If one knows much NFL history, then they’ve probably at least heard about Don Coryell at some point. And any Los Angeles Chargers fan who knows much about their team’s history most likely knows who he is as well. The former Chargers and Arizona Cardinals (then in St. Louis) head coach who ran the “Air Coryell” offense is a finalist this year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Someone with less knowledge may look at a snapshot of his career and scoff, saying that he doesn’t deserve it because of the lack of Super Bowls. But in this case, that simply doesn’t tell the whole story. The case for Coryell getting to the Hall of Fame – be it this year or another one – is not decided entirely by rings (or lack thereof), but by his impact on the game. And in that latter department, not many can boast having a lot more.
The Case for Putting Don Coryell in the Hall of Fame
Inventing the Modern-Day Passing Game with the Chargers
Coryell joined the Chargers (who were still in San Diego then) in 1978 early in the season after their previous coach Tommy Prothro resigned. Not only did he bring the Chargers to their first playoff appearances since the 1960’s, but he also proceeded to redefine the passing game. Back then, it wasn’t a passing league. And it still really wasn’t even one quite yet after Coryell was gone–at least not the way it is today. But Coryell was really the first to create a pass-first offense, and also one that relied so much on the deep pass game.
To be clear on the effectiveness, Dan Fouts (who *is* in the Hall of Fame) became only the second quarterback ever at the time to throw for 4,000 yards in 1979 (the other being Joe Namath). That’s something we take for granted now, but at the time it was practically unheard of. And then he proceeded to break his own passing yardage records two seasons in a row. Furthermore, the Chargers offense led the league in total yards five times in six years. Coryell essentially invented the vertical passing game that we’re used to today.
Other Reinventions of Offense
Making the quarterback pass more often wasn’t the only thing that Coryell did to help reshape football offenses. Although he didn’t quite do this by himself, he was one of the fathers of the pass-catching tight end we’re used to now with Kellen Winslow. Ozzie Newsome was doing great things as well at the time for the Cleveland Browns, but stat-wise he wasn’t as prolific as Winslow was at the top of his game.
Also, he sat some records with the usage of all-purpose running backs at the time. That may not have been as groundbreaking, but it’s still notable. During his tenure with the Cardinals, running back Terry Metcalf sat a then-record for most all-purpose yards in one season. Later one of Coryell’s running backs in San Diego broke that record (Lionel James) and also sat the record for most receiving yards by a running back in one season.
Don’t Forget the Cards
Coryell will be remembered for his career with the Chargers. But he did some good things when he was with the Cardinals as well. He was there from 1973-1977. At the time of his arrival, the Cardinals had not made the playoffs since the 1940’s. They were still the Chicago Cardinals back then. Coryell led them to two division titles. He also received his lone Coach of the Year award in 1974 in the process. The tenure was short-lived as Coryell left after Metcalf (the all-purpose yardage record-breaker) was not re-signed.
What’s Keeping Him Out?
Okay, the answer to the question of why Coryell isn’t already there is probably pretty obvious: no Super Bowl rings. He never even made it to one; the closest he got was two AFC Championship appearances. Given the emphasis that is placed upon championships and rings in basically all sports, that’s the biggest glaring reason. He wasn’t even a finalist until 2010 – almost 25 years after his last year of coaching.
But he still has a 114-89-1 coaching record (including the playoffs). That’s not too shabby, and it’s actually better percentage-wise than the record of the other finalist coach this year (Tom Flores, with a 97-87 record). And as has been shown, he was an offensive genius and his impact on the game of football is undeniable. He deserves a spot for that; especially since many of the players he coached (namely Fouts and Winslow) have gone on to the Hall of Fame, also without any rings.
This Year, Perhaps?
Flores is the only other coach this year that is a finalist. When comparing the two, Coryell has a better win-loss record. However, Flores has two Super Bowl rings as a head coach. It may seem surprising that Flores hasn’t gotten in already based on that, but if anything, it’s proof that rings aren’t necessarily the only thing on voters’ minds after all, because otherwise he would have gotten in a while ago and this is actually his first year ever as a finalist.
Between the two coaches, a decent argument could be made either way. But the nod ought to go to Coryell based on his impact. There’s also the fact that there’s a been a longer wait for Coryell, who passed away in 2010. Of course, there’s also a chance that between player finalists like Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed, Champ Bailey, Edgerrin James, and Isaac Bruce (just to name a few), neither of them might get the nod in 2019. But if either Coryell or Flores is to get the nod this year, the former is the one who ought to be enshrined.
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