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HOF 2010: Don Coryell

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 5, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy

The 1966 San Diego State Aztecs went 11-0. It's safe to say they were coached pretty well. Joe Gibbs served as the team's offensive line coach. John Madden was the defensive coordinator. Those two men answered to Don Coryell, who won 84% of his games during his first stint coaching football in the city of San Diego. By that point, being associated with future Hall of Fame coaches was old hat for Coryell. Before coming to SDSU, Coryell was the head coach at tiny Whittier College from 1957 to 1959. Whitter needed a new coach after George Allen left the college but stayed in the city when he joined the Los Angeles Rams staff.

Coryell's innovative coaching coupled with his success with the Aztecs caught the eye of the NFL; he was hired as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973 following his time with San Diego State. The Cardinals had gone 4-9-1 in three of the previous four seasons, and would repeat that record during Coryell's ifrst year. Whether it was good fortune or good coaching, Coryell inherited three young linemen who would become stars in the mid-'70s: Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler and Tom Banks. Jim Hart, Jim Otis and Mel Gray -- the main passer, rusher and receiver during the Coryell years in St. Louis -- were all in St. Louis when Coryell arrived, as well. But Coryell would make one big addition during his first season in St. Louis. In the third round of the '73 draft, he selected Long Beach State star and JKL's hero, Terry Metcalf.

In '71 and '72, the Cardinals had offensive SRS ratings of -4.0 and -4.5, respectively. The Cardinals ranked 23rd in points and 25th in yards in a 26-team NFL in 1972. Over the next five seasons, St. Louis would rank in the top half of the league in points scored and yards gained every season, and average an OSRS rating of +2.8. From 1974 to 1976, St. Louis won double digit games each season despite sharing the division with two of the league's powerhouses in Dallas and Washington. From '74 to '77, the Cards would sent 28 players to the Pro Bowl, with a minimum of five players each year. The Cardinals haven't had five players make the Pro Bowl in a single season since.

While there was young talent on the roster, when Coryell arrived the Cards hadn't made the post-season in 24 seasons. Coryell would have the Cards in the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. Unfortunately, in two playoff games, the Cards would commit seven turnovers, with three of them returned for scores, and come away with no playoff victories under Coryell. Despite NFC East crowns in '74 and '75, a four-game losing streak to end the '77 season cost Coryell his job. Outisde of the strike-shortened '82 season, the Cardinals wouldn't make the playoffs again until 1998.

While Coryell's offenses were good in St. Louis, things began to take flight when Coryell joined the San Diego Chargers coaching staff in 1978. He worked under Tommy Prothro to start the season. The '78 Chargers won the opener in Seattle, but lost the next week to the Raiders thanks to the Holy Roller play. Three more losses and Prothro had seen enough; he resigned with the team 1-4, and Coryell took over. The Chargers would end the season 8-4 under Coryell's watch, and one of the most exciting eras in football history was under way.

The first six seasons Coryell was in San Diego, the Chargers led the league in passing yards six times. But Coryell's success wasn't just a product of quantity. Coryell's teams had one of the most incredible passing stretches of all-time; from 1975 to 1985, with two different franchises, Coryell's teams ranked in the top five in net yards per pass attempt all eleven seasons. Ten times they ranked in the top three, and five times they led the league in that metric. From 1980 to 1983, the Chargers led the league in offense every season; they did it again in 1985, too. Three times the Chargers ranked first or second in the league in touchdowns. Kellen Winslow and Dan Fouts were rewriting the record books on a yearly basis. In Coryell's first full season in San Diego, John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Winslow became the first trio of teammates to record 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Nine years later, under the tutelage of Coryell's protege, Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders would become the second trio to hit those marks, and the first trio of wide receivers to do so.

We could go over Coryell's offensive accomplishment for hours and not do a complete job. So let's move to what's kept Coryell out of Canton so far -- a lack of playoff success. After going 0-2 in the post-season with the Cardinals, the Chargers went just 3-4 under Coryell and never made the Super Bowl. Recounting the losses:

  • The Chargers won the AFC West in 1980, and split the season series with the Oakland Raiders. After beating the Bills in the final minutes in the divisional round of the playoffs, the AFC Championship Game was set in San Diego. Oakland came out hot, scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter, and went up 28-7 in the second quarter. The Chargers would bounce back, but Jim Plunkett had a flawless game and the Raiders ultimately won, 34-27. The Chargers outgained the Raiders 434-352, but San Diego was -3 in the turnover margin.
  • In 1981, the Chargers went 10-6 and again won the AFC West. San Diego's first playoff game was the Epic in Miami, arguably the greatest game of all-time. San Diego emerged exhausted and victorious. Their reward? A trip to Cincinnati in the Freezer Bowl, the coldest game in NFL history as measured by wind chill. It wouldn't take San Diego long to realize they weren't in the Orange Bowl anymore: rookie James Brooks fumbled the team's initial kick return, and the Chargers were trailing 10-0 before the offense ever took the field. The Chargers lost the turnover battle 4 to 1, and learned the hard way the value of home field advantage.
  • The '82 Chargers may have been the best version; San Diego led the league in points, yards, first downs, passing yards, passing touchdowns, net yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. After beating the Steelers in the Wildcard round, San Diego had scored 30 or more points in seven consecutive games, and had topped 40 points twice and 50 points once. Superman, meet Kyrptonite. The '82 Dolphins ranked 2nd in the league in points allowed, 1st in yards allowed, 1st in first downs allowed, 1st in passing yards allowed, 1st in interceptions, 1st in net yards per attempt allowed and 2nd in passing touchdowns allowed. The hype preceding a game featuring the best pass offense and the best pass defense didn't match the performance. San Diego turned the ball over a whopping 7 times, and was outgained by over 150 yards by the low-octane Dolphins. San Diego scored just thirteen points, in the final playoff game for all the key members of the Air Coryell era.

After '82, Coryell wouldn't have another winning season. His peak was very short, as far as NFL coaches go: from 1974 to 1982, he didn't have a losing season. But he never had a winning season outside of that nine-year stretch. A short peak can be enough to build a HOF resume: Vince Lombardi coached GB for just nine seasons; Bill Walsh coached the 49ers for ten years. But Lombardi won five NFL championships and appeared in another title game; Walsh won three Super Bowls, set the record for wins in a season, and was partially responsible for at least one more championship the 49ers won after he left.

Coryell never won multiple playoff games in a season, never appeared in or won a Super Bowl, and had a losing playoff record. With a short peak that didn't burn hot, Coryell's coaching resume is simply not HOF-caliber. When I ranked the greatest coaching records of all-time, Coryell fell just outside the top 40; all 21 coaches in the HOF rank ahead of Coryell according to my formula. Every single modern HOF coach won or appeared in multiple championship games, or won more games than Coryell, or both. His resume as a coach just doesn't stack up.

Bill Belichick, Bill Pacells, George Seifert, Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Chuck Knox, Buddy Parker, Blanton Collier, Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil, Jeff Fisher and Andy Reid are all potential HOF coaches. Some of them have obviously more impressive resumes than Coryell, but all of them have arguably more impressive ones. A 111-83-1 record with more post-season failures than accomplishments is not a HOF resume for a head coach.

But Coryell isn't necessarily remembered by most as a great coach, but as a great innovator and teacher. At least eight Super Bowl Championships can be tied for Coryell. The Raiders under Madden (1) and the Redskins under Gibbs (3) both won titles in part because of his influence; both HOF coaches have said as much. The Rams Greatest Show on Turf Offense was a modern day version of Air Coryell, with Al Saunders (another Coryell disciple) teaming with Martz to create one of the greatest offenses in league history. Ernie Zampese, another offensive assistant under Coryell in San Diego (college and pro), won Super Bowl XXX as OC of the Cowboys. The other two Cowboys titles in the '90s came with Norv Turner as OC, and he teamed with Zampese in Los Angeles beforehand and then implemented much of the Coryell offense in Dallas.

Would Dan Dierdorf, Charlie Joiner, Dan Fouts or Kellen Winslow be in the HOF had they never worked under Coryell? For that matter, would Art Monk, Troy Aikman or (perhaps one day) Kurt Warner be Hall of Famers if Dan Coryell never came to the NFL? As a head coach, Coryell's accomplishments don't stand out as exceptional. But his impact on the game was legendary, and you'd be hard pressed to find a current head coach who would disagree.

Chances that Don Coryell is selected in 2010: Not good
Chances that Don Coryell eventually gets selected: Below average