Newspaper Sections

Special Series


About SSFP

Simpson Street Free Press

Innovative Coach “Air Coryell” Changed the Way Football Is Played in the Modern NFL

When you think of the greatest football coaches of all time, Donald David Coryell might not make your list. However, as former coach of the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers, his legendary “Air Coryell” offense has made its way into every team's playbook. Donald David Coryell’s wide range of offensive plays greatly influenced the sport and changed how the modern NFL stands today.

Coryell first started gaining recognition during his time at San Diego State University (SDSU) from 1961-72. Here, he led the Aztecs to a 104-12-2 record using a then-rare pass-heavy offense. The Aztecs had three undefeated seasons, making them well-known and placing them into Division I. Working alongside Coryell were famous individuals like John Madden and Joe Gibbs, who served as assistants at SDSU.

Coryell developed his unique style while studying the philosophies of head football coach Dutch Meyer who developed Spread Formation Football, a technique where the defenders are spread horizontally. In addition, Coryell analyzed Sid Gillman, head coach of the Rams and Chargers, who innovated the downfield vertical attack. With this information, Coryell was bold enough to transition his efficient I-formation, a formation that leaves a balance between passing and running plays, into a new playing style, changing the way of the game for his future career.

After creating a new playing style, Coryell saw consistent wins for his teams. He said, “You can’t just go out and run the ball against better teams… You’ve got to throw the damn ball if you’re going to beat other teams.” SDSU’s record changed after the switch up to a season of 55-5-1. Coryell’s knowledge allowed him to evolve Gillman’s philosophy; his daring innovations helped shape the pass-heavy offense that is well-known in the modern NFL. He is also credited with other innovations such as the running back screens, one-back formation, and the “joker” tight end.

Coryell’s first NFL head coaching job started with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. He was able to turn around the struggling franchise and with his new playing style, led the Cardinals to two division championships. This paved the way teams played defense; they changed how they recruited players and what they prioritized in them, speed and coverage ability. Adding Coryell’s system, his Chargers were one of the most exciting and successful teams in the NFL, leading with the most passing yards in the NFL for five years straight (1979-1983) and then again in 1985. In 1979, the Chargers were the first American Football Conference West champions to run more passing plays (541) than running plays (481).

Although Donald David Coryell was not known as one of the best pro football coaches in history, the success of his “Air Coryell” offensive system in the 1970s and 80s paved the way for football to be played in the modern NFL and made him a key part of football history.


Loading Comments...