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Doug Farrar

Don Coryell was more than just a coach

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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If you like the three-digit numbered route system, H-backs, single-back sets, the modern aerial game, tight ends breaking records out of the slot/flex positions, multi-purpose backs who lead the league in total yards, the route tree, the 1970s Cardinals, 1980s Chargers, 1990s Cowboys, and about half the offenses in the NFL today, you owe the late Don Coryell a hearty handshake and a heartfelt "Thank you".

Coryell, who passed away on July 1 in La Mesa, California, was to the vertical passing game what Mike Holmgren was to the West Coast offense. Perhaps not the ultimate innovator - Sid Gillman was the one who really took the downfield passing game into a new era, just as Bill Walsh cemented the precision passing offense - but the most talented of the second wave of innovators.

Coryell coached at San Diego State from 1961 through 1972, and not only did he have have some amazing assistants like John Madden and Joe Gibbs(notes), he was getting cribbed by pro and future pro coaches like Dick Vermeil, who has admitted that the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense was based on Coryell's concepts, and then-Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz has called Coryell the father of the modern passing game. When he moved to the NFL in 1973, and turned the St. Louis Cardinals into a consistent winner for the first time in decades. When he then took over the San Diego Chargers in 1978, he put together one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history, with Dan Fouts putting up insane numbers throwing to mul;tiple receivers and benefitting from a surprisingly robust running game.

The Dallas Cowboys teams than won three super Bowls in four years in the 1990s were very much based on the Coryell offense, as former Coryell assistant Ernie Zampese and Coryell advocate Norv Turner were in charge of those Cowboys game plans. And if you want to understand the scope of Coryell's influence, consider that 25 years after Coryell left San Diego, Turner is coaching his old team and running a variant of his offense.

Coryell's teams never won or even went to a Super Bowl, but he left as defined a mark on the NFL as any coach and innovator in the league. That he passed away without seeing his name in the Hall of Fame is a real shame, and while a posthumous award would be nice, it would be even more important for people to remember Don Coryell for the genius he was. Hopefully, this NFL Films tribute will help that happen.

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