NFL offenses have come a long way in the past 50 years.
During the first several decades of the league’s existence, NFL teams primarily ran the ball.
There were passes sprinkled in here and there, but coaches prided themselves by rolling out a dependable ball carrier or two.
The running back’s job was to smash into the teeth of the defense and continue doing so the entire game.
Eventually, a few coaches decided to do more than throw a few passes.
They wanted to test opponents by throwing the ball early and often.
One of those early pioneers was Don Coryell.
Entering the history books as Hall of Famer No. 364, Don Coryell's resume includes:
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 10, 2023
After two decades of coaching at the high school and college levels, Coryell made the jump to the NFL.
During stints with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers, Coryell developed a style of offense that was a quarterback’s best friend.
Soon, the “Air Coryell” offense proliferated the NFL and many of its concepts are still used today.
This is the story of how Don Coryell influenced the modern-day NFL.
Donald David Coryell was born on October 17, 1924, in Seattle, Washington.
Coryell doesn’t have the type of origin story that many pro football players do.
He enjoyed sports as a youth but wasn’t overly athletic.
After playing football at Lincoln High School in Seattle, Coryell enlisted in the U.S. Army to help out with the war effort.
@bcondotta Don Coryell was born & raised in Seattle, graduated from Lincoln High School; enlisted in the army in 1943 and spent 3½ years as a paratrooper. He played halfback for the UW Huskies, lettering in 1949. Coryell earned his bachelor's and master's degrees there. #NFLHOF
— KSea (@KSea5) August 24, 2022
World War II was in full swing in 1943 and Coryell joined the 86th Mountain Infantry in Camp Hale, Colorado.
Camp Hale was formed to train ski soldiers and paratroopers and eventually became home to the 10th Mountain Division.
Coryell was promoted to platoon sergeant and served stateside as an instructor while many of his charges went overseas.
He served nearly four years and was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant before being discharged.
Coryell then left the Army and matriculated to the University of Washington where he went out for the Huskies football team.
The Making of a Coach
When he returned home to attend college, Coryell found himself among a large number of World War II vets that wanted to play college football.
Coryell wasn’t a standout player, but he did find a home as a defensive back for Washington.
“I wasn’t good enough to play offense,” Coryell said. “Even on defense, I think I started one game, and that was in my senior year.”
Away from the gridiron, Coryell found his future calling when he began studying physical education.
“I started out as a forestry major,” said Coryell. “I wanted to be a forest ranger. But there was no way I could get through all that science. So I withdrew before I flunked out and switched to physical education.”
Coryell received his bachelor’s degree in physical education and then got his master’s in the subject as well.
Football was still in his blood and Coryell sent out coaching and teaching applications throughout the west.
He landed a gig in 1951 at Punahou High School in Hawaii where Coryell was hired as an assistant coach and Biology teacher.
The following year, he became the head coach at Farrington High School in Honolulu and helped improve a previously winless team.
— Franco Farinaccio (@fp_farinaccio) February 11, 2023
In 1953, Coryell returned to North America and became the head coach at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
UBC was a school dedicated to academics and placed little emphasis on athletics.
In two years with the program, Coryell’s squads went a combined 2-16.
Coryell Begins to Tinker
Two years after arriving at UBC, Coryell escaped football purgatory and returned to Washington State.
There he was hired as the head coach at Wenatchee Valley College.
Hall of Fame contender Don Coryell, the first coach ever to win more than 100 games at both the college and pro levels, innovated Wenatchee Valley College's football program when he took it over in 1955. “He put WVC on the map because he was here." https://t.co/ypVEeSrkXT
— Source One News (@SourceOneInfo) November 21, 2018
Seeing an opportunity to improve a squad that hadn’t won a contest in 1954, Coryell recruited players from all over the Western United States and Canada.
When he gathered his new recruits, Coryell sized them up to see what he had to work with.
“You look at your players, and you figure out what the hell they can do,” he said.
What Coryell had at Wenatchee was a bunch of players who were suited as halfbacks and fullbacks.
Using what he had at his disposal, the coach combined parts of the “I” and “T” offensive formations and ran his backs over and around opponents.
Football historians later called Coryell’s offensive concept the “Power I” formation.
The results spoke for themselves as the Knights went 7-0-1 and lost to Bakersfield College in the Potato Bowl, 33-6.
Coryell then took his offense to Fort Ord, California, in 1956 and led the team to an undefeated record (the only undefeated service team in the nation that year) and a service football title.
Coryell Develops a Passing Game
After one year at Fort Ord, Coryell found his way to Whittier College in Whittier, California.
Coryell replaced George Allen who left the school to work for the LA Rams (and would become a successful NFL head coach).
Bad news…Whittier is a small school that launched the careers of coaching legends George Allen and Don Coryell. https://t.co/S9C6jvjAu7
— Kevin Klintworth (@KKlintworth) November 14, 2022
The 1957 Poets team ran the Power I, but Coryell happened upon a copy of Texas Christian University coach Dutch Meyer’s book about the spread formation.
While reading through the book, Coryell became fascinated at what a well-run passing game could do for a football team.
By his final year at Whittier in 1959, Coryell had put one of his speedy running backs at quarterback and placed his receivers out wider to spread the field.
During his three years with the Whittier Poets, Coryell’s teams went a combined 23-5-1.
He was then courted by USC coach John McKay and Coryell was an assistant coach for the Trojans in 1960.
Turnaround at San Diego State
Coryell’s rise as a football coach was swift.
After spending a year with McKay and USC, he was hired to be the new head coach at San Diego State University in 1961.
At the time, SDSU was a Division II school and Coryell knew he couldn’t compete with the likes of UCLA, USC, Cal, and Stanford for California-based athletes.
So, he embarked on a tour of junior colleges in the area to find players that would fit in his neophyte offense.
Coryell was realistic that his team couldn’t hang with larger schools that ran the ball and he doubled down on his decision to pass the ball more.
“I decided, hell, you can’t just go out and run the ball against better teams,” he said. “You’ve got to mix it up. So we started throwing the ball.”
The Aztecs suffered through several losing seasons before Coryell arrived, compiling an 11-27-4 record in the previous five years combined.
SDSU had also failed to reach a bowl game since 1951.
Newest addition to my #GoAztecs football memorabilia collection. The game, played in 1961, was legendary coach Don Coryell's first game as SDSU head coach. The Aztecs and Diablos ended the game on a 13-13 tie. pic.twitter.com/qucxxUieEU
— Matt (@lawstbrewer) January 4, 2018
With a group of new JuCo players, Coryell taught his team the basics of his offense and the Aztecs came out swinging.
In 1961, the program went 7-2-1 (a six-win increase over 1960) and never lost more than two games each season from 1963-1965.
The Aztecs become a Juggernaut
As Coryell’s teams began to win, and the Aztecs proved an exciting program to watch, the coach found he had no shortage of talented athletes that wanted to play for him.
John Madden was the Defensive Coordinator under Don Coryell at San Diego State from 1964 to 1966. Joe Gibbs was the O-line coach those years as well. pic.twitter.com/aFh9WzyMqb
— FootballArchaeology (@FoFStrife) April 15, 2022
In many games, SDSU crushed opponents by as many as 40 or 50 points.
The 1966 squad went 11-0 (the most single-season wins in school history) and won the Camellia Bowl over Montana State University, 28-7.
It was the program’s first bowl victory since the 1951 season and SDSU was the top-ranked small college in the nation.
One year later, the Aztecs lost just one contest before winning the Camellia Bowl, 34-6, over San Francisco State.
SDSU was again ranked number one in the nation.
Then, after a 9-0-1 season in 1968 which brought the Aztecs a third national title, Coryell’s team ended 1969 with an 11-0 record and dispatched Boston University in the Pasadena Bowl, 28-7.
Coryell Heads to the NFL
For the next three years, SDSU continued dominating its competition and compiled a 25-8 combined record between 1970 and 1972.
By the end of the ‘72 season, Coryell had won three small school national championships, three bowl games, seven conference titles, had win streaks of 25 and 31 games, and never posted a losing record in 12 years.
Between 1966 and 1970 alone, the Aztecs went 50-3-1.
Many of Coryell’s players extended their playing careers in the NFL including Brian Sipe, Fred Dryer, Haven Moses, Willie Buchanon, and Carl Weathers (who is best known for becoming “Apollo Creed” in the Rocky movie franchise).
QB Brian Sipe starred at San Diego State University with head coach Don Coryell circa 1971
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) April 7, 2022
“A lot of what I did,” Madden said years later, “I stole from Don.”
Despite all the accomplishments during Coryell’s SDSU tenure, he became weary of the college’s political culture at the time.
He reached out to St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell about the team’s head coach opening.
Bidwell was so impressed by what Coryell had to say that the owner flew out to San Diego to meet with the coach.
Don Coryell debuted on the @NFL scene in 1973 when he was named the head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. His road to the NFL included a lengthy coaching career at the high school and college levels. #PFHOF19
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 26, 2019
During a dinner conversation, Bidwell hired Coryell to become the Cardinals’ new head coach in 1973.
Coryell left SDSU with a 12-year record of 104-19-2.
The Cardinals Get on Track
When Coryell arrived in St. Louis in the spring of 1973, the first order of business was finding a quarterback.
He found his man sitting on the bench.
At that point in his career, Jim Hart was entering his eighth season and had spent a large majority of the 1972 season as a backup.
Coryell changed that immediately.
“Don came in and looked at film on Jim Hart,” said assistant coach Jim Hanifan. “Jimmy had been sitting on the bench. Don looked at the film and said, ‘Screw that. This is my quarterback.'”
Hart stepped up his game and spent the 1973 season getting used to Coryell’s offense.
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) January 13, 2023
The Cardinals won four games in ‘73, then had a breakthrough year in 1974 with a 10-4 record and Coryell was named the NFC and NFL Coach of the Year.
Together, the Cards scored over 20 points per game, good for ninth in the NFL, and went to the postseason for the first time since 1964.
“He simply changed the game,” said Dierdorf. “The NFL was a running league when he came to the Cardinals. Teams seemingly ran the ball out of obligation. Don wanted to throw the football, especially on first down.”
The Cards lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round that year but returned to the playoffs in 1975 after an 11-3 record.
That was the most wins by a Cardinals team since the franchise was located in Chicago back in 1948.
Seven of the wins came in the last minute, leading fans to call them the “Cardiac Cardinals.”
Congratulations to Don "Air" Coryell! HC, St. Louis Cardinals '73-'77. First HC ever to win more than 100 games at both collegiate & pro level. In '74 he lead the Cardinals to a 7–0 start. In '75, his "Cardiac Cardinals" won 7 times in the game's last minute. #PFHOF19 #BirdGang pic.twitter.com/MY2Mf8yWos
— 🏆🏈❤️🔥The Red Rage❤️🔥🏈🏆 (@Big_Red_Rage) January 4, 2019
St. Louis’ offense was seventh best in the league in ‘75 but lost to the LA Rams in the Divisional round.
Meanwhile, under Coryell’s tutoring, Hart went to the Pro Bowl in ‘74 and ‘75.
Coryell Returns to San Diego
“Back in those years,” said 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.'”
In 1976, the Cards won 10 games (and Hart led the NFL in touchdown passes) but failed to make the playoffs.
So happy to see former St. Louis Cardinals (the Big Red) coach Don Coryell FINALLY make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No idea why it took so long and he helped create the best era of football I got to watch growing up. So many great memories #BigRed pic.twitter.com/EWd3qYLsB2
— Norm Sanders (@NormSanders) February 10, 2023
St. Louis’ double-digit wins between 1974 and 1976 also marked a first in franchise history.
Then, after a seven-win season in 1977, Coryell got upset when Bidwell did not re-sign Metcalf.
That transgression was the latest in a long list of complaints Coryell had against ownership.
The coach publicly spoke of his displeasure at having a low salary and not enough assistant coaches.
Additionally, Coryell wanted more say in who the team drafted.
While team management and Coryell tried to sort through the animosity, the coach began having private conversations with San Diego Union sports writer Jack Murphy.
The conversations turned into a story about Coryell’s dislike for the Cardinal organization and ownership in general.
OTD 1978: The Cardinals and head coach Don Coryell parted ways. Coryell left as the team's all time leader in wins and won 2 NFC East titles, but was frustrated with his limited input on the draft and said his family would prefer to live in a warmer climate. pic.twitter.com/OxCXczhaiq
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 11, 2022
Eventually, in February of 1978, Bidwell dismissed Coryell.
“I just don’t think it’s in the best interest of the football team for a coach to say that he’s unhappy and that he wants another job,” said Bidwell.
Coryell returned to the San Diego area where his wife and kids had lived during his Cardinals tenure.
Four games into the 1978 NFL season, the San Diego Chargers fired coach Tommy Prothro and team owner Eugene Klein hired Coryell.
“Don stands up there,” said 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.”
Chargers Put on a Passing Display
When Coryell took over for Prothro, the Chargers were 1-3.
It didn’t seem possible to Coryell that San Diego had so many losses.
After all, their roster included quarterback Dan Fouts, rookie receiver John Jefferson and veteran receiver Charlie Joiner.
Coryell immediately installed his Air Coryell offense and San Diego went 8-4 for the remainder of the year, finishing just shy of the postseason with a 9-7 record.
With more time to learn Coryell’s offense in the offseason, Fouts and company went 12-4 in 1979 and the Chargers offense scored over 25 points per game, good for second in the NFL.
Chargers' head coach Don Coryell was ALWAYS intense, even in preseason pregame warm-ups. August 1979. pic.twitter.com/gLWEQiPtTe
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 13, 2017
Coryell was named AFC Coach of the Year.
In his seventh pro season, Fouts passed for the first of three straight 4,000+ yard seasons, a mark unheard of at the time.
As the team became more proficient in the offense, opposing defenders were forced to adjust.
“They started substituting nickel and dime backs, situational pass rushers, faster defensive linemen, taking out safeties that couldn’t run and putting in an extra corner. No question, Don profoundly affected both sides of the ball,” said Fouts in 2022.
Despite a well-balanced team on both sides of the ball, the Chargers were upset in the Divisional round by the Houston Oilers, 17-14.
“We had a great team that year,” former Chargers guard Ed White said years later. “That, for me, was the one [season] that got cut short.”
San Diego Comes up Short Again
In 1980, the Chargers trotted out even more offensive firepower in tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Chuck Muncie.
That season, San Diego led the league for the second year in a row in passing yards, Fouts threw for over 4,700 yards, and Joiner, Jefferson, and Winslow each had over 1,000 receiving yards (a first for a trio of receivers in the same season in NFL history).
“It was an attitude of attack,” Fouts said in 2013. “We were going to attack every part of that field — width, length — and then we were going to attack every weakness in that defense. It’s like fast breaks in basketball. Three-on-two, then it comes down to a two-on-one, and then it’s a one-on-none. Throw the ball to the one-on-none. It was the attitude of, ‘Look for the bomb first, and then work your way back to the line of scrimmage.’”
The 1980 Chargers took an 11-5 record into the playoffs and defeated Buffalo before losing to Oakland in the AFC Championship game.
San Diego won 10 games in 1981 and beat the Miami Dolphins in overtime of the Divisional round in one of the most memorable postseason games in NFL history.
#Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow is helped off the field by Billy Shields and Eric Sievers at game's end.
One of so many lasting, indelible images from the 1981 AFC Divisional Epic in Miami, 41 years ago today. pic.twitter.com/MF5ZitsuR7
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 2, 2023
One week later, the Cincinnati Bengals eliminated the Chargers in the AFC title game, 27-7.
In 1982, the players’ strike shortened the season to nine games.
San Diego went 6-3 and beat Pittsburgh in the First Round of the playoffs before losing to Miami in the Second Round.
The Chargers Fire Coryell
From 1978 through the 1983 season, San Diego led the NFL in passing yards and also led the league in scoring in 1981 and 1982.
At long last, legendary San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell is headed to the HOF. pic.twitter.com/hwIAplFSHW
— Marty Caswell (@MartyCaswell) February 10, 2023
However, the ‘83 team won only six games followed by seven wins in 1984 and eight wins in 1985.
As his core group of players got older, and in turn his offense went cold, Coryell could no longer coax greatness from his Chargers players.
When San Diego began the 1986 season with a 1-7 record, team owner Alex Spanos fired Coryell.
His record as an NFL coach was 111-83-1.
Coryell was the first coach to win 100 games or more in both college and the NFL.
Despite a penchant for turning around teams quickly, Coryell never coached again.
He had plenty of offers, but the coach decided to return home to his native Washington and watch games on television.
By the time he retired, Coryell’s offense had spread to most of the franchises in the NFL by his former assistants.
“He was way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation,” said former Rams head coach Mike Martz in 2010. “[Back then] everyone was running the same kind of plays. Coryell changed all that. He had this aggressive mind-set. He was always attacking, never going into this conservative mode where you try to win through attrition. Now, 40 years later, you’re seeing the second and third generations of coaches running Coryell’s system.”
Coryell was inducted into the Hall of Fames for San Diego State, the city of San Diego, College Football, and the Chargers.
As former players such as Fouts and Winslow were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there was a call for Coryell’s place in the pantheon of greats as well.
“Fans can’t watch the NFL today and not see Don Coryell’s influence,” said Winslow in 2013. “And that’s why he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as an innovator and as a contributor. You can’t put a dollar figure on his value to professional football.”
Coryell passed away on July 1, 2010, at the age of 85.
From Air Coryell to Rarefied Air.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 10, 2023
At long last, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2023.
“Football-wise, Coach Coryell changed the way the game was played and still is played today,” former Chargers player Hank Bauer said in 2010. “In terms of his legacy as a teacher, a coach and a mentor, his lineage speaks for itself, especially when you look at the guys he brought into the game and their accomplishments. Pro football lost a great man today.”