Don Coryell and the Hall of Very Good

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 08, 2010



Yeah, we're way behind the Don Coryell story. The former NFL coach died last week at age 85. We've been caught up in some off-season stuff and then drank ourselves into a blind stupor over the holiday weekend.
 
We don't spring back like we used to, folks.
 
We did take time immediately after his death to post on our Facebook page and declare Coryell the Arthur Fiedler of football, the man who orchestrated the Live Ball Era.
 
Our beloved readers, naturally, have already bitched us out: "Hello, love your site. Excellent work," wrote Mike D this week. "But I was surprised I didn't see a piece about Don Coryell, former Chargers coach - or maybe I missed it."
 
No, you didn't miss it Mike D. We just didn't do it. By the way, we loved your work on the License to Ill album. "My name's Mike D and I get respect. Your cash and your jewelry is what I expect!"
 
Where do you come up with that sh*t, gangsta?
 
We were also berated by one reader last month, before Coryell's death, for failing to mention him in our history of the passing game.
 
Here's what this shiftless, no-good, government-employed waste product had to say:
 
"I know this article is a reprint but I thought I'd comment on it nonetheless since I'm busy wasting taxpayers' money at work. I'm somewhat surprised that any article written about the history of the NFL passing game omits one of its biggest, if not the biggest contributor - Don Coryell.  And to think that the Pro Football Writers honored it (it is worthy) shocks me even further about their indifference to the father of the modern passing game.  An annual HOF snub validates this year after year.  If only Coryell had coached on the East Coast ... " -- Muldoon
 
Here's our perspective, Muldoon. There is no East Coast conspiracy. Coryell was a very good coach at the forefront of the Live Ball Era revolution who produced some good, entertaining teams.
 
But the Cold, Hard Football Fact remain that he was not a G-R-E-A-T coach because, well, he never produced great teams. If we were inclined to rub a little lemon juice in your wounded pride, we'd point out that he was not the master innovator he's made out to be, either.
 
And he's certainly not a Hall of Famer, as folks like Muldoon and others around Planet Pigskin believe.
 
THE GOOD, THE BAD and THE INDIFFERENT
Hall of Fame voters get a long of things wrong, as we've chronicled over the years while helping them break free of their shackles of ignorance.
 
But keeping Coryell out of the Hall of Fame is not one of their mistakes (though we envision a groundswell of support in the wake of his death; he was a finalist last year).
 
Coryell's greatest achievement is that he led two organizations to some of the best years in their respective histories. And, certainly to his credit, few coaches can make that claim.
 
The Cardinals hadn't reached the playoffs in more than a quarter century when Coryell guided them to back-to-back postseason appearances in 1974 and 1975. They failed to win a playoff game either year, but considering the history of this sad-sack outfit, the worst organization in pro football history, the Coryell Years are among the best the franchise has ever seen.
 
The Cardinals have enjoyed just six 10-win seasons since 1920. Three of those six 10-win season came with Coryell at the helm. So that's pretty impressive.
 
The Chargers, meanwhile, had struggled since their AFL glory days of the mid-1960s. Then Coryell arrived on the scene in 1978, and everything was different.
 
San Diego went 12-4 in 1979, Coryell's first full year at the helm, matching a franchise record for victories not surpassed until 2006. He led the Chargers to four straight playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history. It's a mark of consecutive postseason appearances that San Diego matched again only this past season.
 
So that's Hall of Very Good-caliber work. Coryell fielded some decent and very entertaining and even memorable teams, particularly in San Diego.
 
But he never produced great teams.
 
He produced one-sided teams that were sometimes very good on offense, but that typically fielded bad defenses. His defensive unit in San Diego declined almost every year of his tenure. In Coryell's first full year with the Chargers, he fielded the league's 2nd-ranked scoring defense. During the rest of his tenture, his teams ranked 18th, 26th, 24th, 28th, 24th and 25th in scoring defense.
 
His Cardinals teams were also average or below average on defense: 23rd, 8th, 11th, 16th and 23rd in scoring D during his five seasons.
 
Notice a trend here, folks? And it's not a "Let's put him in Canton" kind of trend. It's a "he could never get things straight" kind of trend.
 
Put another way, Coryell was not a complete coach who produced complete teams or who produced great teams. So, here's the question you have to ask: can you be a great coach if you don't produce great teams?
 
The answer is obvious: no, you can't.
 
THE MASTER INNOVATOR?
So Coryell belongs in the Hall of Very Good. But not the Hall of Fame.
 
His fans, and even many pigskin "pundits," insist that Coryell should get bonus credit as a master offensive innovator. But we're not sold on the "Coryell as master innovator" storyline either. 
 
In fact, the Cold, Hard Football Facts indicate that he was merely a product of his time, maybe a bit ahead of the curve, as you'll soon see. He had quick coaching reflexes on offense.
 
But he certainly didn't revolutionize the game. That idea is a case of our mortal enemy hype clouding out the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
Consider Tim Layden's remembrance of Coryell in Sports Illustrated this week. The Chargers had hired Coryell in 1978, and Layden writes: "The new coach ... had built winners at San Diego State and with the St. Louis Cardinals by installing an inventive pass-first offense (our emphasis) that attacked defenses as few others had before it."
 
It's a nice sentiment that matches the prevailing wisdom about Coryell the offensive genius. But it's just not true.
 
We don't have Coryell's offensive stats from his days with San Diego State. But we do have his NFL stats with the Cardinals. And the notion that he had installed an "inventive pass-first offense" in St. Louis is patently false.
 
In fact, his offenses in St. Louis were quite typical of the run-first offenses of the era. Here's the Cardinals pass-run balance during Coryell's five years at the helm
  • 1973 – 394 pass attempts, 416 rush attempts
  • 1974 – 391 pass, 466 rush
  • 1975 – 355 pass, 555 rush
  • 1976 – 392 pass, 580 rush
  • 1977 – 366 pass, 507 rush
In other words, Coryell's Cardinals teams NEVER passed the ball more than they ran it, despite Sports Illustrated's claims. In fact, they ran the ball far more often than they passed it.  
 
Now, it pays to remember that Coryell's years in St. Louis coincided with the height of the Dead Ball Era. It was a time when defenses lorded over the NFL, when passing was extraordinarily difficult, and when every NFL offense depended heavily on the run.
 
But even for the era, Coryell's Cardinals often ran the ball more than the average NFL team.
  • In 1975 the average NFL team ran the ball on 57.0 percent of snaps. Coryell's Cardinals ran the ball an astounding 61.0 percent of snaps.
  • In 1976, the average NFL team ran the ball 58.6 percent of snaps. Coryell's Cardinals ran it 59.7 percent of snaps.
His teams averaged more pass attempts than the league in 1973, 1974 and 1977. But it was not the revolutionary pass-first offense the likes of Sports Illustrated or other pigskin "pundits" would lead you to believe. It was simply a run-first offense typical of the era.
 
It was good offense. For sure. But not a great offense (never better than No. 7 in scoring) and certainly not a revolutionary offense.
 
Coryell may have introduced a new kind of playcalling nomenclature (which Layden wrote about in detail). But at the end of the day, his offenses in St. Louis behaved just like every other offense in the NFL: it ran the ball first and foremost, and used the pass only sparingly.
 
THE DAWN of the LIVE BALL ERA
A funny thing happened between Coryell's last season in St. Louis (1977) and his first season in San Diego (1978), where he took over for head coach Tommy Prothro four games into the season.
 
The NFL that off-season had instituted sweeping rules changes to open up offense. They were changes desperately needed, because defenses had utterly dominated throughout the 1970s, and especially in 1977. The NFL that year produced both the stingiest defense in modern history (the Falcons surrendered 9.2 PPG) and the worst offense in modern history (the Buccaneers scored 7.4 PPG).
 
Football fans wanted more scoring. So the NFL obliged. And the Dead Ball Era suddenly gave way to the Live Ball Era, just as Coryell had arrived in San Diego.
 
Coryell certainly saw the writing on the wall: the NFL was hoping to create a pass-first league and break free from plodding Stone-Age game of the 1970s that saw scoring plummet from its highs of the 1950s and 1960s.
 
So the new San Diego coach embraced the new style of football a season or two before everybody else: Air Coryell was borne when he unleashed unheralded Dan Fouts upon the unsuspecting football world in 1979.
 
The rest has been well documented. Fouts became the first quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards in three straight seasons (1979-1981). In fact, before Fouts in 1979, only Joe Namath in 1967 had passed for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
 
Fouts might have been the first 5,000-yard passer, too, if not for the strike of 1982. His 320.2 YPG in nine contests that year put him on pace for a record 5,124 yards over the course of a 16-game season.  
 
Fouts also passed the ball extraordinarily effectively in that 1982 season, with a tremendous average of 8.7 YPA. It makes the 1982 Chargers one of the most effective passing teams in history (No. 8 in the Super Bowl Era).
 
It was an incredible run for Fouts, Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner and Air Coryell. In fact, Coryell is largely remembered today as the only coach whose teams led the NFL in passing yards for six straight years.
 
To which we respond: So what?
 
It's nice for fantasty football fans and pigskin "pundits" who gush breathlessly about big passing yards. But it's not so hot here in the real world, where winning is what matters. For all the productivity in Coryell's passing game, it produced marginal results (six playoff apearances and three playoff wins in 14 seasons). And it produced marginal results for two reasons:  
  • First, passing yards mean little in and of themselves. Just ask Drew Brees, who passed for 5,069 yards in 2008 and won just eight games.
  • Second, Coryell fielded highly flawed teams with plenty of holes, especially on defense, as noted above.
As a result, his teams were never great. And, his teams never got any better, either. The Chargers are the perfect example.
 
They went 12-4 in 1979, Coryell's first full year in San Diego. Then 11-5 in 1980, 10-6 in 1981, 6-3 in 1982, 6-10 in 1983. Coryell failed to produce one winning team in his final four seasons, ending with the 1-7 disaster that got him fired midway through the 1986 season. They won three playoff games in that time: one each year from 1980 to 1982. Hardly the credentials of Hall of Fame coach.
 
More importantly, in terms of pro football history, it wasn't a revolution that Coryell spawned: at best, and to his credit, he merely  reacted first to the widespread institutional changes the league had mandated from on high. Hell, by 1983, journeymen like Lynn Dickey were passing for 4,500 yards a season, too.
 
And by 1984, as the Coryell years in San Diego quickly began to spiral downward and out of control, Dan Marino had topped 5,000 yards playing for an old-school coach, Don Shula, who called a Stone Age-style seven pass plays in a Super Bowl just one decade earlier.
 
So Coryell displayed some quick reflexes in the wake of the rule changes of 1978. He helped orchestrate the Live Ball Era. He fielded some nice teams that threw plenty of pretty passes for big yards. He was not a revolutionary, though, but a product of his time, both in the Dead Ball Era and even in the Live Ball Era. He opened up some eyes, for sure, but he didn't reinvent the game. The NFL had done that for him from on high.
 
It's actually quite a career, and it all adds up to a nice shiny bronze bust in the Hall of Very Good.

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