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Coryell Offense is the name given to the scheme and philosophy developed by former San Diego Chargers Coach, Don Coryell. Air Coryell was initially a nickname given to the offense of the San Diego Chargers under Coryell from 1978-1986, but now has come be used interchangeably with the term Coryell Offense or the less common Vertical Offense as a descriptive term for the offensive philosophy Coryell developed.

With Dan Fouts as quarterback, San Diego Chargers' offense was among the greatest passing offenses in NFL history. The Chargers led the league in passing yards an NFL record 6 consecutive years from 1978-1983 [1] and again in 1985. They also led the league in total yards in offense 1980-1983 and 1985. Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow would all be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame from those Charger teams.

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Pre-Coryell NFL

The Pro Set was the default NFL scheme prior to Don Coryell . While it is more of a formation, the underlying philosophy of the Pro Set was based on becoming more successful when a team was forced to pass by providing 1 or even 2 backs to help protect the QB. Prior to Coryell, the Pro Set was generally a running offense that used play action fakes to set up deep passing attempts when defenses stacked up vs the running game.

The Pro Set features a TE, 2 WRs, and a Halfback and fullback, often split behind the QB. While QBs can take a snap from the center from the shotgun position, in general the pro set QB takes the ball under center to allow for better play action fakes to the running back.

Coryell opens up passing in the NFL

Coryell set the league on its ear with his passing offenses after moving up from the college ranks. He won two consecutive division titles (1974, 1975) with the Cardinals and three straight division titles (1979, 1980, 1981) with the Chargers, reaching the playoffs four consecutive times with the latter team. Coryell is the first coach ever to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional level. Coryell's offensive innovations changed the entire nature of the league from a run-first league to a pass-first one.

Today most NFL offenses' passing games are at least partially based on Coryell conventions.

Former coach of the St. Louis Rams, Mike Martz, says "Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the 'West Coast' offense, but Don started the 'West Coast' decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game."[2].

Attributes of the Coryell Offense

The Coryell Offense is a combination of deep and mid range passing and power running.[3]The offense relies on getting all five receivers out into patterns that combined stretched the field, setting up defensive backs with route technique and the Quarterback throwing to a spot on time where the receiver can catch and turn up field. Pass protection is critical to success because at least two of the five receivers will run a deep in, skinny post, comeback, speed out, or shallow cross.

Overall the goal of the Coryell offense is to have at least two downfield, fast wide receivers who adjust to the deep pass very well, combined with a sturdy pocket quarterback with a strong arm. The Coryell offense uses three key weapons. The first is a strong inside running game, the second is its ability to strike deep with two or more receivers on any play, and the third is to not only use those two attack in cooperation with each other, but to include a great deal of mid-range passing to a TE, WR, or back.

The Coryell offense has the ability to both "eat the clock" with the ground game but also to strike deep and fast without warning. Critics argue that the Coryell offense is ill-suited for coming from behind, as the deep pass attack will be predictable and therefore easy to stop. However, the fact that the offense is structured around a power running game and tall WRs who can win jump balls and have some breakaway speed make this contention hard to support. This offense is built not only for deep passing but also to defeat short yardage and red zone situations. When evenly matched, the Coryell offense can produce big drives and big scoring efficiently. If teams sit back to cover the deep field, offenses should be able to run the ball on them. If the defense tightens down to stop the run, the offense can go deep. If a defense hedges its bets by using three-deep setups with an eight-man defense up front, the QB can pick apart the defense with 10-20 yard passes.

Joe Gibbs won 3 Super Bowls with a Coryell offense featuring a smash mouth running game with 3 different running backs, Hall of Famer John Riggins, George Rogers and Earnest Byner behind a massive offensive line known as the "Hogs" and a 3 receiver deep air attack featuring Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, known as the "Posse." Gibbs usually kept the tight end in as an extra blocker, especially to neutralize pass rushing specialist and Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. Today, many Coryell offenses still reduce the use a tight end, except in the red zone,.

Norv Turner, current San Diego Chargers head coach and former offensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys, also implements a version of the Coryell style of offense. The Turner strain of Coryell offenses are still very reliant of a good receiving TE. Norv Turner strains sometimes feature an 'F-Back' (formerly known as an 'H-Back' in the 1980s), a hybrid tight end/wide receiver/fullback/running back. An F-Back is a multi-purpose, unpredictable tool for the offense. On any play he may carry the ball, lead block or pass block, play as a wide receiver, or run a tight end route. He is also part decoy, as his unpredictable role forces defenses to keep an eye on him, thereby opening up other opportunities for the offense..

History of the name of the Offense

Originally it was known as the West Coast Offense until an article about San Francisco Head Coach Bill Walsh in Sports Illustrated in the early 80s incorrectly called Walsh's offense "The West Coast Offense," and this mis-labelling stuck. Subsequently, Coryell's offense scheme was referred to as "Air Coryell" --- the name announcers had assigned to his high powered Charger offenses in San Diego, featuring hall of famers QB Dan Fouts& TE Kellen Winslow[4] , and pro bowl WR Wes Chandler & HB Chuck Muncie. Today it is mostly known as the "Coryell Offense", although the "Vertical Offense" is another accepted name.

Current disciples of the Coryell Offense

Today the most famous and successful advocates of this system are Norv Turner, Mike Martz, and Al Saunders.

Norv Turner learned the offense from longtime Coryell assistant, Ernie Zampese. Turner's take on the Coryell system turned around the career of Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman and has proven to be very successful with talented high draft picks struggling with the complexities of the NFL Alex Smith. Turner' variant is not the most robust flavor of Coryell offense. It is a very sound, QB friendly scheme that favors taking controlled chances, like quicker midrange post passes to WRs off play action rather than slower developing passes that leave QBs exposed. It is almost exclusively run out of the pro set. Turner favors a more limited pallet of plays than Coryell and most other Coryell disciples, instead insisting on precise execution. His offenses are usually towards the top of the league standings, but are often labeled predictable. His offenses tend to include a strong running game, a #1 WR who can stretch the field and catch jump balls in the end-zone, a good receiving TE to attack the space the WRs create in the middle of the field and a FB who fills the role of a lead blocker and a final option as an outlet receiver. In Dallas, Turner made RB Emmitt Smith & WR Michael Irvin Hall of Famers, and TE Jay Novacek a five time pro bowler. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Turner's system helped quarterback Philip Rivers set new franchise records for single-season quarterback rating and touchdown passes in 2008.

The Martz variant is a much more robust offense with a more complex playbook. It is a much more aggressive passing offense, frequently deploying pre-snap motion and shifts, with the run often forgotten. There is much less of a focus on play action. The Martz variant favors an elusive feature back who can catch the ball over the power runners the Turner scheme favors. Martz credits his influences on his variation of the offensive system to Sid Gillman and Don Coryell. Martz learned the so called 3 digit system the offense is famous for with how the plays are called from Turner when they were both in Washington. The Rams set a new NFL record for total offensive yards in 2000, with 7,335. 5,492 of those were passing yards, also a new NFL team record. Martz tends to favor a 3 WR set with more elusive players, a third receiver and the Half back filling the role of middle receivers that TEs & FBs fulfill in the Turner offense. The Martz offense works best with two elite WRs with top speed. Unlike the Turner variant, due to the complexity of the Martz offense, the QBs who execute it best are often the more intelligent QBs who intuitively get what Martz is trying to do, not the elite athlete whose team's personnel department might favor drafting with a high draft pick. Whether it is due to the personality of the coach or the nature of the scheme, the Martz variant has historically had problems when teams shut down the run and make the team one dimensional. Additionally, the QBs sometimes take a lot of hits in this system.

Al Saunders was the former WR coach under Don Coryell in San Diego and succeeded him as head coach of the Chargers. The Al Saunders variant is heavily influenced by Coryell and Saunder's former boss, former Coryell assistant and 2 time Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who's Ace formation (single back, 2 WRs, 1 TE, and 1 H back) was immensely effective in the 1980s. The Saunders variant is a more conservative variant than the Martz version, but also quite complex. It is better suited for a veteran QB. It does not insist on size at WR or HB like the Turner variant and as such has difficulties in short yardage and red zone situations. It does not require a pair of dominant fast WRs like the Martz system and is not as aggressive attacking down the field and as such it does not score as many points as the Martz system. It is a more sound variant than the Martz scheme, offering a little more blocking and more run support for the QB. The Saunders variant pulls in many Coryell concepts that the Turner system eliminated in favor of simplicity.

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Criticisms

In general, Coryell offenses chose to focus on stretching defenses vertically with the big passing play to push back run defenders, rather than forcing the defense closer with short passes like the Bill Walsh West Coast offense. As a result, it often depends on higher risk passing game. The loss of a key WR can totally cripple an offense by removing its ability to stretch defenses or score in the red zone. While Coryell and Turner both schemed and selected personnel to defeat short yardage and red zone situations, a number of Coryell offense advocates do not take those needs into account and suffer in those areas. Also, Coryell offenses lose their dimensionality when defenses know the team will not run and it needs the big play; this tends to result in low completion percentages and high interceptions in those situations, despite the high yards gained and touchdowns scored.

Coryell advocates

Coryell's direct development of future coaches included Super Bowl head coaches John Madden and Joe Gibbs, Super Bowl offensive coordinators Ernie Zampese and Al Saunders, as well as Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower. Adding to the Coryell coaching tree, Super Bowl offensive coordinator Norv Turner tutored under Zampese, and another Super Bowl offensive coordinator Mike Martz studied under both Zampese and later Turner [5]. Dan Henning coached under Gibbs.

Coryell overlooked in hall of fame voting

Several Hall of Fame players and coaches have insisted that Don Coryell belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame for developing a philosophy that permanently and irrevocably changed the game.

Fouts says, "He influenced offensive and defensive football because if you are going to have three or four receivers out there, you better have an answer for it on the other side of the ball. If it wasn't for Don, I wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame [2]."

In John Madden's Hall of Fame induction speech, Madden mentioned his time at San Diego State "with a great coach that someday will be in here, Don Coryell. He had a real influence on my coaching. Joe Gibbs was on that staff, too[6]."

Gibbs also lobbied for Coryell's induction into the Hall of Fame, stating "(Coryell) was extremely creative and fostered things that are still in today's game because he was so creative. I think he's affected a lot of coaches, and I'd like to see him get in. [7] "

Winslow points out that Coryell had an indirect hand in the 49ers', Washington Redskins' and St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl teams. "They call it the West Coast offense because San Francisco won Super Bowls with it, but it was a variation of what we did in San Diego. Joe Gibbs' itty-bitty receivers on the outside and two tight ends in the middle, (that's) a variation of Coryell's offense in San Diego. It's just a personnel change, but it's the same thing. When the Rams won their Super Bowl, it was the same offense, same terminology. For Don Coryell to not be in the Hall of Fame is a lack of knowledge of the voters. That's the nicest way that I can put that. A lack of understanding of the legacy of the game. [8] "

References

See also


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