Don Coryell was a genius whose prints are all over the Denver Broncos.

If you’ve read some of our offensive pieces, you’ve seen us mention, Don Coryell. Who was he and what does an Air Coryell system mean? Why should you care?

Answering the last questions first, you should care because that’s what Denver will be running a version of. An aerial attack system that kicks the short passes to the curb. Did I hear a choir sing or was that just me?

Coryell was quite simply a football genius. The NFL is what it is today because of him. Period. Not only did he put the I formation/1 back on the map, along with other concepts, but he changed football from a run first game, to a pass happy one.

He is the father of a west coast offense style (not be be confused with the bastardized version Bill Walsh took) and the aerial attack. Which in turn changed defenses, too. No one has had more influence on the game we watch today, than the master, Coryell.

Denver Broncos Air Coryell
Air Coryell offense

He was responsible for making tight ends integral parts by using them as receivers. This helped create a spread attack. He also started putting offensive players in motion. This allowed the quarterback to see what a defense was going to do. He took the style he started at San Diego State and morphed it into an intermediate, to deep passing attack game.

The route trees we’ve been posting? He created them. Because he was using several guys running multi-level routes, he needed a system. He assigned the number system 1-9 so it shortened the terminology of a play call 972 (Go/Corner/Slant) would mean something specific, just as 496 (In/Go/Comeback) would. A chart that every player knew by heart, knew when to stop, turn, etc. Because he wanted at least two WRs deep, he needed the passes to be timing ones. The WRs he split to the outside, are called wideouts.

The Route tree went hand in hand with personnel play calls. He designed the two digit names still in use today. By now you must be thinking, wait, everything we see if what he did. Bingo.

While his vertical attack needed big Offensive Linemen to stop pass rushes, they couldn’t hold them off until a WR got 15, 25 yards downfield, hence he needed the passes to be released before they got to their mark.

While Dan Fouts ran this system first, it was Tom Moore (a Coryell disciple) and Peyton Manning who elevated the timing routes. Manning spent years destroying defenses and changed the game of football along the way. Which is why he started the mini-QB camps. Timing is everything in a vertical game.

Denver fans may love and hate Coryell. Love him for coaching Haven Moses, hate him for coaching the Chargers, but love him, too because without him, John Elway and Peyton Manning wouldn’t have Hall of Fame careers.

They may hate him, because John Madden was part of his coaching tree that came out of San Diego State University. Same for Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil and all the coaches under them. Which also gave us Mike McCoy and countless other coaches over the decades. His fingers are in everything about the Broncos.

Madden said the following at Coryell’s memorial service:

“You know, 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, There’s something missing.”

When he coached the San Diego Chargers, his “Air Coryell” pass attack system allowed Dan Fouts to be the first ever AFCW team to have more passing, than rushing. It set records that lasted decades and one that still hasn’t been broken –the most number one offenses in a row.

If you’ve read our different Defense Formations pieces, then you’ve read about nickel, dime, etc. Those evolved because defenses had to stop his vertical spread attack. Football no longer became about stopping the run and an occasional pass, mostly short or intermediate. Now they had to face prolific passing teams with QBs who could sling the ball everywhere, and did.

His system is why we have the No Fly Zone. Before Coryell, defensive linemen and linebackers were who ruled the game. Big bruising guys who focused on stopping the run. It’s also why linebackers had all the interceptions, not DBs. No one was throwing them deep like a Air Coryell team. Using not only multiple receivers, but sending TEs and RBs out, became a match-up nightmare for the defenses of old.

The one drawback to an Air Coryell system is if you’re good at it, it means your defense is on the field often because a passing game doesn’t eat up much clock. Three deep passes and notch a score. It can make teams one dimensional. Not to mention, because the offense and QB are the stars, they  sucked all the cap and leaving little for the defense. Offenses wins games, defenses win championships.

However, I say maybe it’s not as much about defenses winning, but more that if only your offense is why you get there, then your defense will be why you lose. Balance is the key, which is why teams have tweaked Coryell’s systems to use both WCO principles and the aerial attack game plan, equaling a more balanced use of the clock.

While Coryell was a master at changing his systems, it actually was Joe Gibbs who was the most successful in this scheme because Gibbs didn’t ignore the defense. He also showed that if you have a strong armed QB, you can win as he did coaching three different ones to World Championships. Gibbs spent 10 seasons as an assistant under Coryell with stops at SDSU, St. Louis (NFL) and San Diego before he was hired as the Washington Redskins head coach. Gibbs has echoed Madden is stumping for his former boss to be inducted into Canton.

Don Coryell was a pioneer who should be in the Hall of Fame and the writers who keep ignoring him, are flat out ignorant in the game of football. No shocker since Jerry Jones is going in before Pat Bowlen.

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