The following column by longtime PFW contributor Jerry Magee was first published in the Jan. 22, 2007 print edition of Pro Football Weekly, citing some of the many accomplishments of former Chargers head coach Don Coryell. Coryell died Thursday at Sharp Grossmont Hospital just outside San Diego, at age 85, following a long illness. He was a finalist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's voting for the Class of 2010 but failed to get elected.
Football as a tutorial. It was what the Chargers offered in the 1980s when they were not merely playing the game, they were giving lessons in how it could be played, enterprisingly, with variety, and above all, in the air.
The NFL — all of football, for that matter — took notice, and the game changed. "We were setting an example," former Chargers QB Dan Fouts said.
The other evening, Fouts looked in on the telecast of Florida's 41-14 conquest of Ohio State in the BCS championship game.
"When I was watching it, I was saying, 'So that's how the game is going to be played now,' " Fouts said.
As the Gators played it. And as the Chargers before them had played it during Fouts' time as their quarterback under head coach Don Coryell.
"The way they used their formations was different," Fouts said of the approach by Florida head coach Urban Meyer, "but that's what we were doing. Funny, but when we were doing it, I kind of felt we were cheating, it was so easy. Watching Florida, I got that old feeling again."
Fouts is reluctant to enter into comparisons of the San Diego teams he served to the franchise's current team.
"But I love the components," he said of Marty Schottenheimer's side. (Editor's note: Schottenheimer was the Chargers' head coach from 2002 through '06.)
One of them, of course, is the quarterback, Philip Rivers.
"How could you not like him?" the Hall of Fame quarterback questioned. "I liked him when I saw him in college."
What had he liked about him?
"A 70 percent completion rate," Fouts said of Rivers' deeds at North Carolina State. "People would say to me, 'Well, he's got a funny delivery.' I would say, 'So?' "
As are his NFL peers, Rivers is orchestrating schemes that have become legion since Coryell introduced them. Fouts said it is not surprising to him that these practices have been so widely emulated.
"Not when you look at his disciples, Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese and Norv Turner and on and on," Fouts said. "Instead of looking at teams, look at styles.
"It's Coryell's style."
There are some great minds in football today. The reference is to Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning, both of whom have been within my view in recent days. An aura is attached to Belichick, a mystique, if you will, relating to his accomplishments in Super Bowls. The man, to his credit, does not encourage it, but it is there nevertheless. Beware, genius.
Not to belittle the New England coach, but his influence in how football is played is minuscule when it is measured against Coryell's contributions. Yet, Coryell continues to be turned away by the Pro Football Hall of Fame's panel of selectors, which is an injustice.
My hope is that the Hall's committee soon can address this matter. I would like to see Coryell recognized while he is living. The last time I saw him, he was beginning to appear a bit frail.
Anyone adjudging the current Chargers and the Chargers of the 1980s should be mindful that on Coryell's clubs were three players whose busts are displayed in Canton: Fouts, TE Kellen Winslow and WR Charlie Joiner.
"And four should be," said Fouts, citing Coryell.
Other Chargers players from this era have been nominated for the Hall, including WR Wes Chandler, OGs Ed White and Doug Wilkerson, OT Russ Washington and DLs Gary Johnson and Fred Dean. But it was Coryell's genius, in a tactical sense, that set the team apart historically.
Coryell had hit upon a way of cobbling together a passing game that was unique to him — his so-called "passing tree." He assigned numbers to the various routes. By calling off a formation and a series of numbers, a quarterback could dictate a play. Receivers would trace routes corresponding to the numbers.
Those teams worked on substituting as much as they worked on anything. In practice, Coryell would call out a particular package, and the players involved in it would run onto the field. Another package, another set of athletes prepared to instrument it.
Some athletes! Fouts led the league in passing yards four consecutive times from 1979 through 1982. No other quarterback has done that. (Miami's Dan Marino did it three straight times between 1984 and 1986). Winslow redefined his position, giving it dimensions no other tight end had achieved. Joiner was the consummate possession receiver. So many.
Such a system.
Jerry Magee covered pro football for the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1961 to 2008 and for PFW from its inception in 1967 until his retirement in 2009. In 1987 he won the Dick McCann Memorial Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame for long and meritorious reporting in the field of professional football.