Air Coryell: Evolution Of The Passing Game In Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Throwing the football is a part of every offense in the modern-day. Teams began throwing the football down the field once the NFL rules allowed it.

Don Coryell innovated the offensive passing system with the use of a downfield passing attack, named the “Air Coryell” system. Players who excelled in this system are Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow.

This article will detail the evolution of passing football and the influential figures in revolutionizing the passing game.

Don Coryell & The San Diego Chargers

In 1978 Don Coryell became the Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers. He had incredible talent on his offense with future Hall of Famers Dan Fouts (QB), Charlie Joiner (WR), and Kellen Winslow (TE), along with multiple other Pro Bowl players.

This is where his now famous “Air Coryell” system was implemented and perfected. Don was one of the few coaches who threw the ball more times than he ran the football. Don led the league in an NFL-record 6 consecutive years from 1978 to 1983.

His offenses relied on a downfield passing attack that allowed quarterbacks like Dan Fouts to show off his arm talent and push the ball vertically.

The Air Coryell Offense

Coach Coryell developed an offense that attacked defenses downfield as he wanted to use the immense talent on his team.

This is a change from the Pro-Style offense that features two running backs and is less aggressive in attacking downfield.

The Air Coryell offense focused on throwing the ball deep downfield to receivers in hopes of creating big plays.

The Air Coryell offense helped the Chargers lead the league in passing yards in 6 of the 9 seasons he was. Focusing more on the downfield throw, this offense has a lower completion percentage by nature (it is riskier to throw the ball further downfield than throw it shorter distances).

With these deeper throws, the offense became more based on timing to increase its effectiveness to compensate for this.

Another attribute we see from Don Coryell’s system is the ability to put players in motion. It was common to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and not let them get a free release. With the use of motions, teams could not get an effective jam on the wide receivers.

The Coryell offense attacked vertically and for its horizontal passing attack, it often draws west coast offense comparisons.

The idea was that the defense could defend the box to stop the run while covering the deep routes downfield.

How It Changed the Game

When you watch a College or NFL game today, you will see the vast majority of shotgun formations with 3+ Wide Receiver sets.

While it is commonplace today, Coach Coryell put together a scheme to make it work week in and week out, year over year, when no one was doing it. His innovative approach to the way offenses move the ball downfield places him in the highest regard as an offensive mastermind among his peers.

One of the biggest changes to the game, was using a tight end against linebackers.

Linebackers in the 70’s and 80’s were often bigger and bulkier players. Their main job was to stop the run and be as physical as possble.

Don Coryell had a tight end named Kellen Winslow. This forever changed offenses and defenses as we know it.

The X-Factor: Kellen Winslow

Before Rob Gronkowski or Tony Gonzalez, a Tight End prototype had the body of an offensive lineman but could move and catch like a Wide Receiver. His name is Kellen Winslow.

The beauty of the “Air Coryell” scheme was that this rare talent was unleashed and defenses were not used to it coming from the middle of the field.

As shown below, the ‘Air Coryell” was the beginning of moving the tight end away from the rest of the offensive line and creating havoc for defenses.

air coryell
via Big Blue View

Defensive coaches had now to change their tactics in response to this new offense. While they were used to a big front 7, they now had to account for these deeper passes.

It is most noteworthy that the Air Coryell is why Nickel and Dime defenses came to be. This defensive innovation to adjust to an offense is now a mainstay on Sundays and almost every other level of football.

This forced the defense to adjust and create the nickel back position. Defenses had to get more speed on the field to be able to run with the speedy tight end.

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Other Coaches Using The Air Coryell

The Air Coryell and the San Diego Chargers offense forever changed the NFL and has had much success since its creation. Coaches Joe Gibbs, and Mike Martz, won Super Bowls running versions of this offense.

Former Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner made a career off of running versions of this offense.

Other coaches have implemented pieces of the offense. Bill Belichick says that the pass-catching tight ends are “all direct descendants of Kellen Winslow.” With all the success he has had with Rob Gronkowski, it is fair to assume he has studied the Air Coryell system.

Marty Schottenheimer says, “putting three receivers on one side and flooding that area” probably originated from the Coryell offense.

Keep Learning

This offense was originally called the “West Coast Offense.” Bill Walsh’s offense was running accidentally called the West Coast Offense, and the name carried over to his style.

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Do you have any questions about the Air Coryell Offense? Let us know below!

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.