Don Coryell: The Snubbed Innovator Finally Gets His Due

One of the greatest Chargers coaches will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A look at why Don Coryell deserves a gold jacket.

Don Coryell, a revolutionary figure in football and one of the best coaches in Chargers history, has left an indelible mark on the game. Yet, despite his remarkable contributions, it took the Pro Football Hall of Fame 37 years to vote him in. This snub is not only an oversight but a blatant disregard of the seachange that he brought to the NFL. One that has endures to this day.

A Visionary Ahead of His Time

Don Coryell was a visionary coach who changed the way the game was played. In the 1970s and 1980s, he introduced an offensive strategy that prioritized a high-octane passing attack. His innovative Air Coryell system shifted the game away from three yards and a cloud of dust and became the foundation for many successful teams today.

He revolutionized how the tight end was utilized in the offense. He drafted Kellen Winslow specifically to use him in a new way, as a wide receiver in an offensive lineman’s body. He also drafted a big arm capable of stretching the field, in Dan Fouts, and capitalized on Charlie Joiner‘s speed to truly take the top off defenses. Each of those players were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the success of those Chargers teams.

NFL: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
Oct 26, 1986, Philadelphia, PA, USA; FILE PHOTO; San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell on the sidelines against the Philadelphia Eagles during the 1986 season at Veterans Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Unprecedented Success

Under Coryell’s guidance, the Chargers witnessed unparalleled success. From 1978 to 1986, the team ranked first in the league in passing yards six times, on the back of Air Coryell. The Chargers also made the playoffs four consecutive times from 1979 to 1982, reaching the AFC Championship Game twice (1980, 1981).

The Impact on the Game

Air Coryell not only changed the way football was played but also influenced an entire generation of coaches and players. His innovative offensive strategies opened up the possibilities of the passing game, making the sport more exciting and dynamic.

The influence of the Air Coryell system can still be seen in the modern NFL. The impact of his offense not only changed the game but made it a more popular sport. The argument can be made that Don Coryell laid the groundwork for the NFL to become the nation’s new pastime and most popular (and profitable) sport.

Influential Coaching Tree

Coryell’s influence extended beyond his immediate successes. Many of his assistant coaches went on to become successful head coaches themselves, proving the impact of his coaching philosophy. Both Joe Gibbs and John Madden, who cut their teeth while coaching on Coryell’s staff, went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mike Martz, architect of “The Greatest Show On Turf” credited Coryell’s offense as the true progenitor of the modern passing attack and critical to his success as a coach.

“He was way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation. There was this unspoken set of rules that you played by on offense. And everyone was running generally the same kind of plays. The formations were the same. The concepts were the same. Coryell changed all that.

People immediately said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, you can do that, and he did it. His whole approach to the game was different. He was going to beat you with the ball at any time. He had this aggressive mind-set. He was always attacking the defense, never going into this conservative mode where you try to win through attrition. And that’s where football was at that time in history. Now, 40 years later, you’re seeing the second and third generations of coaches running Coryell’s system.”

– Mike Martz, “Blood, Sweat and Chalk”
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The Super Bowl Snub

One argument against Coryell is the absence of a Super Bowl victory on his resume. However, the Hall of Fame should have recognized the importance of his innovations much sooner. Coryell’s contributions to the game of football far exceeded the lack of a Super Bowl ring and the Hall already has two coaches that don’t have rings. All due respect to Marv Levy and Bud Grant, but they haven’t been nearly as influential to the game as Don Coryell.

Recognition Overdue and Deserved

It is unfortunate that it took so long for Don Coryell to receive the recognition he deserves from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, mostly because he didn’t live long enough to get to bask in his proper place in history. He deserved to be honored among all the other legends of football and to enjoy the recognition that comes with a gold jacket. But, it’s better late than never.

Don Coryell will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame on August 5th of this year and his presenter will be his former quarterback, Dan Fouts.

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