Farewell Air Coryell

A few days ago the NFL world lost one of the great football coaches and innovators of all time. Don “Air” Coryell died at the age of 85.

My being an Oakland Raiders fan does not keep me from mourning the loss of the San Diego Chargers coach. Flags at Jack Murphy (Qualcomm) Stadium were most likely flying at half staff.

While I rooted against Coryell, I respected him…and feared him. When the Raiders beat the Chargers in the 1980s, it was more like surviving. It was an aerial war, fitting great offenses.

Sid Gillman was the father of the passing offense. He died at age 92 not too long ago.

Many people think that Bill Walsh was the first generation, with Mike Holmgen the second and Andy Reid and Jon Gruden the third. This is not entirely untrue, but Sid Gillman was the real first passer, even more so than Paul Brown.

The second generation under Sid Gillman was Al Davis and Don Coryell.

Unlike the Paul Brown to Bill Walsh system of adding more passes to what used to be an all running league, Gillman…and Davis and Coryell…wanted to throw all the time.

(The third generation was Mike Martz, who created the Rams Greatest Show on Turf.)

The Chargers had Dan Fouts. The Raiders had Ken Stabler and then Jim Plunkett. The duels were epic, and home field advantage was non-existent.

In 1980, the Raiders and Chargers both finished 11-5. The Chargers won the division tie-breaker, and both teams faced off in the AFC Title Game.

A week earlier the Chargers trailed the Bills 14-13 late. All San Diego needed was a time consuming drive and a field goal. Instead Coryell had Fouts go for the bomb, resulting in a touchdown and a 20-14 win.

With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Chargers had home field. Yet in the second quarter, the Raiders had a 28-7 lead. The game was over.

No, it wasn’t. Air Coryell kept firing, and in the third quarter the Raiders only led 28-24. In the fourth quarter the Raiders added a pair of field goals to lead 34-24. The Chargers kicked a field goal to get to within 34-27. The Raiders had the lead and the ball with 6 1/2 minutes left. Yet the real action was on the Oakland sideline.

All world defensive superstar Ted “Mad Stork” Hendricks had no fear. Yet one time in his career he did. As Jim Plunkett describes in his autobiography, Hendricks pulled Plunkett to him before the Oakland offense took the field. Hendricks had fire in his eyes. Hendricks pointed out Fouts.

“You’ve got to keep scoring Jim. We can’t stop him.”

Plunkett tried to reassure Hendricks. Hendricks delivered a simple message.


Plunkett ran out the clock. 6 1/2 minutes and several 3rd down conversions sent Al Davis and the Raiders to the Super Bowl while Coryell and the Chargers went home. For the Raiders, winning the Super Bowl was easier than that AFC Title Game.

A year later the Chargers won one of the most exciting football games in history over the Miami Dolphins in overtime, 41-38. Yet a week later the Chargers were back in the AFC Title Game, and again, weather was the difference. Against the Raiders it was rain, which (temporarily) slowed the passing attack. In Cincinnati against the Bengals it was bitter cold, one of the coldest games in NFL history. The Chargers lost 27-7.

Don Coryell never won a Super Bowl. All he did was take great defenses and reduce them to rubble. If the Chargers had even an average defense, multiple Super Bowl rings would have been part of San Diego history.

Before Coryell got to the Chargers, he took the lowly Cardinals and made them winners. Jim Hart flung the ball with reckless abandon, and after Coryell and Hart left, Neil Lomax passed the Cardinals silly.

Coryell’s brand of football was a great metaphor for life. You don’t sit back and wait. You constantly attack, and get every ounce out of life.

Don Coryell made football fun and exciting. Three yards and a cloud of dust was replaced with the philosophy of bombs away.

It is too late for the NFL Hall of Fame Committee to do the right thing during his life, but he absolutely should and must be voted into the Hall posthumously as soon as possible.

He is now up in the sky, discussing strategy with Sid Gillman.

Farewell Air Coryell. For football fans everywhere, believe me when I say you will be missed.

I am just relieved my Oakland Raiders did not give you that ball back. It would have been 34-34 in a heartbeat.


2 Responses to “Farewell Air Coryell”

  1. Wow. There’s goes another part of our youth. I remember having trading cards of all those guys back in the day. The Raiders were the most tenacious team I’d ever seen. They didn’t have all the best talent, they didn’t always have the smartest coaching, but there was something in the football culture of that team – I suspect it was Davis himself – that made them a great team to watch every week. What a show!

    The Chargers were a similar story. A team that was always underestimated, but with imaginative and inventive play calling, Chargers match-ups were always a sight to see.

    All the greats of the early NFL days seem to be passing and retiring now. Time has caught up with them. I hope today’s players, owners, coaches and NFL management will remember where they come from. The greatest league of the greatest sport ever was created by guys like Don Coryell. Let’s all try to emulate them.

    RIP Air Man. We’ll never forget you.


  2. parrothead says:

    Sad to see him go. His teams were always exciting and always came up a little short.

    Also yesterday we lost another great man of sports. Bob Shepherd, long time Public Address Announcer at Yankee Stadium, passed away. He was one of the true classy gentlemen of sport. He had hoped to keep working to open the new Yankee Stadium but his health didn’t let him make it. It was also sad to see him go.

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