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He Changed the Game of Football

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  • He Changed the Game of Football

    Friday, August 27, 2004

    By Nick Wagoner
    Staff Writer

    His name is Don Coryell.

    He is the tie that binds a collection of coaches who have reinvented the NFL’s most dominant modern-day offenses. Names like Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan, Joe Gibbs and Mike Martz draw from the knowledge of predecessors Sid Gillman, Francis Schmidt and, of course, Coryell.

    When Martz was a young man in the San Diego area, his love for football grew from watching San Diego State and the Chargers. Coryell was the coach, drawing off basic ideas of Gillman’s offense, adding his own wrinkles and dominating offensively. Martz didn’t miss many of Coryell’s games. He grew fond of Coryell and his style at a young age, hoping to play for Coryell at San Diego State, but winding up at Fresno State.

    Martz, by his own admission said he wasn’t quite enough of an athlete to play in Coryell’s system.

    “I’ve always kind of been in awe of Coach Coryell,” Martz said. “I’ve always been such a terrific fan of his system and what he’s brought to professional football. He has meant so much to the sport.”

    Coryell eventually took over the Chargers, flanked by two young minds ready to soak up as much information as possible. Those assistants? Gibbs and Zampese. After Coryell took over the Chargers, Gibbs and Zampese served as assistants, learning the ways of the “Air Coryell” offense. Another assistant in the area was Hanifan, who became, perhaps, the greatest offensive line coach in the history of the league. Although Hanifan was never a coordinator (he spent five years as head coach with the St. Louis Cardinals), his understanding of the way the offense worked help him teach his linemen techniques that would let the offense work.

    Coryell said he enjoys nothing more than watching his students run rampant on opposing defenses.

    “Watching the guys who got ideas from our offense and made their own adjustments is a real joy,” Coryell said. “To put it bluntly, I take real pride in turning on the television and watching their games.”

    It wasn’t long before Gibbs took over the Washington Redskins in 1981. Gibbs, who played two years and coached for 11 with Coryell, added some things of his own to the offense, but his version of it seemed to rely more on the running game than the passing side. He opened up the secondary by running and running until the opponent was worn out. The Hanifan-coached line sparked the powerful running game. The line earned a nickname of its own, “The Hogs”, and on the way to Super Bowl XXVI, the unit allowed only nine sacks.

    Gibbs led Washington to four Super Bowls, winning three. His offense was a part of the evolution of the Coryell offense. Receivers ran precise routes, quarterbacks threw well-timed, accurate passes and a power running game complemented the high-octane passing game.

    Gibbs retired from coaching in 1992, but he couldn’t stay away. On Jan. 7, Gibbs announced his return to the Redskins for another run. He brought Zampese with him as an offensive consultant. Martz said he is glad to see Gibbs back in the game.

    “What he brings to the league is very special,” Martz said. “To have him come back is very, very important for the National Football League.”

    While Gibbs was making his name in Washington, Zampese was moving around the NFL, leading some of the league’s finest offenses. He helped the Los Angeles Rams boast one of the top offensive units in the league and taught Turner more about the Coryell offense. That Rams’ team added a young assistant to the offense in 1992. Martz was that assistant and he spent four years with the team.

    Zampese and Turner went to Dallas where the Cowboys won three Super Bowl championships. The Dallas offense became known for its Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin triumvirate. As the dominant team of the 90s, the Cowboys flourished behind the creativity of Turner and Zampese.

    Turner was the next to get a coaching job, taking over in Washington when Gibbs retired. Turner coached the Redskins until 2000, bringing Martz in as quarterbacks coach in 1997. Martz coached two seasons in Washington before he received the keys to his first offense as coordinator in St. Louis.

    “They both taught me a great deal,” Martz said. “I followed Ernie for years and years and working for Norv in Washington was an outstanding experience for me.”

    It didn’t take long for Martz to put his stamp on the Rams’ stagnant offense. With Hanifan already in place as offensive line coach, that aspect of the offense was secure. The 1999 offseason brought a bounty of skill position players such as Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt for Martz to utilize. Martz’s version of Coryell’s offense was unlike any seen before. Sure, it implemented many of the same ideas of operating in open spaces and exploitation of weaknesses, but Martz kicked it up a few levels.

    Before the year was over, St. Louis had its first Super Bowl championship and the single-most dominant offense the NFL has seen. Kurt Warner proved to be the perfect quarterback for the system, throwing accurate long and short passes and timing everything perfectly. Faulk was better than good, able to run and catch with equal efficiency. Holt and Bruce were the fast receivers with hands of glue and Hanifan’s line pushed opponents around. With Martz at the helm, the offense became known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.”

    Martz said the offense has potential to evolve because every time a coach teaches it, he adds his own expansions.

    “Everybody that runs this offense, we all take a look at what we have from a personnel standpoint and try to do things a little differently,” Martz said. “It’s unlimited in terms of the things you can do with it.”

    After the Super Bowl win, coach Dick Vermeil retired and Martz’s years of work and study paid off. St. Louis made him head coach and he expanded further on the success of 1999. Over the course of his four seasons in St. Louis, the Rams’ offense has become one of the most unstoppable forces in sports.

    Coryell said the evolution of his offense is a natural order of things and what Martz has done is the kind of changes he likes best.

    “I’ve actually stopped at hotels when my wife and I are traveling to watch Mike’s offense,” Coryell said. “He is a very, very bright man. I have watched his practices before and you can see the players respect him. They want to do things instead of having to be forced to do them.”

    Coryell estimated that he talks to Martz and Gibbs once or twice a year, but never about football. The game has changed considerably since Coryell last coached and even since Gibbs last coached, but one thing hasn’t: No matter where they coach or what they do, some of the game’s greatest offensive minds will always be linked by one man.

    His name is Don Coryell.

  • #2
    Re: He Changed the Game of Football

    Air Coryell, I think the Chargers wish he were on the side lines with them tonight against the seachickens.

    Hopefully Bulger will find inspration with Coryell's presence and have a very good first half. :ramlogo:

    Adm. William "Bull" Halsey


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      Air Coryell should land in Hall of Fame
      by RamWraith
      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
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      It's a classy touch by Rams head coach Mike Martz, who idolizes Coryell. And to
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      The Redskins are coached by the legendary Joe Gibbs, who got his coaching start
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      in the NFL in St. Louis and San Diego before making his name in D.C. as a Pro
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      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
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      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
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      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
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      Coryell, 79, passes that test.

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      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
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