Skip to main content
Original Issue

DON CORYELL 1924--2010

Legendary NFL coach Don Coryell died last Thursday in La Mesa, Calif., after a long illness. He was 85. Coryell is the only coach to have won at least 100 games in both college (at San Diego State) and the pros (with the Cardinals and Chargers). He is considered a forefather of the modern passing attack and helped shape the NFL game seen today. Coryell's offenses were as entertaining as they were prolific--relentless aerial assaults that took teams to Super Bowls and influenced a generation of coaches


Norv Turner woke up on Monday, Feb. 1, 1993, in possession of a Super Bowl title. As offensive coordinator of the Cowboys, he had called plays the previous evening in the Rose Bowl, guiding Dallas to a 52--17 rout of the Bills. Quarterback Troy Aikman had thrown four touchdown passes to three receivers and had been named the game's MVP.

Super Bowl XXVII would occupy an important place on the NFL time line: The Cowboys had returned to greatness following a decade of mediocrity and only three years after making a series of jarring changes—notably the ouster of their beloved founding head coach, Tom Landry, by their new owner, oilman Jerry Jones. The victory in Pasadena would launch a minidynasty, as Dallas would win three NFL titles in four years.

That Super Bowl was significant in another way. It had showcased Aikman and a Dallas passing game that would be an NFL staple throughout the '90s. Aikman had peppered the Buffalo defense with scoring passes: a 23-yarder to tight end Jay Novacek, running straight up the middle; a 19-yard slant to wideout Michael Irvin, slashing diagonally across the field; another 18-yard touchdown to Irvin, planted at the right sideline; and a 45-yard bomb to receiver Alvin Harper, open far beyond the deepest Bills defender.

At his home in San Francisco, former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts had watched Aikman on TV like a man staring in a mirror. On the morning after the game he called Turner, offered congratulations and then said, "O.K., let me see if I got this right." Fouts then recited the play calls on each of Aikman's four touchdowns.

"He's like, 'The first touchdown was 370, right?'" Turner remembers. "'Then the second one was 839? The third one looked to me like 787 Special. And then the last one was 989.' He called every single play, exactly." Turner laughed and Fouts laughed back, two men linked across time by another man's genius.

Fouts was a 27-year-old quarterback for the Chargers in September 1978 when team owner Eugene V. Klein forced coach Tommy Prothro's resignation and replaced him with Don Coryell. The new coach, 53 years old, had built winners at San Diego State and with the St. Louis Cardinals by installing an inventive pass-first offense that attacked defenses as few others had before it. In 1987 Turner, who had joined the Los Angeles Rams two years earlier as wide-receivers coach, began working with new offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who had coached under Coryell at San Diego State and with the Chargers. Fouts and Turner shared a passion for the Coryell offense, and they were fluent in its language.

Fouts rode the Coryell offense into the Hall of Fame, directing the explosive San Diego attack that redefined the passing game through the 1980s. Turner took Coryell 101 to Dallas in 1991 and taught it to Aikman and Irvin and the rest of the Cowboys. The scheme would spread to many other teams over the years, all because a former Army paratrooper got sick of losing two games a year to deeper teams while coaching at San Diego State in the 1960s. So he built an offense that combined technical simplicity with daring downfield strikes in almost every play. Pass routes were numbered in a basic 1 through 9 ladder. Quarterbacks were instructed to read from deep to short and to get rid of the ball quickly. Formations with four wide receivers became common, and eventually players in motion became routine. On defense, an entire sport backpedaled.

Mike Martz watched Coryell's San Diego State teams while he was playing tight end at San Diego Mesa (Community) College in the late '60s. Three decades later, in 1999, Martz became offensive coordinator of the Rams, who won Super Bowl XXXIV. Their attack came to be called The Greatest Show on Turf, but in truth it was just the Coryell offense, evolved. During the height of St. Louis's success Martz met up with Coryell, and the two were photographed together. Martz later sent the photo to Coryell with the following inscription: Coach Coryell, we are all grateful to you for your impact on the game. You changed it forever ... the 'Godfather' of today's passing game.

"And he is exactly that," says Martz. "He was way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation. [Back then] everyone was running the same kind of plays. Coryell changed all that. He had this aggressive mind-set. He was always attacking, never going into this conservative mode where you try to win through attrition. Now, 40 years later, you're seeing the second and third generations of coaches running Coryell's system."

The recent history of the NFL is rich with successes due to the Coryell offense. Zampese won with it in L.A. Joe Gibbs, who played for Coryell at San Diego State and coached under him there and with the Cardinals, took the playbook to the Redskins, expanded it and won three Super Bowls. Turner took it to Dallas, then Washington, then San Diego. Martz turned the league upside down with it in St. Louis. Jason Garrett (Aikman's erstwhile backup) called Coryell's plays into Tony Romo's helmet as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator. Players have been made famous by running Coryell-inspired patterns: Irvin, the Bang 8 slant; Novacek, then Marshall Faulk and most recently Antonio Gates, the F post.

By the start of the 2008 NFL season there was scarcely a team that didn't incorporate some part of the Coryell passing game, whether the numbering of routes or the spacing concepts or specific plays. Today several teams—notably the Ravens, Cowboys, Chargers and 49ers—rely almost exclusively on the Coryell offense. "If you brought Don Coryell to Dallas and handed him our playbook," said Garrett in the fall of 2007, "he would recognize an awful lot of stuff."

The word coming through the football pipeline in March 2008 was that Don Coryell, then 83 and in poor health, had become a recluse, living a quiet life on Puget Sound, resistant to questioners. Some of this, I found out, was true: Coryell resided far from the noise of Sunday afternoons and had done few interviews in recent years. He had slowed with age. But he was not a recluse. It's just that inquisitors had to go to him, and even in a world made small, that was not easy.

It is a 66-mile drive north from Seattle to Burlington, then 16 miles west to Anacortes, a staging point for ferries that service the San Juan Islands. One boat stops first at Lopez Island and 20 minutes later at Friday Harbor, a village of 2,200 year-round residents on San Juan Island, the second largest in the chain. A late-model SUV slowed to a stop along Front Street, with Coryell at the wheel.

The old coach wore a heavy fleece pullover, baggy sweat-style pants and walking shoes. A baseball cap covered his thin gray hair. His blue eyes were full of vigor, but a recent knee replacement had left him hobbling. It was a 25-minute ride over rolling hills and sweeping curves to the three-story wood house where Coryell lived with his wife, Aliisa, above a peaceful horseshoe-shaped inlet called Neil Bay.

As we drove across the island Coryell unfurled the story of his life: raised in Seattle, played football at Lincoln High, enlisted in the Army in 1943 and spent 3½ years as a paratrooper. Returned to Seattle in the fall of 1946 and played defensive back for Washington. "I wasn't good enough to play offense," he said. "Even on defense, I think I started one game, and that was in my senior year." He also began sliding, almost accidentally, toward his calling.

"I started out as a forestry major," said Coryell. "I wanted to be a forest ranger. But there was no way I could get through all that science. So I withdrew before I flunked out and switched to physical education." He graduated in 1950 and, after getting a master's degree in P.E., embarked on a classic coaching odyssey: two years at high schools in Hawaii, two years as head coach at the University of British Columbia, a year at Wenatchee (Wash.) Valley College, a year coaching a military team at Fort Ord in Northern California, three years as head coach at Whittier (Calif.) College and a year on John McKay's staff at USC before taking over at San Diego State in 1961.

At every stop Coryell tinkered. "You look at your players, and you figure out what the hell they can do," he said. Coryell had been a single wing quarterback in high school. In 1955 Wenatchee's outstanding running back was injured during the preseason. "We took one of our fullbacks and put him at tailback," Coryell said. "The other fullback played fullback, right in front of the halfback. We called it our hash-marks offense because we'd use it on the hash marks and put the other halfback to the wide side. For us, it was backs-left and backs-right." Football historians call it something else: the power I. It would dominate college football in the 1970s. Its precise origins are unclear, but Coryell was certainly one of its pioneers, and Wenatchee went from winless to unbeaten in one season.

At Whittier, Coryell endlessly ran the power I, yet he was fascinated with the possibility of diversifying his offense and read a book by TCU coach and athletic director Dutch Meyer titled Spread Formation Football. In his third year Coryell moved a tailback to quarterback, spread out his wide receivers and began throwing.

Whittier went 23-5-1 in Coryell's tenure there. After his one year at USC he was hired to salvage football at San Diego State, winner of just seven games in the previous four seasons. Coryell made the Aztecs better immediately, winning 38 games in his first five seasons. Yet they also lost two games a year, and those losses galled him. "Two games, every goddam year," he said. Coryell concluded that the best way to win was to make full use of quarterbacks and wide receivers, and beat more complete teams with the pass. "I decided, hell, you can't just go out and run the ball against better teams," he said. "You've got to mix it up. So we started throwing the ball."

Over the next six seasons San Diego State was 55-9-1, becoming a national phenomenon. The Aztecs sometimes drew more fans than the Chargers, who were then a power in the AFL. Among Coryell's assistant coaches were Gibbs, Zampese and John Madden.

In 1964 senior Rod Dowhower (who later coached Stanford and the Indianapolis Colts) led a passing attack that gained 2,083 yards, nearly double the '61 total. Junior flanker Gary Garrison (who would become an AFL All-Star with the Chargers) caught 78 passes from Dowhower in '64 and 70 from Don Horn a year later, for a total of 26 touchdowns. Wide receivers Haven Moses, Ken Burrow and Isaac Curtis would follow Garrison into pro football. Horn was followed by Dennis Shaw, and Shaw by Brian Sipe; all would play in the NFL, as would at least another two dozen of Coryell's Aztecs players.

That was just the beginning. Coryell would guide the Cardinals to two division titles in the brutal NFC East and the Chargers to three division championships in the AFC West. So how, exactly, did he do it?

On that chilly winter afternoon in 2008 Coryell sat at the dining table in his waterfront home, ignoring a fruit and cheese plate as he became absorbed in explaining his offense. From a canvas shopping bag he pulled a thick three-ring binder with a small index card affixed to the front: SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: 1979. "Right here," he said, smacking the front of the binder with his right hand, which was adorned with a College Football Hall of Fame ring. "This is how we did it."

Coryell's offense was based on three elements: simplicity, spacing and timing.

It is unclear which early sideline mavens first used numbers, rather than names, to identify pass routes. What is unquestioned is that Coryell's numbering system has been the most enduring and efficient. The foundation: Routes for the outside receivers in a formation (typically designated the X and Z receivers) were assigned single digits, from 1 to 9; routes for an inside (or Y) receiver were assigned multiples of 10, from 10 to 90. A basic pass play might begin with the number 837, which meant the X receiver ran an 8 route, the Y receiver ran a 30 and the Z receiver ran a 7.

Coryell flipped through pages in the binder until he arrived at a page entitled "Routes for X and Y." Half the page was filled with a diagram showing half an offensive line and a single wide receiver. A series of lines emanated from the lone wideout, each one numbered. Below the diagram was a key, with a description of each route, in intricate detail. The numbering system would become intrinsic not only to the offensive language of football but also to the lexicon of the broadcast booth.

Here are some examples for the X and Z receivers, who can be split ends or flankers: A 1 route is a basic out. A 2 is a hard slant. A 6 is a curl. An 8 is a skinny post. A 9 is a go route, or fly pattern. The route descriptions are precise. For instance, on the list of routes for the Y receiver, who can be a slot player, tight end or running back, a 20 is explained like this: "Release inside and sprint across field aiming for 7 YD depth on the other side of formation." This is essentially a "drag" route or, in the West Coast offense, a "drive" route.

Coryell created the numbering system for two reasons. First, it was easy to learn quickly. At San Diego State, he relied heavily on junior college players, who would play for him for only two seasons. "You can get a guy and teach him the whole thing in two days," said Coryell. The second reason, and a key to the system's longevity, was that it was visual rather than cognitive. Whereas many offenses named each play with a word (say, Cowboy or Maverick), the backbone of every Coryell play was a two- or three-digit number that not only named the play but also told what it would look like. A play with the number 335 showed the X receiver running a deep out (3), the Y receiver also running a deep out (30) and the Z receiver running a comeback (5).

Even in the Coryell system, added words were necessary to describe formations and added letters (H and F) to designate the routes of running backs—as in Scat (formation) 435 (receivers' routes) F Cross (an inside crossing route by a running back). But every play was built from the foundation of the digits.

"It was always a great thing for me," says former NFL quarterback Trent Green, who played in the Coryell system under Turner in Washington and later Martz in St. Louis. "The first thing I do when a play comes into my headset is visualize it. In this system, with every play call, you're actually telling everybody what to do by what you say. Instead of saying, 'I Right Omaha,' you're saying, 'R 428 H Stop,' and that tells everybody what to do, instead of relying on their memorization."

The spacing element of the Coryell offense—in which every route was designed to make distance receivers more difficult to cover—had its roots in the Meyer book that Coryell studied. "It's one of the huge keys to the entire offense," says quarterback Kurt Warner, who operated the system for the Rams. "It's so emphasized to all the receivers: Get off the ball and get downfield, get great separation between your deep route and your six- to eight-yard route." If the Coryell system was executed properly, defenders were forced to cover huge chunks of earth to blanket receivers.

The final component was timing; from the early days Coryell harped on wedding speed and precision. "We put a timing element on every one of the routes," says Zampese. "Say we were asking the X receiver to run a 1 route. We would tell the guy, 'Three steps, and when your third inside foot hits the ground, that's when you break! Just go ahead and change direction. No fakes, just timing.' And the key was to run as fast as you can. We told them not to round off their cuts, but we had them running the routes so fast that they had to round them off a little bit."

Just as important was the speed of the quarterback. Anyone who has played in the Coryell system can still hear an assistant—Zampese, Turner, Garrett—screaming in his ear as he drops back from the center, Get it out! Get it out! Get it out! "On Don's pass routes, normally there were three parts," says Gibbs. "There's always a deep portion. And you'd have a medium portion and a short checkdown. Don's reads [for the quarterback] would always start with the deep shot, so you didn't have to guess and gamble by calling a specific deep shot. It was already there."

Coryell drilled two other principles into his quarterbacks' heads: 1) Never pass up an open receiver. Stop reading and throw it to him. 2) Never, ever worry about an incompletion. You don't give a damn about incompletions. Just go back and get it the next time.

When Coryell arrived in St. Louis in 1973, his first move was to restore eight-year veteran Jim Hart, 29, as the starting quarterback. Hart was the classic Coryell QB: durable and decisive, with a quick release. "Don came in and looked at film on Jim Hart," says Jim Hanifan, who came to the Cardinals with Coryell from San Diego State. "Jimmy had been sitting on the bench. Don looked at the film and said, 'Screw that. This is my quarterback.'"

Coryell gave Hart one order: Don't get hit. (Translation: Get rid of the ball.) The Cardinals took a year to master Coryell's system and then won 31 games in three years, including two division titles. Coryell expanded the offense, adding multiple formations and putting in several screen passes to best use his speedy little running back, Terry Metcalf. In 1974 and '76 Hart led the NFC in touchdown passes.

"Back in those years," says Hanifan, "a lot of teams would just sit back on defense and Don would feast on them. So they started to bring pressure, and Don would just say, 'We are not going to let this happen. We're going to attack.'"

Four games into the 1978 season, the Chargers hired Coryell as coach. Coryell, who had been let go by the Cardinals (their owner got antsy after a 7--7 season in '77), was introduced to the players on the morning of Monday, Sept. 25, one day after a 24--3 loss to Green Bay, the team's third consecutive defeat. More eerily, it was also the day on which 144 people were killed when a 727 jet collided with a Cessna 172 over San Diego. "Don stands up there," says Fouts, "and he says, 'People think I'm crazy to take this job. I'm still getting paid by the St. Louis Cardinals. But I'm a little bit crazy. I'm crazy enough to turn this thing around.' And we're all just looking at each other, and I'm thinking, Holy s---, what a refreshing attitude. And from that point on, we were just ready to take off."

Coryell recalled, "Gene Klein told me, 'I hired you to throw the football. Now throw it.' I said, 'That's a damn good idea.'"

It would be the true birth of what came to be known as Air Coryell. For one season Coryell moved conservatively, but the Chargers won seven of their last eight to finish at 9--7. In the off-season Coryell brought in Gibbs and his old buddy Zampese. Fouts was already positioned as the quarterback, and wide receiver Charlie Joiner had come by way of a trade from the Bengals in '76. Wideout John Jefferson had been the Chargers' first pick in the '78 draft, and in the spring of '79 Coryell would take 6'5", 251-pound tight end Kellen Winslow, a transcendent athlete from Missouri.

What resulted was a splendid blend of players and system. Joiner was a brilliant, cerebral receiver, perfectly suited to an offense in which he had to make decisions based on how he was played by defensive backs. "I learned more from Joiner than he learned from me," says Zampese. Winslow was a wideout in a tight end's body. "If you put him in the conventional tight end position, linebackers would just pound him every time," says Gibbs. "So we started putting him on the move and getting him spread out so they couldn't hammer him. And then they couldn't cover him, either." And Fouts had the unflagging courage to set, stand, throw and take the pounding that inevitably followed.

To a system already revolutionary in its spreads and routes, Coryell now added motion and screens and more formations every day. "[We had] a chance to make a big play on every snap," recalls Fouts. "I would get in the huddle on the first series on Sunday, and I'd just say, 'O.K., boys, 40 [points] today.' Or, '50 today.'"

There was, always, a quirkiness to Coryell. He had an odd voice—anyone who knew him could imitate his urgent nasal inflection—and he had a piercing focus that disarmed his colleagues, or made them laugh. One morning Coryell climbed into his car for the drive to work after putting the family's garbage cans into the trunk, planning to leave them at the bottom of the driveway. Before he put the car in gear his mind had turned to football, and he arrived at work with the garbage still in the trunk, where it fermented throughout the day.

Over the next four seasons the Chargers went 39--18 and twice played in the AFC title game. They led the NFL in passing offense for six consecutive years beginning in 1978.

Signature plays emerged from the weekly brainstorming. Joiner caught 213 passes for 3,328 yards from 1979 through '81, almost exclusively on crossing routes in the middle of the soft zone defenses that were typical in those years. "Charlie wasn't very fast, and neither was I," says Fouts, "but my drop-back and his routes seemed to just time out perfectly."

A single play dominated the offense: F Post. There were dozens of variations, called endlessly by Gibbs and then by Zampese, who dialed up the F Post so often that it became known simply as an Ernie route. The most common call was 525 F Post Swing. Both outside receivers would run 15-yard comeback routes, carrying the corners to the outside. The Y receiver would run a 20, or a shallow cross, occupying the vision of the linebackers and safeties. The F receiver—a running back or a second tight end, depending on the formation—would then run an option post route, finding his own open path. A running back would run a short swing pattern. "It got to be the best play in the whole system," says Zampese, "and they still run it."

In NFL front offices across the country, team execs watched Air Coryell take off. And, no surprise, it wasn't long before they began plucking off Coryell's assistants in hopes of replicating this new thing. The first to leave for a top job in the NFL was Gibbs, hired to coach the Redskins in 1981. He installed the Coryell offense, then sought to take away any semblance of predictability by adding dozens of new formations and shifts from which to run the same plays. He also built in a power running game centered on counter plays. Gibbs's Redskins lost their first five games in 1981 but won the Super Bowl in '82, lost it in '83 and won twice more, in '87 and '91.

"No matter what you have in football," says Gibbs, "you need something you can do really well, and run it over and over again. We had the counter game." For much of the '80s the Redskins operated the counter like a fine piece of machinery, using the inside zone counter and the outside zone counter and then developing a third counter play that entered the language of football, fittingly enough, as the Counter Trey. The strong side of the offensive line delivered gap blocks while backside guard Russ Grimm would pull and trap the first defender outside the tight end; at the same time backside tackle Joe Jacoby would pull and lead first through the hole between the strongside guard and tackle, barrelling upfield, 305 pounds in full lumbering flight, leading John Riggins or George Rogers or Earnest Byner for big chunks of yardage.

The Counter Trey, among the most dominant plays in the game's history, sprang from an unlikely source. "The whole counter started when we saw some film on Nebraska in the early '80s," says Gibbs. "Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front, and we were watching it and thought, God, that's good stuff. So we stole it. We had no pride whatsoever, and really, nobody does in this game. We all steal things."

Behind the Counter Trey, Gibbs kept throwing Coryell's pass routes, sometimes bunching three wide receivers on one side of the formation. "We kept the numbering system, the pass tree, everything," says Gibbs. "The main thing we did that was different was that we ran the hang out of the ball to get [the defense] close to the line of scrimmage, and then we majored in the deep ball." Gibbs is as appreciative of Coryell's influence as anyone: "Mr. Cooke [longtime Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke] once said, 'There are no geniuses in football.' But Don really was a genius."

A continent away, the Rams were using their own version of Air Coryell. Zampese and coach John Robinson melded the Coryell passing game with the USC-based running game that Robinson had learned from John McKay and used at Tailback U. With quarterback Jim Everett and lethal F Post runner Henry Ellard leading the way, the '89 Rams came up one win short of the Super Bowl. They also launched another coach to prominence. After the 1990 season Turner, who had assisted Zampese with the Rams' offense, was contacted by Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. In two years since taking over America's Team, Johnson had improved it from 1--15 to 7--9 but wanted more from his offense. He interviewed Turner and offered him the job as offensive coordinator—on the condition that he bring the Coryell scheme with him.

Turner found an ideal set of players for the system. The third-year starting quarterback, Aikman, who had thrown 36 interceptions and suffered 58 sacks in two seasons, was a Coryell quarterback waiting to happen. "The entire passing game is predicated on having a quarterback who will turn the ball loose," says Turner. "Get on his fifth step, or his seventh step, and when that back foot hits the ground, the ball is out. And he has to have great anticipation, because you're throwing into holes. So in Dallas we inherit a guy, Troy, who is as good as anyone who has played in the system because he's such a good athlete. He would separate from the center quicker than anyone I've ever been around and still get set and get the ball out of his hand and make the throws. People teaching the offense still show the first touchdown pass in our first Super Bowl, when Troy throws the slant to Michael Irvin and the ball goes inches—I mean inches—above the linebacker's fingertips. That's a throw that Troy was willing to make, and you have to be willing to make it."

If the F Post defined the early years of the Coryell offense, it was the Bang 8 that defined these Cowboys. (The Bang 8 was so named because it was a Coryell "8" route thrown very quickly—bang. It was later referred to throughout football as the skinny post because it was a post pattern but not as deep as a traditional post and was consequently run at a more severe, or skinny, angle). Novacek ran the F Post brilliantly from the flanked tight end position, but it was Aikman and Irvin who made it almost undefendable.

By the time the Cowboys had won their third Super Bowl, after the 1995 season, defensive coaches were working feverishly to counter this offensive surge, primarily with the invention of the zone blitz by Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who then popularized it in Pittsburgh with Dom Capers. In St. Louis, Martz was committed to staying a step ahead of the defensive wizards. "With all the zone blitzes, offenses wanted to know where every defender was coming from," says Martz. "So offenses got real conservative again. Keeping another receiver in to block, that sort of thing. We decided to do just the opposite, and that was all about the Coryell system. We spread 'em out and said, 'Good luck finding the guy we're throwing it to.' We took the F Post and ran it with five different positions from every formation in the playbook. We ran it with Az Hakim, with Isaac Bruce—and Marshall Faulk was an unbelievable post runner. At one point I counted 137 ways we could run the F Post."

Operating Martz's system was none other than Green, now a Ram. Green completed 28 of 32 passes in three exhibition starts, but his fun didn't last—he went down with torn ligaments in his left knee in the third preseason game. The offense was handed over to Warner, a 28-year-old undrafted free agent who was a veteran of NFL Europe, Arena Football and, at one point, a grocery store where he stocked shelves. The system didn't miss a beat; the Rams went 13--3 and won the Super Bowl. Warner threw 41 touchdown passes, and a legend was born.

"I loved the system from Day One," says Warner. "I loved that it was deep first, then checkdowns. The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.

"The F Post was still a big part of the offense," Warner continues. "The Bang 8 got to be a little tougher because in '99 and after that, coverages were starting to change. Instead of getting single high safeties, you would get a lot more four across, which made it harder to throw that skinny post. So we made a living off what we call a Big 4, a deep in pattern. Our inside guy would push hard on the safety and force him deep, and then we would throw inside with the Big 4, like 18 or 20 yards deep, and that's where my accuracy was really good and I could separate myself from other quarterbacks."

In October 2007, Jason Garrett sat behind his desk in an office on the first floor of the Cowboys' sprawling suburban complex, Valley Ranch. The desk was half covered by play diagrams, and a whiteboard on the wall was peppered with game-plan notes, like arcane graffiti. Asked to describe the foundation of his offense, Garrett leaned back and said, "It's what you would have to call the Coryell offense." More than 40 years had passed since Don Coryell grew tired of losing two games a year at San Diego State, but the offense he founded had endured like little else in football.

Garrett came to the Cowboys from Miami before the '07 season and immediately began teaching Tony Romo in the same way that Zampese and Turner had taught Aikman. "Romo was pretty good from the start," said Garrett. "But we absolutely had to coach him to get away from the center. And we've had to coach receivers to get off the ball. Like Ernie always said: 'Speed, speed, speed.' None of that changes."

Half a continent away, five months later, Coryell sat at that kitchen table in fading light after several hours spent piecing together memories, conjuring up ghosts from decades earlier. The coaches that he so profoundly influenced were astounded that he had not been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "It's mind-boggling," said Martz. "I can't think of a coach who has had a bigger impact on what is done out there on the field than Don Coryell."

Now on

More on Don Coryell's legacy from SI pro football writer Jim Trotter at

Coryell was "way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation," Martz says. "He had this aggressive mind-set."

Coryell's credos: Never pass up an open receiver and never, ever worry about an incompletion.



During nine seasons under Coryell in San Diego, Fouts led the NFL in passing yards four times and was the first quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons (1979 through '81). Fouts shared some memories of his former coach with SI's Jim Trotter.

Don was such an innovator when it came to offenses and the passing game that we players just knew we were going to be successful when he gave us plays or schemes. For me, the excitement came early in the week, when I got the game plan and saw how we were going to attack opponents. You could just see the anticipation building among the players as the week went on. There was a feeling that you wanted to be in there, you wanted to be on the field, because good things were going to happen. The games were almost anticlimactic because we expected to make plays.

Don treated practices like games. We had play clocks out there, and we kept a pretty good pace throughout. That was important to him—and to me—because that's the proper way to practice. He was demanding in that way, but I don't remember him ever going crazy mad at someone. I know he never had a cross word for me, although I'm sure he said some things under his breath after I threw a few interceptions. He was just so positive. It was always, "Let's go. O.K., let's do better. Way to go, guys." He was a genuinely nice man.

It's tough to speak about somebody when you owe him as much as I owe Don. In the later years we became such good friends, beyond the player-coach relationship. That was wonderful for me, because I wanted that, and he gave it to me. He gave me a lot. I'm saddened that he never got a chance to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame while he was alive, but he was there for me when I was inducted. He made a great presentation and sat on the back of that convertible during the parade. We shared a lot of special moments in Canton.

I heard that Tony Dungy said Don's impact on the game as an innovator and a tutor of coaches was on par with Paul Brown's. That's a huge statement, because you just don't put things out there like that when you're talking about Paul Brown. But Don was deserving. He was one of a kind: a major contributor, a person who changed the game. There aren't many men in the Hall of Fame you can actually point to and say that the game changed because of them. Coach may be gone, but the man and his contributions will never be forgotten.



REFERENCES AVAILABLE By the time Coryell was with the Chargers, other NFL teams had taken note of his offense and begun hiring his assistants.




STAR PUPIL As the Chargers' QB, Fouts mastered—and loved—the coach's pass-first schemes.



525 F POST SWING In this Coryell staple, perfected in San Diego by Fouts (14) and Winslow (80), the wideouts (X and Z) run "5" routes (15-yard comebacks), the tight end (TE) runs a "20" route (a shallow cross) and a back or second tight end (F) runs a post-pattern option route to the middle of the field.



[See caption above]



[See caption above]



AN EYE FOR TALENT When Coryell took over the Cardinals in 1973 he saw that Hart, who had been on the bench, was the best quarterback for his system.



BANG 8 When Dallas ran this play, a.k.a. the skinny post, in the 1990s, Aikman took a five-step drop while Irvin (88) ran an "8" route, or sharply angled post pattern, timing his cut based on the coverage. As soon as his back foot hit the ground, Aikman released the ball.



[See caption above]