In American football, Air Coryell is the offensive scheme and philosophy developed by former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell. The offensive philosophy has been also called the "Coryell offense" or the "vertical offense".
With Dan Fouts as quarterback, the San Diego Chargers' offense was among the greatest passing offenses in National Football League history. The Chargers led the league in passing yards an NFL record six consecutive years from 1978 to 1983 and again in 1985. They also led the league in total yards in offense 1978–83 and 1985. Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow would all be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame from those Charger teams.
The pro set was the default NFL scheme prior to Don Coryell. While it is more of a formation, the underlying philosophy of the pro set was based on becoming more successful when a team was forced to pass by providing 1 or even 2 backs to help protect the QB. Prior to Coryell, the pro set was generally a running offense that used play action fakes to set up deep passing attempts when defenses stacked up vs the running game.
The pro set features a TE, 2 WRs, and a Halfback and fullback, often split behind the QB. While QBs can take snaps from under center or from the shotgun position, QBs generally take snaps from under center in the pro set to allow for more effective use of the play action pass. Offenses tended to be ball-control, grind-it-out style offenses. In 1978, the contact from defenders on receivers was minimized with the passing of Mel Blount Rule.
Coryell opens up passing in the NFL
Coryell set the league on its ear with his passing offenses after moving up from the college ranks. He won two consecutive division titles (1974–1975) with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals offense emphasized the pass while running the standard pro set. Coryell moved to the Chargers and reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons including three straight division titles (1979–1982). The Chargers in 1979 were the first AFC Western Division champion to run more passing plays (541) than rushing (481). Coryell's Chargers teams led the league in passing in seven of eight years. The Pro Football Hall of Fame called the Chargers' offenses under Coryell "one of the most explosive and exciting offenses that ever set foot on an NFL field." Coryell is the first coach ever to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional level. Coryell's offensive innovations changed the entire nature of the league from a run-first league to a pass-first one.
Today most NFL offenses' passing games are at least partially based on Coryell conventions.
Former coach of the St. Louis Rams, Mike Martz, says "Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the West Coast offense, but Don started the 'West Coast' decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it's still Coryell's offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game.".
Attributes of Air Coryell
The Coryell offense is based on Sid Gillman's offense that required the defense to defend the entire field. The passing game was based on timing and rhythm, and coaching the system required a lot of repetition. Coryell expanded on those principles by putting receivers in motion. With the new defensive rules limiting contact to near the line of scrimmage, receivers in motion would be virtually impossible to jam. Coryell not only placed wide receivers in motion, he did so with tight ends and running backs as well. Putting the players in motion also had the advantage of allowing the quarterback to determine pre-snap if the defense would be playing zone or man-to-man defense. It was easier to read the coverage before the snap than afterwards due to the pass rush. It is also harder for a defender to cover if he has to change direction with the receiver instead of squaring up and getting set before a play. Defenses that react to the motion could get confused, leaving a defender in the wrong position.
The offense did not have any set formations, as receivers could line up anywhere on any given pass play. Passes were thrown to a spot before the receiver even got there, allowing defenders no hint where the pass was being targeted. Each receiver had two or three different route options they could adjust depending on the coverage during the play. Throwing a deep pass was the first option on each play. Coryell's offense had more progressions than Gillman's, with backup options for screen passes and underneath routes.
The Coryell offense is a combination of deep and mid range passing and power running. The offense relies on getting all five receivers out into patterns that combined stretched the field, setting up defensive backs with route technique and the Quarterback throwing to a spot on time where the receiver can catch and turn upfield. Pass protection is critical to success because at least two of the five receivers will run a deep in, skinny post, comeback, speed out, or shallow cross.
Overall, the goal of the Coryell offense is to have at least two downfield, fast wide receivers who adjust to the deep pass very well, combined with a sturdy pocket quarterback with a strong arm. The Coryell offense uses three key weapons. The first is a strong inside running game, the second is its ability to strike deep with two or more receivers on any play, and the third is to not only use those two attacks in cooperation with each other, but to include a great deal of mid-range passing to a TE, WR, or back.
The Coryell offense introduced the concept of a tight end that ran wide receiver-type routes with Kellen Winslow in 1980. Tight ends previously were primarily blockers lined up next to an offensive lineman and ran short to medium drag routes. Winslow was put in motion so he would not be jammed at the line, or he was lined up wide or in the slot against a smaller cornerback. Former Chargers assistant coach Al Saunders said Winslow was "a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body." Back then, defenses would cover Winslow with a strong safety or a linebacker, as zone defenses were not as popular. Strong safeties in those times were almost like another linebacker, a run defender who could not cover a tight end as fast as Winslow. Providing another defender to help the strong safety opened up other holes. Former head coach Jon Gruden called Winslow the first "joker" in the NFL. He could line up unpredictably in any formation from a three-point stance as a blocker to a two-point stance or being in motion as a receiver.
After the Chargers in 1980 acquired running back Chuck Muncie, the offense started using a single set back featuring Muncie as the lone running back and adding a second tight end into the game. When defenses countered with extra defensive backs, the offense would run the ball. Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame coach and then-Chargers offensive coordinator, said that marked "the evolution of the one-back offense."
Gibbs won three Super Bowls with a Coryell offense featuring a smash mouth running game with 3 different running backs, Hall of Famer John Riggins, George Rogers and Earnest Byner behind a massive offensive line known as the "Hogs" and a 3 receiver deep air attack featuring Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, known as "The Posse." Gibbs usually kept the tight end in as an extra blocker, especially to neutralize pass rushing specialist and Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. Today, many Coryell offenses still reduce the use a tight end, except in the red zone,. Gibbs is also the first head coach in NFL history to win 3 Super Bowls with 3 different quarterbacks: Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien.
Norv Turner, former San Diego Chargers head coach and former offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, also implemented a version of the Coryell style of offense. The Turner strain of Coryell offenses are still very reliant on a good receiving TE. Norv Turner strains sometimes feature an 'F-Back' (formerly known as an 'H-Back' in the 1980s), a hybrid tight end/wide receiver/fullback/running back. An F-Back is a multi-purpose, unpredictable tool for the offense. On any play he may carry the ball, lead block or pass block, play as a wide receiver, or run a tight end route. He is also part decoy, as his unpredictable role forces defenses to keep an eye on him, thereby opening up other opportunities for the offense..
History of the name
Originally it was known as the West Coast offense until an article about San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh in Sports Illustrated in the early 80s incorrectly called Walsh's offense "the West Coast offense," and this mis-labelling stuck. Subsequently, Coryell's offense scheme was referred to as "Air Coryell" --- the name announcers had assigned to his high powered Charger offenses in San Diego, featuring 3 Hall of Famers in QB Dan Fouts, WR Charlie Joiner, & TE Kellen Winslow, as well as Pro Bowl WR Wes Chandler & HB Chuck Muncie. Today it is also known as the "Coryell offense", although the "vertical offense" is another accepted name.
Current disciples of Air Coryell
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Norv Turner learned the offense from longtime Coryell assistant, Ernie Zampese. As offensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys, Turner ran Coryell's offense with a greater emphasis on sideline throws than the Chargers used. Turner's take on the Coryell system turned around the career of Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman and has proven to be very successful with talented high draft picks struggling with the complexities of the NFL, such as Alex Smith. Turner's variant is not the most robust flavor of Coryell offense. It is a very sound, QB friendly scheme that favors taking controlled chances, like quicker midrange post passes to WRs off play action rather than slower developing passes that leave QBs exposed. It is almost exclusively run out of the pro set. Turner favors a more limited palette of plays than Coryell and most other Coryell disciples, instead insisting on precise execution. His offenses are usually towards the top of the league standings, but are often labeled predictable. His offenses tend to include a strong running game, a #1 WR who can stretch the field and catch jump balls in the end-zone, a good receiving TE to attack the space the WRs create in the middle of the field and a FB who fills the role of a lead blocker and a final option as an outlet receiver. In Dallas, Turner made RB Emmitt Smith & WR Michael Irvin Hall of Famers, and TE Jay Novacek a five time pro bowler. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Turner's system helped quarterback Philip Rivers set new franchise records for single-season quarterback rating and touchdown passes in 2008.
The Martz variant is a much more robust offense with a more complex playbook. It is a much more aggressive passing offense, frequently deploying pre-snap motion and shifts, with the run often forgotten. There is much less of a focus on play action. The Martz variant favors an elusive feature back, such as Marshall Faulk, who can catch the ball, over the power runners the Turner scheme favors. Martz credits his influences on his variation of the offensive system to Sid Gillman and Don Coryell. Martz learned the so-called 3 digit system the offense is famous for with how the plays are called from Turner when they were both in Washington. The Rams set a new NFL record for total offensive yards in 2000, with 7,335. 5,492 of those were passing yards, also a new NFL team record. Martz tends to favor a 3 WR set with more elusive players, a third receiver and the Half back filling the role of middle receivers that TEs & FBs fulfill in the Turner offense. The Martz offense works best with two elite WRs with top speed. Unlike the Turner variant, due to the complexity of the Martz offense, the QBs who execute it best are often the more intelligent QBs who intuitively get what Martz is trying to do, not the elite athlete whose team's personnel department might favor drafting with a high draft pick. Whether it is due to the personality of the coach or the nature of the scheme, the Martz variant has historically had problems when teams shut down the run and make the team one-dimensional. Additionally, the QBs sometimes take a lot of hits in this system.
Al Saunders was the former WR coach under Don Coryell in San Diego and succeeded him as head coach of the Chargers. The Al Saunders variant is heavily influenced by Coryell and Saunder's former boss, former Coryell assistant and 2 time Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who's Ace formation (single back, 2 WRs, 1 TE, and 1 H back) was immensely effective in the 1980s. The Saunders variant is a more conservative variant than the Martz version, but also quite complex. It is better suited for a veteran QB. It does not insist on size at WR or HB like the Turner variant and as such has difficulties in short yardage and red zone situations. It does not require a pair of dominant fast WRs like the Martz system and is not as aggressive attacking down the field and as such it does not score as many points as the Martz system. It is a more sound variant than the Martz scheme, offering a little more blocking and more run support for the QB. The Saunders variant pulls in many Coryell concepts that the Turner system eliminated in favor of simplicity.
West Coast offense comparisons
The Coryell offense attacked vertically through seams, while the West Coast offense moved laterally as much as vertically through angles on curl and slant routes. The Coryell offense had lower completion percentages than the West Coast offense, but the returns were greater on a successful play. "The Coryell offense required more talented players, a passer who could get the ball there, and men who can really run—a lot of them," said Walsh. He said the West Coast offense was developed out of necessity to operate with less talented players. He noted, "[Coryell] already had the talent and used it brilliantly."
Former head coach Marty Schottenheimer said "putting three receivers on one side and flooding that area" probably originated from the Coryell offense. Head coach Bill Belichick notes that the pass-catching tight ends that get paid the most money are "all direct descendants of Kellen Winslow" and there are fewer tight ends now that can block on the line. Former defensive coordinator Joe Collier credits the Coryell offense with creating an evolution by using multiple receivers, forcing defenses to counter with different packages. As a result, more defensive backs were drafted, and linebackers that could also cover inside receivers were sought. Defenses were altered to use nickel and dime defenses in response to offensive formation; their usage was no longer limited to down and distance. Former head coach Dick Vermeil said no other NFL offense "performs more efficiently or scores more points" than the Coryell offense.
San Diego Chargers seasons under Don Coryell
- 1978 San Diego Chargers [9–7]: QB Dan Fouts threw for 2,999 yards and 24 TD. RB Lydell Mitchell ran for 820 yards and had 500 yards receiving. FB Don Woods ran for 514 yards and had 295 yards receiving. RB Hank Bauer ran for 8 TD. WR John Jefferson had 1,001 yards receiving and 13 TD. WR Charlie Joiner had 607 yards receiving.
- 1979 San Diego Chargers [12–4]: QB Dan Fouts threw for 4,082 yards and 24 TD. FB Clarence Williams ran for 752 yards and 12 TD. WR Charlie Joiner had 1,008 yards receiving. WR John Jefferson had 1,090 yards receiving and 10 TD.
- 1980 San Diego Chargers [11–5]: QB Dan Fouts threw for 4,715 yards and 30 TD. FB Chuck Muncie ran for 659 yards and 4 TD. WR John Jefferson had 1,340 yards receiving and 13 TD. WR Charlie Joiner had 1,132 yards receiving. TE Kellen Winslow had 1,290 yards receiving and 9 TD.
- 1981 San Diego Chargers [10–6]: QB Dan Fouts threw for 4,802 yards and 33 TD. RB Chuck Muncie ran for 1,144 yards and 19 TD. RB James Brooks ran for 525 yards. WR Charlie Joiner had 1,188 yards receiving and 7 TD. WR Wes Chandler had 857 yards receiving and 5 TD. TE Kellen Winslow had 1,075 yards receiving and 10 TD.
- 1982 San Diego Chargers [6–3]: QB Dan Fouts threw for 2,883 and 17 TD. RB Chuck Muncie ran for 569 yards and 8 TD. RB James Brooks ran for 430 yards and 6 TD. WR Wes Chandler had 1,032 yards receiving and 9 TD. WR Charlie Joiner had 545 yards receiving. TE Kellen Winslow had 721 yards receiving and 6 TD.
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