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2015 Hall of Fame finalist: Don Coryell

1/30/2015

SAN DIEGO -- Mike Martz credits Don Coryell for the prolific passing attacks dominating the NFL landscape today.

Martz, the innovator behind "The Greatest Show on Turf" who led the St. Louis Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV, considered Coryell a major influence on how he designed his offense.

Coryell, the former San Diego Chargers coach, is one of 18 finalists for this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame class, which will be announced Saturday.

"He was way ahead of everyone in terms of innovation," Martz said. "There was this unspoken set of rules that you played by on offense. And everyone was running generally the same kind of plays. The formations were the same. The concepts were the same. Coryell changed all that. People immediately said, 'You can't do that.' Well, you can do that, and he did it.

"He's one of just a handful of people who had an impact on this game forever. He changed it. I'm not sure why that hasn't been acknowledged by the Hall of Fame."

Coryell was one of the developers of the pass-catching tight end. He spawned the three-digit play-calling system that some NFL teams still use and originated the one-back offense. Coryell also designed the "passing tree" of receiving routes that is now used at all levels of football.

Considered one of the godfathers of the modern passing game, his penchant for creating explosive plays through the air coined the nickname "Air Coryell."

Coryell's offense led the league in passing yardage six straight seasons from 1978 to '83 while he was with the Chargers and again in 1985. The offense produced three Hall of Famers in receiver Charlie Joiner, tight end Kellen Winslow and quarterback Dan Fouts.

"It was Coryell -- with his revolutionary vision, his unique style of leadership and his successful implementation of the most innovative offense the NFL had ever witnessed -- that led me and my teammates, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner, to the steps of the Hall of Fame," Fouts said.

At Whittier College in California from 1957 to 1959, Coryell finished 22-5-1 and won three conference titles. After moving on to USC as an assistant, he was hired as the coach at San Diego State. Coryell went 104-19-2 over 12 seasons by using intricate offensive schemes and showing the ability to improvise.

From there, he took his offensive philosophy to the St. Louis Cardinals, winning division championships in 1974 and '75. Coryell's Cardinals finished 42-27-1 over five seasons.

Coryell was 72-60 as coach of the Chargers. He led San Diego to the team's first two AFC title games in 1980 and '81 but failed to advance to the Super Bowl.

The knock on Coryell is he did not win an elusive Super Bowl at either of those stops, but his contributions to the game should outweigh that missing piece on his résumé.

Super Bowl-winning coaches who studied under Coryell include John Madden and Joe Gibbs. Other coaches who went on to successful careers as offensive coordinators include Jim Hanifan, Ernie Zampese, Rod Dowhower, Al Saunders and Tom Bass.

Coryell died in 2010 at the age of 85.

"Don allowed people to do what they did well, as far as the offense," Zampese said. "If you could run fast, catch the ball and be a great receiver, then he was going to let you do that. He wasn't going to hamstring you because he didn't like to throw the ball to the tight end. He allowed them to be as good as they could be, doing what they did best."