Breaking Down The Air Coryell Offense


Those who are aware of Don Coryell may know he is a pioneer of the offense known as the “Air Coryell.” The offense emphasized the vertical passing game. It was more of a pass-first offense, unlike many other playbooks in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

The Coryell offense was based on Sid Gillman’s offense that made the opposing defense defend the entire field. It was also based on timing and rhythm between the quarterback and receivers. Coryell expanded the offense by putting receivers in motion to not allow cornerbacks to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. Not only did Coryell place receivers in motion, but he also put tight ends and running backs in motion as well. Putting players in motion helped allow the quarterback to tell if the defense was playing zone or man coverage.

Since the passing system was based on timing and rhythm, the ball was thrown to a specific spot, and the receiver had to get there to catch the ball. The receivers had three different routes they could run depending on the coverage of the defense. Looking for the deep pass was the first option in Coryell’s system, then working your way through progression if the deep ball was taken away. Coryell loved getting five players out for passing routes. He wanted three things in his offense: A strong inside running game, the ability to strike deep with two vertical threats, and a solid mid-range passing game.

Tight ends were generally used as blockers, but not in Coryell’s scheme. He wanted his tight ends to be threats on the field. As a result, Kellen Winslow was used as a receiver. He would be set in motion and also lined up in the slot; he was not your usual tight end. Back in the 80’s, the defense would use linebackers and strong safety with tight ends, and Winslow would dominate them all.

In 1980, when the Chargers acquired Chuck Muncie, Coryell started using single back sets. The Chargers would bring in a second tight end, and if the defense countered by bringing in extra defensive backs, they would run the ball.

While under Coryell’s guidance, Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts flourished. Fouts threw for 32,865 passing yards and 210 TD. Also, Fouts threw for 4,000+ yards three consecutive seasons under Coryell’s system.

Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow caught 488 passes and 42 TD. He had three seasons of 80+ receptions under Coryell. WR Charlie Joiner, also a Hall of Famer, caught 501 passes for 7,605 yards. He had three consecutive seasons of 1,000+ yards.

Joe Gibbs, who was the offensive coordinator with the Chargers while Coryell was head coach, took the Air Coryell offense with him when he was the head coach for the Washington Redskins in 1981. Gibbs won three Super Bowls running the offense. However, he also threw in his own wrinkles. as he used more of a power running game attack and three receivers set. Mike Martz, former head coach in the NFL, thrived off Coryell’s concepts with “The Greatest Show on Turf”. Norv Turner, who is the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, runs similar concepts to Coryell.

Don Coryell offense was a game-changer, as he won 65 games in five seasons with the Chargers. Hopefully one day he will be inducted in the NFL Hall of Fame.

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