Shortly after Don Coryell was voted down for the Pro Football Hall-of- Fame's Class of 2019, I told another selector that I didn’t think the former Chargers’ and Cardinals’ head coach would ever reach Canton. He wasn’t so sure. He believed that if the Hall created a category separating coaches from modern-era players, Coryell not only had a chance but was a virtual lock.
And I agreed.
But we were wrong. Barring a philosophical shift among Hall voters, Don Coryell’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy is kaput.
That’s hard to admit for someone so Hall-of-Fame worthy that Canton’s board of selectors made Coryell a finalist more times (6) than any coach out there, including one year (2016) when it pushed him into the modern-era’s top 10. But it’s the inescapable conclusion after what happened the past two years.
Because what happened is that the Hall did, in fact, create a separate category for head coaches, and Coryell is nowhere on its radar.
The Centennial Class of 2020 was the first to give it a try, pulling out two coaches for induction. Neither was named Don Coryell. They were Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher, and they were inducted this summer. Then the Hall announced it would continue a separate coaches’ category from 2021-24, with one candidate per year. That, it seemed, boded well for Coryell.
When the coaches’ committee voted on the Class of 2021, Tom Flores was its choice. Coryell, I was told, wasn’t second or third. Then the committee met last Tuesday for the Class of 2022 and chose Dick Vermeil. Coryell again was nowhere on the leader board of seven candidates.
When I voiced confusion as to how someone whom the Hall's board of selectors kept returning as a modern-era finalist could be dismissed so easily I was given the familiar explanation: Playoffs. Coryell was 3-6 in the postseason and never reached a Super Bowl. With coaches and quarterbacks measured on jewelry, I was told, his chances of reaching Canton were … well, negligible.
Ouch. Well, OK. But here’s what I don’t get: If you can dismiss Coryell so easily based on his playoff resume, how can you support George Allen as a Hall-of-Fame candidate? He was 2-7 in the playoffs and reached the Super Bowl once. He lost. Yet he was elected to the Hall in 2002.
That’s no knock on Allen. It’s a defense of Coryell. If playoff records and Lombardi Trophies are the measuring sticks for coaches – and more than one voter has said they are – then how is that they didn’t keep one coach from reaching Canton while they keep another out?
“Is it simply because he did not get his team to the Super Bowl?” an emotional Wes Chandler, former star receiver for the Chargers, said in a June interview on “The Eye Test for Two” podcast (Wes Chandler: "My Heart Bleeds" That Don Coryell Isn't Enshrined in Canton - Sports Illustrated Talk Of Fame Network). “Is that what it’s really based on? Or the impact you had on the game? My heart bleeds for the fact that this guy deserves that recognition.”
Coryell had more regular-season wins (111) than Flores (97) and Johnson (80) and a higher winning percentage (.572) than Johnson (.556), Flores (.527) and Vermeil (.524). He’s also been a Hall-of-Fame finalist more times than all three combined. Yet because he didn’t reach a Super Bowl he’s no longer considered a leading contender for Canton?
Kellen Winslow, Dan Fouts and Charlie Joiner didn’t reach Super Bowls, either. They’re all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of ... what? Excellence. Yes. But because of Coryell, too. He resurrected the Chargers as he did the St. Louis Cardinals before, turning two doormats into playoff contenders that combined for five division championships, with the Chargers twice appearing in conference title games.
Of course, he did more than that. He revolutionized the passing game with a quick-strike offense that became known as “Air Coryell” in San Diego where the Chargers led the league in passing seven of eight years and forced defenses to adjust. And while he didn’t produce Lombardi Trophies, his acolytes did – with Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, Norv Turner and Mike Martz combining for seven.
“In the offense we won the Super Bowl with in 1999,” said Vermeil, citing the Super Bowl XXXIV-winning St. Louis Rams, “the foundation was Don Coryell. The route philosophies, the passing game … everything stemmed from the founder, Don Coryell. The genius.”
Like Vermeil, Joe Gibbs lobbied for Coryell. So did John Madden. And Tony Dungy.
“If you talk about impact on the game,” said Dungy, “training other coaches – John Madden, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, to name a few – and influencing how things are done, Don Coryell probably is right up there with Paul Brown. He was a genius.”
If and when Vermeil is inducted into Canton – presumably, 2022 – that’s four Hall-of-Fame coaches pushing Coryell, with two labeling him a “genius.” They all can’t be wrong. Yet the Hall’s voters continue to push others ahead of him with such regularity that his candidacy, as it stands now, is DOA … unless something unforeseen happens.
So make it happen.
Last month I wrote that Clark Shaughnessy, who popularized the T-formation and, like Coryell, was one of the seven coaching candidates for the Class of 2022, had no chance at Canton unless he was also considered a contributor (How Will Clark Shaughnessy Reach the Pro Football Hall? Here's a Solution - Sports Illustrated Talk Of Fame Network). His finish on Tuesday only confirmed my belief.
But Shaughnessy is not alone. Coryell must join him in making the move because citing his impact on the game – how he changed offensive and defensive schemes – isn’t resonating with voters who focus on wins and losses. Today's NFL has a different look because of Don Coryell, just as it has a different look because of Clark Shaughnessy. So if they can’t be rewarded for their innovations as head coaches, then reward them for their innovations as contributors.
“Don is the father of the modern passing game,” said Martz. “You look around the NFL right now, and so many teams 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. I’m not sure why that hasn’t been acknowledged by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Neither am I. What I do know is the sad truth: A once robust candidacy is running on empty.