Football 101: Deep Shots with the Air Coryell Offense

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Football 101: Deep Shots with the Air Coryell Offense
George Rose/Getty Images

It was the spread offense before the spread offense, it had the ultimate move tight end before the move tight end, it was the West Coast Offense on steroids. It was known as the "Air Coryell," a high-flying, breathtaking offense that utilized the width of the field and shredded defenses vertically with supremely talented pass catchers.  

Former San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell, a dyslexic and quirky gentleman, was just like his peers at one point in his coaching career, running a run-heavy, Stone Age offense that kept his team in ball games but didn't do enough to win the big ones, so he did something many coaches don't do: He scrapped it and started anew.

Coryell would turn to a pass-happy offense that looked to put pressure on the defense at every level of the field, especially deep.

The offense derived from Sid Gillman's, who was well known for his vertical stretches, and had several vertical concepts such as the four verticals concept (pictured), but as Coryell put it to Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden in the book, Blood Sweat and Chalk, "this is our stuff."

Don Coryell's 4 Verticals from his '83 playbook.

The offense was similar in many ways to what former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh envisioned in his early days with the Cincinnati Bengals, but ultimately developed an offense based off of the horizontal stretch known as the West Coast Offense.

Although Coryell's offense was more based off of one-back sets with two tight ends, unlike Walsh's two-back sets, it utilized a significant amount of formations to go along with shifts and motions that put the defense at a disadvantage in preparations leading up to games because of the sheer amount of looks the offense could pose.

The shifts and motions in particular caused problems for defenses because it enabled the offense to create matchups that favored them, especially with mega-talented tight end Kellen Winslow.

 

"The players, I just try to fit my offense to the players I've got." - Don Coryell 

When it comes to winning games in the NFL, it almost always comes down to the athletes. How good are the athletes on your football team in comparison to the opposition's?

In San Diego, more often than not, Coryell's offensive talent was better than oppositions, and it started with tight end—and I use that term loosely—Kellen Winslow.

Winslow is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game, and when he was drafted 13th overall in 1979 into the Air Coryell, it would be the start of a beautiful marriage. He was what New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is today, a towering pass-catcher that aligned all over the place and aptly fit the "joker" label that is often given to those types of athletes. 

Coryell moved Winslow to the outside in a wide alignment as well as in the backfield, and most notably, three yards off the end of the formation in a flex alignment.

He was able to beat up on defenders in man coverage, utilizing his strong body and long arms to catch passes at their peak and then proceeding to run away from the defender for a long gain. As Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders put it, " [he] was a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body."

While Winslow was perhaps the most well-known pass-catcher on the team, he was not the only talented one. There was also a receiver by the name of Charlie Joiner, a cookie-cutter route runner that could get open against any defensive back, and John Jefferson, who, in his short stint, recorded several eye-popping catches through his rare body control. 

Along with the talented pass-catchers came a gritty gunslinger named Dan Fouts. Fouts was the perfect fit for the Coryell offense because of the toughness he played with and the howitzer he had for an arm.

He would take three and five-step drop backs to deliver the ball to timing routes before eventually dropping back in an old-school backpedal and delivering a bomb downfield that blew the lid off of the defense. 

Fouts would go on to set multiple NFL passing records over the course of his career, including one that averaged 421 yards passing and scored 66 touchdowns in 1981. 

The Coryell-led Chargers would be one of the most entertaining, high-flying offenses of the NFL for years, but they fell short of winning the Super Bowl in 1981 because of their defense. Despite this, Don Coryell's impact on the game was significant, as he took schematics to a new level by pinning defensive backs on their heels for 60 minutes on Sundays.

Nearly 20 years later, the offense would finally win the big one when Coryell disciple Mike Martz took "The Greatest Show on Turf" on a journey to Super Bowl XXIV.

 

"The Greatest Show on Turf"

St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz became one of the greatest minds in NFL history when he directed the 1999 St. Louis Rams offense to arguably the best statistical season output in NFL history.

They averaged over 400 yards per game and an astounding 32 points per game, featuring weapons such as running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. There was also a quarterback named Kurt Warner, who at one point bagged groceries and played in the Arena Football League because he couldn't get on a roster.

Martz's offense was the Air Coryell philosophy, running deeper than deep comebacks and posts skinnier than the skinny post, stressing defenses both horizontally and vertically.

Like Coryell, he had a thing for passing the ball, and he'd do it regardless of the down and distance, passing on 3rd-and-short when people typically ran some form of a power running play.

He based his offense around the endless talent of running back Marshall Faulk, who, in essence, was what Kellen Winslow was to the Chargers—a versatile athlete that could do anything and everything from anywhere. He was not nearly as tall nor long or even big, but he could be just as effective.

Faulk, who would go on to win the league MVP award only a year later,  was unstoppable, and so were the rest of his teammates. While receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were pinning cornerbacks on their heels on the outsides, Faulk worked the linebackers and safeties in the seam, running option routes that had him come out of the backfield out of offset alignments and reading the leverage of defenders, as well as deep outside the hashes via corner routes. 

Martz and head coach Dick Vermeil would owe it all to Coryell, saying "The route philosophies, the vertical passing game ... everything stemmed from the founder, Don Coryell. The genius."

Like Martz and Vermeil, there were many other coaches that would utilize the principles of the Air Coryell passing game, most notably Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, all of which have had great offensive success. 

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