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The following column, originally posted Dec. 13, 2009, makes an argument for the selection of Don Coryell to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Coryell died Thursday at age 85 after a long illness. Coryell made it onto the list of 15 finalists for the Hall's Class of 2010, but he failed to get elected.
It would be impossible to write a history of pro football without acknowledging Don Coryell's influence.
• He originated the digit play-calling system that's used by many NFL teams today.
• Every branch of the famous West Coast offense can be traced back to him, who provided inspiration to coaching luminaries such as John Madden, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz, Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese.
• His offense — dubbed "Air Coryell" as his Chargers teams led the league in passing 7-of-8 seasons from 1978-85 and in total offense 5-of-6 seasons from 1980-85 — has so many disciples that you can't watch a game that hasn't been impacted by Coryell.
"Naysayers like to point out the fact that he has no championships. I wish they would just sit back and think about why they enjoy the game today — watching players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and all the reasons why the game is so popular," says Dan Fouts, who was Coryell's quarterback in San Diego and who has made it his goal to get the man directly responsible for Fouts being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996 into the Hall himself. "Well, a lot of the arrows point to Don."
I fondly remember those Chargers teams from the late 1970s/early 1980s. As a young boy whose love for the NFL grew by leaps and bounds during that era, it was exciting to find out that a Chargers game was going to be on TV. More often than not, you knew you were going to be treated to a highlight-filled shootout.
With supreme offensive talents like Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner — all Hall of Famers, by the way — along with teammates like John Jefferson, Wes Chandler, Chuck Muncie and James Brooks, Coryell's player-friendly system allowed them all to shine brightly.
Whenever I think about Coryell, it's almost always about offense, the passing game, tons of points, excitement.
But Coryell's high-powered offense forever changed the other side of the ball, too, forcing opponents to flood the field with more defensive backs and linebackers who could drop into pass coverage.
That's another reason why it was encouraging to see that he is among the 25 semifinalists being considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2010. Unfortunately, there are many HOF voters who just can't get past the lack of a title on Coryell's résumé.
"I would say to the person who is reluctant to vote: 'You've never been around Coryell.' That's a person who clearly hasn't seen what he has done for professional football. That's a person who hasn't seen how offenses have developed since he came into the league. That's a person who hasn't noticed that Don Coryell changed the face of defenses in the National Football League. He brought in the 'nickel defense', and the 'dime defense.' They had to bring in extra DBs to try and slow down his pass offense," says Joiner, who is imparting lessons learned from Coryell to a younger generation of players in his role as WR coach for the Chargers.
"I think it's an excuse," Fouts adds. "What is more important, a single game or the influence and contribution to the entire game of pro football? That's what I would like to stress. You can't watch an NFL game today and not think, 'How have we gotten to this point?' And the contributions that Don made cannot be ignored just because he didn't win a championship."
Coryell is 85 years old and getting frail. Here's to hoping he gets enshrined sooner than later.
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