Jim Hart was Don Coryell's head gunner in St. Louis, and he remembered how his coach's brain would short-circuit and fly apart during Redskins week, the smell of scorched wiring in the atmosphere. Coryell, the engineer of the 1970s pro passing game, his sharp array of timing patterns and deep strikes, worried to death about George Allen's agents of espionage.
"Don had a vendetta against Allen," says Hart, "something that went back to when both of them were coaching junior college football in the 1950s. One year Don's second-string quarterback at Wenatchee J. C. quit the team. A few weeks later they were getting ready to play Whittier College, which was coached by George Allen, and that same kid showed up on the Whittier sideline, charting plays. That started it all. Don believed that Allen carried that kind of chicanery into the pros.
"It was a battle of wits the week of those Washington games. Coryell got so uptight. He didn't do things the way he normally did, and I found myself fighting that. It took away from my concentration."
Which meant schedules were jumbled. Routines were cracked. Extra security men were trucked in and put on patrol. Head fakes and camouflage. One day three mysterious figures were spotted peering down from a window that overlooked Coryell's Busch Stadium practice.
"One guy had a telescope" says Hart, "and two others were writing on clipboards. Don was upset about it, so team management sent security over to see what was going on in that room. For some reason they weren't allowed in, and that made Don even more nuts."
If you were involved in the spy business during the 1970s, a Coryell practice was the place to plant your operatives. There you would learn things. There you would witness the methods of shock-and-awe offensive strategy, receivers flooding the middle and slashing up the sidelines and overloading a zone. Methods that would quickly turn a pair of quarterbacks who had been struggling like hell into All-Pro aerialists — Hart in St. Louis, Dan Fouts in San Diego. The Cardiac Cards. Charger Power. Voltage and current and electric football.
There's a word that's always paper-clipped to any discussion/article/remembrance about Don Coryell since he passed away earlier this month, and that word is "innovator." The rubber stamping of a coach for the history books. OK, Coryell the innovator. What does that mean? There are only so many routes a receiver can run, so many throws a passer can make. It wasn't like the man was operating out there in some strange, fourth dimension that no other souls in the league could comprehend.
"What that means," says Fouts, "is that Coryell was great at recognizing players who had the ability to play more than one position, his running backs, receivers and tight ends — his weapons. He was innovative that way. He could look at a guy like [TE] Kellen Winslow and say, 'He's as fast as some of our receivers. Let's put him out wide.' Things like that. Not only could he recognize that talent, he was fearless enough to move it around and use it. He was an experimenter.
"It goes back to playing on the street as a kid. As a kid you're not just playing one position. You're hiking the ball on one play, you're the guard or the wide receiver next. Players like to play. They like to try new things, to be tested. That was one of Don's greatest assets. He was willing to try a number of new things."
Cliff Harris was Dallas' All-Pro safety throughout the 1970s, an attacker, an executioner type. He says that trying to clamp down on that slick Coryell attack was like taking a unicycle through a minefield.
"It was an offense that really put pressure on you," remembers Harris. "The Cardinals tried to finesse me and trick me all the time. Many times Hart would run play-action and send both a shallow and a deep guy on me. They'd send someone at me they knew I liked to hit, like (5-foot-9 WR) Mel Gray for instance, hoping I'd bite on it. Then they'd run [TE] J.V. Cain behind me. Mental games. You're right on the edge of making a major mistake all the time. But you couldn't guess wrong against that offense because it would lead to a score, not just a long run or pass.
"And most of Coryell's plays were designed to score."
"It was not just throwing the ball, but when we threw it," says Hart, who operated the Coryell system in St. Louis from 1973-77. "That was an era when teams would run to set up the pass. Don's idea was pass to set up the run. He wanted to throw the ball even more than we did. It was only because of [offensive coach] Jim Hanifan that we ever called running plays.
"For example, on 3rd-and-short situations there'd be a timeout and Don would be barking, 'Throw it, throw it!' Hanifan would stand there and let Don say his peace then whisper a running play to me. Coryell would look over and say, 'What are you gonna do? Are you gonna throw it?' Hanifan would just smile."
Fouts, who commanded the Air Coryell show for a decade, smiles when he hears that kind of talk.
"I remember one game when I just started horribly," he says. "My first three were incomplete. We punted, got the ball back, and my next one's intercepted for a touchdown. I go to the bench and slam my helmet down, fuming out of the ears. I don't know what's wrong with me. Coryell comes over and says, 'Hey, what's going on?'
"I said, 'I can't hit the side of the barn, coach."
"He looked at me and said, 'Well, Dan, you've got 40 more throws to hit that barn today.'
"I thought, Really? Great! Yes, I'm much better now."
"You know, the Chargers' offense was actually very simple," says former Seattle Seahawks coach Jack Patera, who was a soggy 1-8 in his wars against Coryell. "There was no doubt what San Diego was going to do — throw into a double zone and keep sending Winslow downfield to wear out your linebackers. But all that offensive firepower … we'd try to take away their wide receivers, we tried every kind of coverage and rush scheme imaginable, but nothing really worked.
"It got so desperate that I resorted to complaining to the officials all game long, trying to squeeze a break out of them. It came down to that."
Fouts remembers comparing battle reports with Brian Sipe, who quarterbacked for Coryell at San Diego State in the early '70s.
"Once we were chatting about Don," said Fouts, "and Brian said that anytime they were backed up at their 1-yard line, with 99 yards to go, Don still wanted him to drop back and throw it. His thought was that the defense was looking for the run, they're crowding the line, trying to get a safety or a turnover — throw it and scare the hell out of 'em! It'll back them up. It'll give you more room on second down.
"Yeah, that was Don, all right."
Innovator. Experimenter. Blitzkrieger. Pick your term. It sure was fun to watch.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His story "Nothing artistic about Raiders' Week Nine debacle" was named Best Column in the Professional Football Writers Association's annual writing contest for 2009.
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