Saturday, August 5, 2023

Don Coryell: The Innovator Who Transformed Football

The Pro Football Hall of Fame finally righted a longstanding wrong on Saturday afternoon by inducting legendary coach Don Coryell. Known for his pioneering offensive schemes and aggressive vertical passing attacks, Coryell was a true football visionary who revolutionized the modern passing game. His induction comes after decades of being overlooked, despite a coaching career that left an indelible impact on pro football.

Coryell garnered 11 years of college coaching experience at several schools before getting hired at San Diego State in 1961. His teams boasted prolific offenses that helped the Aztecs win multiple small college national titles. He brought his innovative approach to the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973, designing the renowned system that would soon be known as "Air Coryell". This emphasized throwing the ball downfield with timed pass patterns, rather than simply running the ball as most teams did at the time. Coryell took advantage of the arm strength of quarterback Jim Hart and the talents of receivers like Mel Gray and Jackie Smith and saw the Cardinals' scoring output jump from 18 points per game in 1972 to 26 points per game in 1974.

When Coryell was hired by the San Diego Chargers in 1978, his aerial attack reached even greater heights. With Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts leading the charge, the Chargers lit up scoreboards to the delight of fans. The team averaged 26 points per game during Coryell's tenure, including multiple seasons above 28 points per game. The 1981 Chargers remain one of the highest-scoring teams ever, averaging over 30 points. 

Coryell spearheaded several important offensive concepts that are now commonplace in the NFL. He implemented the route tree numbering system for receivers and took advantage of passing lanes in zone coverage through timed routes. He also made the tight end a primary receiving threat, which allowed him to utilize Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow. Coryell turned passing offenses into a deep, dynamic, and multi-layered part of the game.


While Coryell will always be known for his offensive genius, he also achieved great success as a head coach overall. He led the Cardinals to three straight playoff appearances from 1974-1976, their first since 1948. With the Chargers, Coryell reached the playoffs four straight years from 1979-1982, including two AFC Championship games. His 111 career regular season NFL victories underscore his overall excellence. He was the first head coach to earn over 100 career wins at both the college and pro levels.

Don Coryell left a permanent imprint on the sport by revolutionizing offensive strategy and pushing football into the modern passing era. His long-awaited induction into the Hall of Fame immortalizes Coryell's contributions and recognizes him as one of the most influential coaches ever. Though overdue, his rightful enshrinement in Canton is a fitting honor for the innovator who changed football forever.

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