inherit a guy, Troy, who is as good as anyone who has played in the system because he's such a good athlete. He would separate from the center quicker than anyone I've ever been around and still get set and get the ball out of his hand and make the throws. People teaching the offense still show the first touchdown pass in our first Super Bowl, when Troy throws the slant to Michael Irvin and the ball goes inches—I mean inches—above the linebacker's fingertips. That's a throw that Troy was willing to make, and you have to be willing to make it."
If the F Post defined the early years of the Coryell offense, it was the Bang 8 that defined these Cowboys. (The Bang 8 was so named because it was a Coryell "8" route thrown very quickly—bang. It was later referred to throughout football as the skinny post because it was a post pattern but not as deep as a traditional post and was consequently run at a more severe, or skinny, angle). Novacek ran the F Post brilliantly from the flanked tight end position, but it was Aikman and Irvin who made it almost undefendable.
By the time the Cowboys had won their third Super Bowl, after the 1995 season, defensive coaches were working feverishly to counter this offensive surge, primarily with the invention of the zone blitz by Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who then popularized it in Pittsburgh with Dom Capers. In St. Louis, Martz was committed to staying a step ahead of the defensive wizards. "With all the zone blitzes, offenses wanted to know where every defender was coming from," says Martz. "So offenses got real conservative again. Keeping another receiver in to block, that sort of thing. We decided to do just the opposite, and that was all about the Coryell system. We spread 'em out and said, 'Good luck finding the guy we're throwing it to.' We took the F Post and ran it with five different positions from every formation in the playbook. We ran it with Az Hakim, with Isaac Bruce—and Marshall Faulk was an unbelievable post runner. At one point I counted 137 ways we could run the F Post."
Operating Martz's system was none other than Green, now a Ram. Green completed 28 of 32 passes in three exhibition starts, but his fun didn't last—he went down with torn ligaments in his left knee in the third preseason game. The offense was handed over to Warner, a 28-year-old undrafted free agent who was a veteran of NFL Europe, Arena Football and, at one point, a grocery store where he stocked shelves. The system didn't miss a beat; the Rams went 13--3 and won the Super Bowl. Warner threw 41 touchdown passes, and a legend was born.
"I loved the system from Day One," says Warner. "I loved that it was deep first, then checkdowns. The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.
"The F Post was still a big part of the offense," Warner continues. "The Bang 8 got to be a little tougher because in '99 and after that, coverages were starting to change. Instead of getting single high safeties, you would get a lot more four across, which made it harder to throw that skinny post. So we made a living off what we call a Big 4, a deep in pattern. Our inside guy would push hard on the safety and force him deep, and then we would throw inside with the Big 4, like 18 or 20 yards deep, and that's where my accuracy was really good and I could separate myself from other quarterbacks."
In October 2007, Jason Garrett sat behind his desk in an office on the first floor of the Cowboys' sprawling suburban complex, Valley Ranch. The desk was half covered by play diagrams, and a whiteboard on the wall was peppered with game-plan notes, like arcane graffiti. Asked to describe the foundation of his offense, Garrett leaned back and said, "It's what you would have to call the Coryell offense." More than 40 years had passed since Don Coryell grew tired of losing two games a year at San Diego State, but the offense he founded had endured like little else in football.