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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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      Even in a navy and gray floral printed polo shirt embroidered with the logo of a past golf tournament, Martz portrays perfectly the image of a studious football coach. Angling toward the front edge of his mahogany U-shaped desk, Martz shifts an iced Diet Pepsi to the right to uncover a bound, double-sided printout. The standard white, 8½-by-11-inch paper stands about two inches thick, lying flat in Martz's outstretched hand.

      "Third-down plays we had ready and never called," Martz says, a sense of dissatisfaction in his voice. "We don't have a playbook. We have a book with the system in it as described with some of the base offense. If you put everything together on that top rack , that is about half of what we do. … It's never-ending."

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      He is asked about defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, who has been ridiculed frequently since replacing Lovie Smith, who went on to become the head coach of the Bears.

      "Criticism, most often, is without understanding," Martz says in a persuasive tone, sounding like an attorney during closing arguments.

      He's not back on his heels, but there is evidence in his irritatingly relaxed posture that Martz has been here before.

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    • txramsfan
      Chris Mortensen gets it....from
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      Criticizing is easy; winning isn't

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      Before I wax a lot about Mike Martz and a little about Marty Schottenheimer, let me concede something.

      One of the flaws in my game, so to speak, is that I give head coaches a lot of rope in analyzing their performance on the sidelines. There are reasons for that. My career goal was to be a coach – my high school coaches were great influences on me. I ended up in journalism, and at one stretch I spent 10 years covering major league baseball only to switch to the NFL on a full-time basis 20 years ago. I immersed myself in the offices and film rooms of coaches who were willing to re-teach me the game of football. Even then, the constant evolution of the sport leaves me as a remedial observer.

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      So only reluctantly will you see me criticize coaches, and seldom will you see me attack a coach, although as Giants owner Wellington Mara reminds me, "The great thing about our profession is that every (coach) ultimately grades his own performance by his record." Yes, the bottom line is winning.

      That brings me to Martz and Schottenheimer, two coaches who have been slapped around in recent years. If I I trusted everything I heard on TV, heard on the radio and read in print, you would think Martz and Schottenheimer are two of the biggest buffoons in the history of football. This follows the same line more than a month ago when our media world was demonizing Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

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      I know they should never be characterized as buffoons. These guys have won a lot of football games.

      * * *

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      -10-12-2004, 01:33 PM
    • MauiRam
      How Mike Martz and The Greatest Show on Turf kicked off an NFL revolution
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      Tuesday May 23rd, 2017

      Sometimes a catalyzing event occurs, one so extreme that it disrupts the natural order, compelling a species to change. Those are the anomalies, the aberrations, the hurricanes and tornados, extreme mutations, phenomena that upend the system. In those instances the evolution is rapid, sudden and without warning. In biology, they call it the punctuated equilibrium theory. In football, we called it the Greatest Show on Turf.

      Dick Vermeil got his first NFL coaching job in 1969, hired by Marv Levy to be a special teams coach with the Los Angeles Rams. Roman Gabriel, the Rams quarterback that season, threw for 2,549 yards and completed 54.4% of his passes—good enough to be named NFL MVP. Thirty seasons later Vermeil returned to the Rams, this time to be the head coach of a very different team, in a new city, with a very different MVP under center.

      “I saw the evolution,” Vermeil says. “It was slow. Every year teams threw a little more, scoring went up a little more. When you have 32 teams, they don’t all transcend to a new philosophy at the same time.”

      But the 1999 Rams transcended. For decades the NFL had been slowly inching towards putting a greater emphasis on the passing game, with incremental changes coming every year. But then along came the Rams. And they blew the whole damn thing up.

      In the three decades between 1969 and ’98 the average quarterback rating in the NFL rose 6.7 points, passing totals increased 27.5 yards per game and completion percentage grew 4.0%. In the seasons since 1999, when those Rams upended and redefined the NFL’s status quo, QB rating has risen 11.0 points, passing output 36.5 yards, and completion percentage 6.4%—nearly double the increase, in roughly half the time.

      The Rams were the tornado, the anomaly that compelled a sudden and rapid evolution of football. They were the catalyzing event that disrupted the equipoise of the NFL, a punctuated equilibrium of pigskin.

      “At the time, we knew we were doing something special,” Rams receiver Torry Holt says. “But we didn’t know we were revolutionizing the game.”

      Last season, the Atlanta Falcons scored 540 offensive points, which tied the Rams for seventh most in NFL history. The Falcons’ offense, led by Kyle Shanahan, was as close to a direct descendent of the 1999 St. Louis team as we’ve seen. Aaron Rodgers leading the NFL in fantasy points? Thank the Rams. Record books that have been razed and rewritten? Blame the Rams. Running backs who now need to run routes and catch passes as part of their job description; tight ends who now are no longer glorified blockers, but athletic freaks and dynamic pass catchers; receivers who now are no longer just big and tall and asked to run one route, but small and shifty and running every route in the book? Rams, Rams, Rams.

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    • RamWraith
      Think what you will about Martz; he made football fun in this town
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      By Bernie Miklasz

      Mike Martz will resurface. He will return to dial up 50 passes a game in another town, for another team, driving his new team's fans crazy. They may be laughing or frowning, cheering or booing, but Martz will move them. This is a coach who gets a reaction. He is many things, but the word "dull" never will be applied in any description of Martz.

      "The Greatest Show" goes away, but never completely leaves the imagination. After all, the circus always comes back, and so it will be for Martz, the ringleader of one of the most dazzling offensive productions in NFL history.

      Mad Mike still has a few scores to settle, a few more defensive coordinators to torment, and may the football gods have mercy on defenses when this coach clears his head and reloads his offense during a second-chance head-coaching opportunity.

      Martz may have to sit out for a while. He may have to go into exile for the 2006 season, to rehabilitate his image and find inner peace, but that may be the best thing for him.

      Martz needs time to truly disengage from the grueling experience in St. Louis. Martz's bacterial infection of the heart valve has cleared, and medically he's 100 percent ready to work, but he's still battered emotionally after predictably losing a power struggle with Rams executives John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt.

      If Martz doesn't hook up immediately as a head coach, he should view the sabbatical as a precious opportunity to exhale and enjoy life. Martz could take his wonderful wife Julie on a trip around the world, or go on the kind of relaxing, leisurely adventures that are impossible to arrange for a full-time, football-consumed coach.

      And a year from now, a completely rested, recharged and refocused Martz would be a hot candidate. His agent, Bob Lamonte, would have no problem marketing the Martz II Project to NFL owners. If you're an NFL owner with a dormant offense that needs to be zapped back to life, how could you resist the reformed Mike Martz? How could you turn away from 30 points a game? Americans love a second act.

      Martz is feeling low these days, but he's been through rougher days than this. His alcoholic father bailed on his mom and four brothers when Mike was a kid. Mike survived, maturing sooner than any child should just to help keep the family strong.

      After Martz got fired from a coaching gig at Arizona State, he couldn't find another job, so he became an unpaid volunteer assistant to Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox. By then, Mike and Julie had four children, and it wasn't easy. But again, he overcame the hard times.

      And Martz will rally again.

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      -01-05-2006, 04:52 AM
    • ramsbruce
      Mike Martz' fall from grace
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      Mike Martz' fall from grace
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      He steered the Rams to the Super Bowl. But politics and personality conflicts obscured his genius, and now head coach Mike Martz appears on the way out.

      With his silver hair, glasses and polite manners, the Rams' new offensive coordinator looked almost bookish - more scholar than football coach. When he accepted the job after two years as an assistant coach in Washington, Mike Martz didn't look or act much different than he did in 1995 and 1996, when he was a Rams assistant under Rich Brooks: quiet, low-key and unassuming.

      Back then, he was in charge of wide receivers. But in January 1999, Martz was put in charge of the entire Rams offense under head coach Dick Vermeil. By the time training camp started that summer, the offense looked a lot different than it did when Martz accepted the job.

      "It's like winning the lotto," Martz said at the time. "I came to the Rams, and we signed Trent Green, and we have a healthy Isaac Bruce, and then we draft Torry Holt. All of that, and then it's, 'Oh yeah, here's Marshall Faulk at running back.'

      "Dick has made a lot of outstanding personnel decisions, and he should get the credit for that. At this point, my job is, 'Don't screw them up.' "

      He didn't, of course. Even back in July 1999, Martz gave a hint of what would come.

      "We're going to be aggressive," Martz said. "You have to let these guys play and not be afraid to take chances. You can't go out there and be afraid to lose. You have to play to win. And our talent level on offense is good enough to win with."

      Those seemed like bold words at the time. The Rams, after all, were 22-42 during their first four seasons in St. Louis. Dating back to their days in Southern California, they had endured nine consecutive losing seasons.

      For all his talents, Faulk was part of an Indianapolis team that went 3-13 in 1998. Bruce had not won more than seven games in any season as a Ram. Holt was a rookie. Green had only 14 starts on his NFL resume.

      And when Green went down with a season-ending knee injury in late August, it looked hopeless. The obscure Kurt Warner took over at quarterback, and the early results were encouraging.

      After the Rams scored 35 points and gained 442 yards to defeat reigning NFC champion Atlanta, Martz was awarded a game ball.

      "I've never had as much fun in my whole life," Martz said afterward. "I probably will never have a group like this again. I'm under a star right now. ... Who knows how long this will go?"

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      -12-31-2005, 07:32 PM