Whenever the conversation turns to Don Coryell and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we get a raft of hate mail at the Talk of Fame Network from Raiders’ fans wondering how Coryell can be considered when Tom Flores is not.
It’s a valid question.
Flores won two Super Bowls. Coryell didn’t reach one. Flores won four Super Bowl rings (two as a head coach, one as an assistant and another as a backup quarterback). Coryell won none. And Flores was a social groundbreaker, the first Hispanic-American to win a Super Bowl.
I get that.
But Tom Flores is not a finalist on this year’s Hall-of-Fame ballot. Don Coryell is … for the fourth time. So we cannot and should not ignore him. Not any longer.
While the guy was the first head coach to win over 100 games at the pro and collegiate levels, it wasn’t wins and losses that defined him. He was an innovator who not only changed offenses but changed the defenses that had to face them – with quarterback Dan Fouts calling his former coach “a pioneer and an architect.”
Don Coryell was an offensive genius, a master of mismatches and motion offenses – the guy who took the tight end, split him wide or set him in motion and turned him into Hall-of-Famer Kellen Winslow. He originated the one-back offense, utilized the three-digit play-calling system that endured long after he retired and introduced a system built on timing, rhythm and spacing that is a part of today’s wide-open offenses.
Former defensive coordinator Joe Collier credits Coryell with creating the use of multiple receiver sets, forcing defenses to counter with nickel and dime packages. Former head coach Marty Schottenheimer said “the idea of flooding an area with three receivers probably originated from the Coryell offense.” And the Patriots’ Bill Belichick has said that “the great pass-catching tight ends are all direct descendants of Kellen Winslow.”
In short, he changed the game.
“Don is the father of the modern passing game,” said former coach Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator with St. Louis when the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV. “People talk about the West Coast offense, but Don started the West Coast offense decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. He has disciples all over the league.”
But Coryell was more than a mad scientist devising plays to confuse and disrupt defenses. He was a winner. He took over the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973 and led them to two consecutive division titles (1974-75), their only division championships while in St. Louis. Then, in 1978, he became the head coach in San Diego and led the Chargers – the “Air Coryell” Chargers – to three straight division championships and four consecutive playoff appearances.
They had not been to the playoffs since 1965.
“He won 100 games in college, and he won over 100 games professionally,” said former offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. “What else does he have to do? How the hell can somebody say he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame? It’s unbelievable.”
Not really. Because the pushback is almost universal when his name comes is brought up at Hall-of-Fame meetings, and it’s the playoffs. To put it bluntly, Coryell didn’t do a whole lot once he got there, with his teams 3-6, and he never made it to a Super Bowl.
And in a sport that measures its quarterbacks and coaches by rings, that’s a problem.
Except it shouldn’t be.
Fouts and Winslow and Joiner are in the Hall of Fame, and, last time, I checked, Joiner was 3-6 in the playoffs, Fouts was 3-4 and Winslow 3-3. Warren Moon was 3-7 in the postseason and not only never made it to a Super Bowl; he never made it to a conference championship game. Yet he’s in the Hall of Fame, too. And then there’s George Allen. He was 2-7 in the playoffs, and, OK, so he reached Super Bowl VII.
He lost. And he’s in the Hall of Fame.
No, Don Coryell’s greatness is not measured so much in wins and losses as it is in the impact he had on the game and its players. He turned Fouts from a journeyman young quarterback into a Hall of Famer. Tight ends went from blockers to chess pieces that Coryell turned into weapons, with Winslow a matchup nightmare. He helped turn Joe Gibbs from a play caller into a Hall-of-Fame head coach. And he helped turn Zampese, another of his offensive coordinators, into one of the game’s most accomplished assistants and a tutor for Super Bowl winner Norv Turner, who, in turn, schooled Super Bowl winner Martz.
“In the offense we won the Super Bowl with in 1999,” said former Rams’ coach Dick Vermeil, “the foundation was Don Coryell. The route philosophies, the vertical passing game … everything stemmed from the founder, Don Coryell. The genius.”
But that didn’t start with the Chargers.
It goes back to his days in St. Louis, where former quarterback Jim Hart said Coryell would preach the effectiveness of a vertical passing game. And, of course, it continued in San Diego where the Chargers became the first AFC West champion to throw more than it ran and that led the league in passing seven of eight seasons.
“Don Coryell single-handedly opened up the National Football League,” said Hall-of-Famer Dan Dierdorf.
So why isn’t he in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Well, you can start with the rings. He doesn’t have them. But that shouldn’t stop voters. t didn’t stop them with Fouts, Moon, Joiner and Winslow, and it didn’t stop them with George Allen. Don Coryell changed the game so much that his fingerprints were … and are … everywhere.
As Winslow once pointed out, you could see his influence on the Super Bowl teams of the 49ers, Redskins and Rams. And you can still see it. Two of the Rams who benefited most from the Coryell system that Martz employed in St. Louis – quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Isaac Bruce – are finalists in this year’s Hall of Fame class along with Coryell.
“For Don Coryell not to be in the Hall of Fame is a lack of knowledge of the voters,” said Winslow. “That’s the nicest way I can put that. A lack of understanding of the legacy of the game.”
Well, that can change. And this is the year to do it. There are two favorites to reach Canton in 2017, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and Warner, but then the field is wide open. That means there are three openings and a chance for Coryell — who reached the final 10 a year ago — to make it as a wild card.
Here’s hoping it happens. Not because it’s time. But because it’s right.
At Coryell’s funeral in 2010, Hall-of-Fame coach John Madden delivered a eulogy, with Fouts and Gibbs in attendance. Madden was a defensive assistant under Coryell at San Diego State.
“You know,” he said, “I’m sitting down there in front, and next to me is Joe Gibbs, and next to him is Dan Fouts, and the three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell.”
Then he choked up, pausing to compose himself.
“There’s something missing,” he said.
(Photos courtesy of the L.A. Chargers)