Don Coryell, 85, one of the bright minds of modern football offense, passed away. Tributes about him will mention the mentor relationship he enjoyed with Joe Gibbs. Few will mention how deeply Coryell’s coaching tree was embedded in the Washington Redskins’ DNA until purged by Daniel Snyder in 2008. Fewer still will mention that Coryell was a menace to the Redskins before he was our friend.
The NFL Beast owes its reputation as much to Coryell as to George Allen and Tom Landry. Allen was one of the few coaches who never had a losing season while with Washington. Yet Allen’s Over-The-Hill-Gang won but one uncontested division title. Coryell made the contest an annual three-way race between the Redskins, Cowboys and the once woeful St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis took the division in 1974 and 1975.
The ’74 Cardinals and Redskins finished 10-4. Coryell swept Allen that year so the Cards took the title. Allen and Coryell split their series in ’75. The Cardinals finished the year atop the Beast at 11-3. Washington finished at 8-6 for division third place.
Escaping notice in the brouhaha were Coryell assistants Joe Gibbs, offensive backfield coach, and Jim Hanifan, offensive line coach. As offensive backfield coach, Gibbs mentored Terry Metcalf who ended his pro career in Washington in 1981, Gibbs first year as head coach.
A loss to the Redskins ended the Cardinals 1977 playoff hopes and Coryell’s tenure in St. Louis. Gibbs spent time in purgatory as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There he tried to run Coryell’s offense without Coryell’s players.
Head coach John McKay dispatched Gibbs to scout a bright quarterback prospect from Grambling University. Gibbs did so and returned raving about the guy, Doug Williams. Tampa Bay broke the color line when they drafted Williams as quarterback in the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft.
Williams made things better for the Buccaneers, but Tampa was still Tampa. Under pressure, McKay decided to call the Bucs’ offensive plays for the 1978 season. Gibbs moved on the offensive coordinator for Coryell and the San Diego Chargers.
Air Coryell reached high art form with the Chargers. And it brought Joe Gibbs to Jack Kent Cooke’s attention when The Squire went coach-shopping after firing Jack Pardee in 1980. Al Saunders replaced Gibbs as OC for the Chargers when Gibbs took the Redskins job.
Big armed Doug Williams was the hero of the 1988 Super Bowl. Jim Hanifan was the Redskins offensive line coach for the 1991 Super Bowl year when The Hogs O-line reached their highest level of performance.
When Gibbs stepped down from coaching in 1992, Cooke sought to duplicate the Gibbs magic by hiring Coryell disciple Norv Turner.
Turner inherited an aging team with salary cap problems and an ownership in turmoil after old Jack’s death in 1997. Washington’s top draft picks, Heath Schuler, Desmond Howard, Michael Westbrook, who looked so good on paper were never equal to the Down Field Offense Turner tried to run.
Gibbs returned in 2004. His wide receivers, Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner, balked at Gibbs’ offensive concepts. They thought it was too ground-oriented for a Down Field Offense. (Where do players get off criticizing coaching schemes?) Gibbs brought in Al Saunders hoping for the scortching offense Saunders ran in San Diego and Kansas City. He never let Saunders fully open his playbook.
Dan Snyder fired Saunders as soon as Gibbs stepped down after the 2007 season. That ended the 26 year influence of the Coryell system in Washington.
Redskins Hog Heaven offers our condolences to the Coryell family.
Point After: Read about Don Coryell’s influence on Joe Gibbs in my 2006 story Joe Gibbs’ Coaching Pedigree.