State Your Case: Don Coryell
(Photos courtesy of the San Diego Chargers)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
The knock on Don Coryell making it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is his record in big games, and I get that. He didn’t win a Super Bowl. In fact, he never reached one. Plus, he was 3-6 in the playoffs.
So that’s an obstacle he can’t overcome because … well, because we measure our coaches and quarterbacks for Canton differently than we do most everyone else. We measure them by rings.
Except … well, except how, then, do you explain quarterbacks Dan Fouts and Warren Moon? Fouts never won a Super Bowl, never reached one and was 3-6 in the playoffs. Moon never won a Super Bowl, never reached one and was 3-7 in the playoffs.
Yet they’re in the Hall of Fame.
That’s not to criticize them. It’s to criticize a board of selectors that can’t … and should not … have it both ways. Fouts is in because he was one of the pre-eminent quarterbacks of his era, a tough and fearless leader who captained one of the game’s most imaginative offenses, who set passing records, who confounded opponents and won more than he lost.
Dan Fouts belongs. But so does his head coach. Because without Don Coryell there would be no Dan Fouts. Or Kellen Winslow. Or Charlie Joiner.
All are in the Hall, and all have expressed their support of Coryell’s candidacy. They played for Coryell, so they understood what made him Hall-of-Fame worthy. As Joiner once put it, it’s not enough that Coryell changed the nature of offenses with his mismatches, motion and shifting offenses. It’s that he changed defenses, too, with coordinators under fire to find something … anything … to thwart the game’s most lethal passing game.
Former St. Louis coach Mike Martz described Coryell as "the father of the modern passing game," and he's right. Because anyone who knew Don Coryell understood he was more ... much more ... than a head coach. He was an inventor, an Einsten with a whistle who not only wasn't afraid to try the unconventional but who embraced it.
It worked in St. Louis, where he took the Cardinals to their only division titles in St. Louis … ever. And it worked in San Diego where he picked the Chargers up off the mat and put them in two AFC championship games.
I know, they didn’t win. But others he schooled did, with former Coryell first lieutenant Joe Gibbs the most notable. He won three Super Bowls in Washington with the offense he worked to near perfection in San Diego. Yes, he added his own wrinkles, but, no, he wouldn’t have gotten there without Coryell. The same goes for Norv Turner with the Dallas offense in the 1990s and for Martz, who put Coryell's ideas to work in St. Louis with “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
In short, Don Coryell had an enormous impact on the game, not through winning Super Bowls but by inventing, redesigning and refining offensive schemes that became the foundation of today's passing game. Granted, as Fouts acknowledged, Coryell’s playoff record is “a legitimate concern,” but he believes – as do others – that there is something bigger here, and that’s Coryell’s role as "an architect and pioneer" in the NFL.
“If you look at his contribution,” Fouts said, “and the way the game is played … and the disciples that have won Super Bowls with his offense …that should not be ignored.”
But it has been. Coryell has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist twice, and that’s a start. And he’s a semifinalist for the Class of 2016, with the expectation that he probably makes it to the final 15 again. But why stop there? The guy had such an enormous impact on the game that Super Bowl coaches like Gibbs, John Madden, George Seifert and Dick Vermeil have stepped forward to push for his inclusion.
“In the offense we won the Super Bowl with in 1999, the foundation was Don Coryell,” said Vermeil. “The route philosophies, the vertical passing game … everything stemmed from the founder. Don Coryell. The genius.”
When we had Seifert on The Talk of Fame Network this fall he mentioned Coryell as someone who belonged in Canton and for the simplest of reasons: He had an enormous impact on the game then … and now. Hall-of-Fame selectors sometimes ask, "Can you write the history of the game without him?" And the answer with Don Coryell is no.
“People talk about the ‘West Coast Offense,’ “ Martz said, “but Don started the ‘West Coast’ decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game. I’m not sure why that hasn’t been acknowledged by the Hall of Fame.”
Neither am I.