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Coryell's far-reaching influence will never be forgotten

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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An idyllic vacation abruptly ended Thursday evening when I learned that former San Diego coach Don Coryell had died. I had the privilege of covering Coryell's last three years with the Chargers, and he was one of the most competent, most passionate and most courteous persons I met in my nearly three decades covering pro football.

On the arm of QB Dan Fouts, Don Coryell helped develop the modern passing system used in football. (Getty Images)  
On the arm of QB Dan Fouts, Don Coryell helped develop the modern passing system used in football. (Getty Images)  
More than that, he was a marvelous football coach.

Don Coryell was one of the game's innovators, an offensive genius who revolutionized the way football was played on both sides of the ball. His offenses produced yards and touchdowns in abundance, forcing opposing defenses to adjust to survive -- usually without success, with Coryell bombing them into submission with a relentless passing attack that stressed accuracy and timing and involved just about everyone.

I remember covering a practice one afternoon when the Monday Night Football TV crew blind-folded Dan Fouts, then the starting quarterback, for a demonstration to be aired for its upcoming game. With the blindfold in place, Fouts took a snap from center during a post-practice drill, retreated five steps, then threw a tightly wound pass to his right. It hit wide receiver Charlie Joiner in stride just before he reached the sidelines, and the point was made: Fouts was so in sync with his receivers he could hit them with his eyes closed.

The beauty of Coryell's offenses, of course, was not just that they operated so efficiently but that they had so many moving parts -- which meant so many weapons to exploit opponents. Sometimes it was with John Jefferson in the corner of the end zone. Often it was with Kellen Winslow over the middle. Or maybe it was Winslow on a back-side tight-end screen. It could be Chuck Muncie or James Brooks carrying the ball through the line or reaching to catch a Fouts swing pass. Or maybe it was the reliable Joiner on the sidelines or Wes Chandler down the middle of the field.

Whatever it was it worked, and if you weren't quick to figure it out you suffered the consequences.

"He influenced offensive and defensive football," Fouts said, "because if you're going to have three or four receivers out there you better have an answer for it on the other side of the ball."

But Coryell didn't just win. He entertained. The Chargers became "Air Coryell," with Fouts as his head coach's co-pilot, and they buried opponents in a blitzkrieg of yards, touchdowns and points -- with San Diego leading the league in passing yards a league-record six straight times. In the strike-truncated 1982 season, Fouts averaged ... averaged ... 320 yards passing a game, a figure that still stands as an NFL record, while the Bolts made one of their four consecutive playoff appearances.

Fouts, Joiner and Winslow would go on to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but each would tell you he wouldn't be there without Coryell. Fortunately, the Hall of Fame selectors recognized that last year when they placed Coryell's name on the ballot and graduated him to the list of finalists. Unfortunately, he never made it farther, an injustice to Coryell and to the history of pro football.

Yeah, OK, so he never reached the Super Bowl. Big deal. Neither did Fouts or Warren Moon. Coryell became the first head coach to win over 100 games at both the collegiate and pro levels, and he changed the game -- both of which should count for something.

In fact, one Hall of Fame selector once told me he tries to reduce his criterion for induction to one question: Can you write the history of the game without this guy? In Coryell's case, I would say you cannot.

He invented the offense that Joe Gibbs, once his offensive coordinator, took to Washington where he won three Super Bowls and challenged San Francisco for supremacy of the 1980s. He invented the offense that Ernie Zampese, another of his offensive coordinators, took with him to the Los Angeles Rams, where he tutored then-assistant Norv Turner -- and it was Turner who would later turn Dallas' Troy Aikman into a Hall of Fame quarterback and the Cowboys into a precision offense.

Turner would win two Super Bowls as offensive coordinator in Dallas. Zampese would win a third. Tell me where they would be without Don Coryell.

"Don is the father of the modern passing game," said Chicago assistant Mike Martz, a Coryell disciple who called the plays in St. Louis' Super Bowl XXXV victory. "People talk about 'The West Coast Offense,' but Don started the 'West Coast' decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and people are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game."

If he changed the game, he should be recognized. The Pro Football Hall of Fame had its chance earlier this year and screwed the pooch. Coryell never made the cut to the final 10, and that's not just wrong; it's a disgrace. Without Coryell, Fouts, Winslow and Joiner aren't in the Hall. Maybe Joe Gibbs and Troy Aikman aren't, either. The Washington Redskins don't go to four Super Bowls, and the Dallas Cowboys might never have gotten off the mat to dominate the 1990s.

More than that, the passing game we celebrate each Sunday might not be what it is today.

I'm sad that Don Coryell died. He was a wonderful man and a ground-breaking offensive coach. But I'm sadder that he never had the satisfaction of knowing that the game he loved and the game he helped popularize didn't reward him with his rightful place in its Hall of Fame. People say it's never too late. I say it is. Don Coryell is gone.

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