Air Coryell should land in Hall of Fame
By Bernie Miklasz
Of the Post-Dispatch
Thursday, Aug. 26 2004
Don Coryell returns to St. Louis Friday night to be honored by the Rams
organization and the fans who remember his wonderful run as the head coach of
the old St. Louis Cardinals.
It's a classy touch by Rams head coach Mike Martz, who idolizes Coryell. And to
make it even better, the visiting Washington Redskins are here for Friday's
nationally televised exhibition game at the Edward Jones Dome.
The Redskins are coached by the legendary Joe Gibbs, who got his coaching start
as an assistant under Coryell at San Diego State. Gibbs also worked for Coryell
in the NFL in St. Louis and San Diego before making his name in D.C. as a Pro
Football Hall of Fame coach.
Coryell's influence on modern football offense is profound. Gibbs and Martz
symbolize that impact. Gibbs took Coryell's system to Washington and won three
Super Bowls. Martz has been running a strong derivative of the Coryell offense
since coming to St. Louis in 1999, and the Rams have averaged around 30 points
a game and been to two Super Bowls.
As a teenager in San Diego, Martz sneaked into San Diego State's practices to
watch Coryell's offense. Martz marveled at what he saw, and Coryell's designs
stayed in his mind.
"Don is the father of the modern passing game," Martz said. "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
That's why I believe Coryell should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As my
friend and fellow Hall of Fame selector Ira Miller of the San Francisco
Chronicle has often asked when pondering candidates in selection meetings: can
the history of pro football be written without including the person's name?
Coryell, 79, passes that test.
It isn't just what he did as a head coach in 14 NFL seasons in St. Louis and
San Diego - 111 wins, five first-place finishes, two appearances in the AFC
Conference Championship game, and a passing attack ranked No. 1 seven times.
It's not just the Hall of Famers he coached, a list that includes quarterback
Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Charlie Joiner and offensive
tackle Dan Dierdorf.
Coryell's primary qualification is his lasting imprint on the game. He
originated the "digit" play-calling system still used by many NFL teams. And
Coryell's family coaching tree still has deep roots in today's NFL. I can't
even name all of the connections, there are so many.
In addition to Gibbs and Martz, there's John Madden, who was on Coryell's staff
at San Diego State. As head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Madden had one of the
best winning percentages in NFL history. Coryell's top aide with the Chargers
was Ernie Zampese, who taught the system to Norv Turner and Martz. Zampese and
Turner played major roles in structuring the Dallas Cowboys offense that won
three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
Al Saunders assisted Coryell, worked with Martz in St. Louis and now
orchestrates the No. 1 offense for Dick Vermeil in Kansas City. Jim Hanifan -
perhaps the greatest offensive line coach in NFL history - coached for Coryell
in St. Louis and San Diego. Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning
- so successful with so many NFL offenses - is a Coryell guy.
A final point on Coryell: how many NFL coaches created an offense so
spectacular that it became part of the modern sports vocabulary? Long before
"Air Jordan" took off in the NBA, the NFL was thrilled by the "Air Coryell"
Coryell retired from coaching in 1986. But if you look into NFL stadiums this
season, you'll see Air Coryell is still flying high. That's an impressive
legacy. It's a Hall of Fame legacy.