Legendary NFL coach Don Coryell died last Thursday in La Mesa, Calif., after a long illness. He was 85. Coryell is the only coach to have won at least 100 games in both college (at San Diego State) and the pros (with the Cardinals and Chargers). He is considered a forefather of the modern passing attack and helped shape the NFL game seen today. Coryell's offenses were as entertaining as they were prolific--relentless aerial assaults that took teams to Super Bowls and influenced a generation of coaches
HOW AIR CORYELL CHANGED FOOTBALL
Norv Turner woke up on Monday, Feb. 1, 1993, in possession of a Super Bowl title. As offensive coordinator of the Cowboys, he had called plays the previous evening in the Rose Bowl, guiding Dallas to a 52--17 rout of the Bills. Quarterback Troy Aikman had thrown four touchdown passes to three receivers and had been named the game's MVP.
Super Bowl XXVII would occupy an important place on the NFL time line: The Cowboys had returned to greatness following a decade of mediocrity and only three years after making a series of jarring changes—notably the ouster of their beloved founding head coach, Tom Landry, by their new owner, oilman Jerry Jones. The victory in Pasadena would launch a minidynasty, as Dallas would win three NFL titles in four years.
That Super Bowl was significant in another way. It had showcased Aikman and a Dallas passing game that would be an NFL staple throughout the '90s. Aikman had peppered the Buffalo defense with scoring passes: a 23-yarder to tight end Jay Novacek, running straight up the middle; a 19-yard slant to wideout Michael Irvin, slashing diagonally across the field; another 18-yard touchdown to Irvin, planted at the right sideline; and a 45-yard bomb to receiver Alvin Harper, open far beyond the deepest Bills defender.
At his home in San Francisco, former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts had watched Aikman on TV like a man staring in a mirror. On the morning after the game he called Turner, offered congratulations and then said, "O.K., let me see if I got this right." Fouts then recited the play calls on each of Aikman's four touchdowns.
"He's like, 'The first touchdown was 370, right?'" Turner remembers. "'Then the second one was 839? The third one looked to me like 787 Special. And then the last one was 989.' He called every single play, exactly." Turner laughed and Fouts laughed back, two men linked across time by another man's genius.
Fouts was a 27-year-old quarterback for the Chargers in September 1978 when team owner Eugene V. Klein forced coach Tommy Prothro's resignation and replaced him with Don Coryell. The new coach, 53 years old, had built winners at San Diego State and with the St. Louis Cardinals by installing an inventive pass-first offense that attacked defenses as few others had before it. In 1987 Turner, who had joined the Los Angeles Rams two years earlier as wide-receivers coach, began working with new offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who had coached under Coryell at San Diego State and with the Chargers. Fouts and Turner shared a passion for the Coryell offense, and they were fluent in its language.
Fouts rode the Coryell offense into the Hall of Fame, directing the explosive San Diego attack that redefined the passing game through the 1980s. Turner took Coryell 101 to Dallas in 1991 and taught it to Aikman and Irvin and the rest of the Cowboys. The scheme would spread to many other teams over the years, all because a former Army paratrooper got sick of losing two games a year to deeper teams while coaching at San Diego State in the 1960s. So he built an offense that combined technical simplicity with daring downfield strikes in almost every play. Pass routes were numbered in a basic 1 through 9 ladder. Quarterbacks were instructed to read from deep to short and to get rid of the ball quickly. Formations with four wide receivers became common, and eventually players in motion became routine. On defense, an entire sport backpedaled.
Mike Martz watched Coryell's San Diego State teams while he was playing tight end at San Diego Mesa (Community) College in the late '60s. Three decades later, in 1999, Martz became offensive coordinator of the Rams, who won Super Bowl XXXIV. Their attack came to be called The Greatest Show on Turf, but in truth it was just the Coryell offense, evolved. During the height of St. Louis's success Martz met up with Coryell, and the two were photographed together. Martz later sent the photo to Coryell with the following inscription: Coach Coryell, we are all grateful to you for your impact on the game. You changed it forever ... the 'Godfather' of today's passing game.