When the historians sit down and try to evaluate the coaches of this era, what will they say about the San Diego Chargers' Don Coryell? A genius? Maybe. But better make that an offensive genius. One of the game's true innovators? A tinkerer, a guy never satisfied with the way his team lined up, a guy compelled to put in more and still more alignments, more motion, more ways of gulping up yards in huge bites? Or will they merely brush him off as a curiosity whose teams broke all sorts of passing records while neglecting the more traditional aspects of the game?
"He's a pacemaker, a trend setter," says Kansas City Coach Marv Levy, whose Chiefs lost to Air Coryell on Sunday, 42-31. "Don was in low cuts when the rest of the world was in high tops.
"Frankly, though, I'd have trouble coaching his kind of offense. This guy in motion here, that one in motion there. There's a certain disjointedness to it. I'd have trouble building the rhythm of an offense that way, building a ball-possession concept. In a way it's a mirror of the man himself. When you're with Don there's a herky-jerky quality to him. He'll get up, walk somewhere, come back, sit down, get up again."
"Ever since I've known him, he has come up with a new formation every week," says the Chargers' receivers' coach, Ernie Zampese, who was Coryell's assistant at San Diego State as far back as 1967. "He'll have a new one next week, and the week after."
What happens when you run out of weeks?
"Oh, there are only 16 of them—hopefully 19. Don has enough formations to go around."
One thing's for sure. Coryell, who's 56, will never make it into the Hall of Fame if he's called on to present his own credentials. Ask him about his innovations and his concepts and he looks annoyed. He seems to shrink a little. He talks in a voice that's barely audible. "The players, I just try to fit my offense to the players I've got," he says.
He's a fairly rugged-looking guy, well built, sturdy. He played defensive back and boxed at the University of Washington. He was a paratrooper in World War II and pulled some duty with the ski troops. He worked in the lumber camps of his native Washington, hooking cables onto logs. But when you see him in a locker room after a tough game he seems small and vulnerable.
Last Sunday Air Coryell put 28 points on the board in the first half while Quarterback Dan Fouts was passing for 250 yards. But in the second half Kansas City buttoned up and took away the things that were working for San Diego, and the Chiefs even looked as if they would pull the game out until their fullback, Jim Hadnot, fumbled near midfield with 4:31 left. When it was over, Coryell stood in the locker room looking tired and drained, as he always does postgame.
"Why do you like to pass so much?" he was asked. The inevitable question. The Chargers had thrown 43 times and run the ball 24, and the only reason the ratio was that close was that they were trying to sit on a lead and play ball control in the second half, which meant hand-off to Chuck Muncie. The first-half ratio was 31 passes to eight runs.
"It's the thing we think we can do best," Coryell said.
When you look at Coryell's record over the years, things start jumping out at you, things he might admit grudgingly. They're landmark events that reflect the mind of an innovative genius.
Take the Power-I formation, which came into vogue at the big colleges in the 1970s. Coryell used it in 1955 at Wenatchee Valley, a junior college in Washington, to turn a winless team into one that was undefeated and went to the Potato Bowl. He recruited from Hawaii, where he had coached high school ball for two years, and from Canada, where he had coached for another two. "The team from everywhere that came from nowhere," is what they called them.
"Oh, I'm sure I didn't invent the Power-I," Coryell says. "We just called it backs-left and backs-right. We kind of went to it because some people got hurt."
Tommy Nugent and Frank Leahy share credit for inventing the pure, three-back, I formation, Coryell is told.
"Is that so?" he says. "I certainly wasn't aware of it at the time."
At Whittier College, where Coryell coached from 1957 to 1959, his offense produced the small colleges' second-leading runner. Max Fields, and their total-offense leader in Quarterback Gary Campbell. But it wasn't until he was well into his 12-year stint as head coach at San Diego State (1961-1972) that the world began to hear of Coryell.
He had spent 1960 as an assistant at USC, and he knew he couldn't compete with Southern Cal and UCLA for talent. If he was going to have a chance against the bigger schools, he'd have to come up with something different. Air Coryell was born. Sprinters and hurdlers came to San Diego State to learn how to be corner-backs and flankers. Quarterbacks came because they knew it was a finishing school for the NFL. Brian Sipe, Don Horn, Dennis Shaw, they all got their education there. They had guys like Isaac Curtis and Gary Garrison to catch their passes, like Claudie Minor, now of the Broncos, to block for them.
Three of Coryell's teams went unbeaten. In 1966 they were drawing 40,000 people a game into Aztec Stadium while the Chargers were drawing 25,000 at Balboa. San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, which was completed in 1967, was built as much to accommodate San Diego State as to house the Chargers. Coryell was on his way.
"When I went to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973," he says, "we used the San Diego State offense. We still use it with the Chargers, same numbering system, same method of calling plays."
The Cards won two NFC East titles in his five years there. Those Cardinal teams bear striking similarities to today's Chargers. Coryell taught Quarterback Jim Hart the quick, five-step dropback, the quick read that Fouts uses. Drop, read, deliver. Bang! You don't get sacked that way. In 1975 Hart was sacked only eight times, still an NFL record. In three games so far this season, Fouts has thrown the ball 93 times for 930 yards. He has been sacked only once.
Coryell created a new position at St. Louis, a receiver who was neither a wide out nor a tight end, an in-between guy. The late J.V. Cain was the man, 6'4", 225 pounds and fast. When Coryell came to the Chargers in 1978 he found another one, a 6'5½", 250-pound senior at the University of Missouri named Kellen Winslow. Coryell had to have him. He gave Cleveland a second-round choice in the '79 draft to swap positions in the first round with the Chargers so they could pick Winslow. After he had drafted Winslow, he realigned his offense, creating something entirely new.
It was the one-running back, two-tight end offense, except Winslow wasn't really a tight end. He was a slotback, sometimes lined up inside the wide receiver, sometimes outside, sometimes in tight as a blocker. It's now the Chargers' standard offense.
Last year Winslow caught 89 passes, tops in the NFL. The wide receivers—J.J. Jefferson, who last week was traded to Green Bay as the result of a salary dispute, and Charlie Joiner—caught 153 between them. All three went to the Pro Bowl and each gained more than 1,000 yards, and with 4,715 yards, Fouts broke the NFL passing yardage record he had set the year before.
Coryell's offense concept is to use the pass as a ball-control device, and the central idea of his passing game is isolation, moving people around until you've got the match you want. The key is the quick drop and delivery—and quick patterns, slants, square-outs, short posts. When the Chargers do it right, their opponents are slashed to pieces, like someone being put to death with a saber. And when the defense crowds in tight to cut off the quick stuff, San Diego runs its receivers deep.
But there's one more piece, and students of Coryell's tactics say this is the heart of his offense. The quick screen. Send the back out immediately, with a lineman as protection. Sit him there while Fouts takes a quick read on the coverage. If a linebacker flies out to meet the screen man, curl a receiver underneath, or send one from the other side of the field into that linebacker's area on a slant pattern, or throw upfield.
"We'll throw upfield 73% of the time after we've shown that screen," Zampese says. "It's better than a swing pass or a safety-valve, because we've got the lineman out there in front."
The only thing Coryell needed to make the concept work was the right back, and last year he found him in New Orleans, the bespectacled and gifted runner Chuck Muncie, 6'3", 218 pounds, with lightning in his feet and merriment in his heart. The Chargers got Muncie for a second-round draft choice after the league wrote him off as uncoachable. Coryell knew about uncoachable types. He had recruited enough of them at San Diego State.
This year Coryell made the package complete when he drafted a little fireball of a back out of Auburn named James Brooks on the first round. When Muncie gets tired, send in the 180-pound scooter. Against the Chiefs Sunday Muncie caught nine passes, most of them on those quick screens. The same pass to Brooks produced a dazzling 29-yard touchdown as he broke through three defenders.
No one is quite sure how to defend against the Coryell attack. Last year Pittsburgh started right off in a five-back nick-le alignment, so Muncie ran for 115 yards in an overall attack that produced 488. Cleveland tried the same thing in the opener this season, with the same result: 161 yards rushing for Muncie, total yardage 535.
Going into the Kansas City game, the Chiefs' left cornerback, Gary Green, said the key to stopping Air Coryell was to get up tight, to cut off the quick patterns. For a while it worked. An inside linebacker named Frank Manumaleuga popped up in the lanes and picked off two Fouts passes. But in the meantime Fouts had found the matchup he wanted, Winslow against Strong Safety Herb Christopher. Winslow, who had caught only five passes in his first two games, caught six in the first half.
The Chiefs shut off Winslow by doubling up on him and bumping him in the second half; they rushed only three men most of that half, they played tough coverages and they nearly won it. But there was still one scary moment when the Chargers sowed utter confusion and broke Joiner down the left sideline, uncovered. Fouts' pass was overthrown.
"That was embarrassing," Kansas City Free Safety Gary Barbara said. "They throw so much motion and stuff at you that they'll occasionally get that. It has never happened to us before, but I can't tell you how many times I've seen them do it to other people on the films."
The dark side to Air Coryell can be found in one statistic. Time of possession. Two weeks ago the Lions kept the Chargers' defense on the field for more than 38 minutes. The Chiefs controlled the ball almost nine minutes more than the Chargers did. In the long run those numbers will wear down a defense.
"We really prepared hard for San Diego today," Green said, "as hard as anything we've ever prepared for in this world. But now we're 2-1, they're 3-0." And passing.