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Don "Air" Coryell dies at the age of 85

Don Coryell died yesterday at the age of 85 (ChesapeakeBay9er had a fanshot up, but I think this deserves more attention). Coryell was a legend in the coaching world--he wasthe first coach to achieve 100 wins in college and 100 wins in the pros. His "Air Coryell" system is the precusor to the modern passing game in the NFL and was undoubtedly an influence on the Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense. (In fact the Air Coryell system was originally called the West Coast Offense.)

Mike Martz:

Don is the father of the modern passing game. 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 game.

Dan Fouts:

We've lost a man who has contributed to the game of pro football in a very lasting way with his innovations and with his style," Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, the quarterback who made Air Coryell fly, said from Oregon. "They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery -- look around, it's there.

Hank Bauer (Former Charger running back and special teams standout and current color commentator):

Because of Air Coryell, nickel and dime defenses became an every-game proposition," Bauer said. "He changed the way the game is played today.

Join me after the jump as I explore some similarities and differences between the WCO and the Air Coryell

Prior to Coryell most NFL offenses used the pro-set, which is typically 1 TE, and 2 backs, with the QB taking snaps from behind the center. While this does allow for a passing game, it's designed more for ball control and running. Coryell changed all that when he arrived in the NFL in 1974. Coryell won division titles with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1974 and 1975. When he went to the Chargers he won three straight division titles there (1979, 1980, and 1981). The Chargers led the league in passing for six consecutive years from 1978 to 1983 and again in 1985. They also led the league in total offense from 1980-1983 and again in 1985.

The "Air Coryell" system used to be called the "West Coast Offense" until Bill Parcells made his infamous comment after beating the 49ers, at which point Bill Walsh's system picked up the moniker. While both systems rely on the passing game more than the running, the difference is in how the QBs are used.

In the West Coast Offense the goal is to spread the field. TEs, RBs, and WRs are all used and most passes are short passes of 15 yards or less. Walsh once commented that he had to develop a system using short passes because he had a quarterback (not Joe Montana) who couldn't throw the ball deep.

The Air Coryell system also relies on spreading the field but it attacks the field vertically. It's a timing based offense, where the WR and the QB have to be on the same page, with the QB often throwing the ball before the WR is there. This requires WRs who are adept route runners. It also requires excellent pass protection because when all five receivers are out at least two of them will be running deep patterns, with the other three running shorter patterns.

An often overlooked part of the Air Coryell system is the power run (Joe Gibbs used the Coryell system to win three Super Bowls and one of his running backs ended up in the Hall of Fame). Because of the deep passing game, as well as the effect of spreading the field, the inside running game is opened up. As defenders cheat back to watch for the deep ball the offense has more room to run inside. When the defense stacks the box it opens the deep game.

Due to it's dependence on the deep threat, the Coryell system can be seriously hurt if the #1 or #2 WRs are shut down. A good defensive coordinator will scheme to keep the deep ball from being thrown, forcing everything up front (basically a prevent-type of defense). This will seriously hamper the offense's ability to score.

Even though three of Coryell's players are now in the Hall of Fame (TE Kellen Winslow, QB Dan Fouts, and WR Charlie Joiner), Coryell has yet to be elected to the Hall. Last year he made the final ballot, but didn't get enough votes to get in. Here's hoping that the committee finally selects him, though it's a shame if it took his death to make it a reality.

For more information on the West Coast Offense check out these Football University Posts.

West Coast Offense Part 1

West Coast Offense Part 2