How the Chargers’ Air Coryell Passing Attack Changed the NFL

So you like modern football, with the quick, precision passing, well-orchestrated TDs through the air, and quarterbacks firing for 4,000-plus yards a year?

Love perfect crossing routes and multiple downfield targets?

Thrilled by 55-yard touchdown strikes?

If so, each Sunday you should thank Air Coryell.

What is Air Coryell? A defunct airline? An old Nike sneaker that predates the Jordan’s?

No, Air Coryell laid the foundation for what NFL offenses are today. Air Coryell, a nickname for a high-scoring Southern California football team, revolutionized football.

This was back when the San Diego Chargers changed the game forever. Run game? Who needs a run game? The Chargers moved the ball through the air. Here’s the backstory.

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The Visionary: Don Coryell

When Don Coryell arrived to the Chargers in 1978, asked to fill in for their fired head coach after Week 4, he didn’t know he was about to change the game. But he lasted through 1986, and created a pass-crazy monster offense that rewrote the record books.

In 1978, Coryell reversed the team’s fortunes, guiding the Bolts to an 8-4 record after taking over in midseason. The nest three seasons, the Chargers won the AFC West. And in 1980 and 1981, the team came within one victory of the Super Bowl.

Coryell had the nerve to put four receivers into his offensive configuration, daring defenses to devise coverage schemes. He was the first coach to regularly use two tight ends in a one-back offense. Teams devised the nickel and dime defensive packages in large part to counter Coryell’s ingenuity.

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Eventually, Bill Walsh popularized what became known as the “West Coast Offense,” a strategy to spread the defense through the use of three or more receivers, riddle the opposition with quick, short passes, and stretch the field with downfield strikes. All of it was based on Coryell’s prior work.

“(Don) pored over defensive charts and looked for ways to make (the defense) have to to defend the pass,” said Joe Gibbs, who served as an assistant under Coryell at San Diego State, and later won three Super Bowls as a head coach.

Tony Dungy cites Coryell’s influence on Super Bowl champion coaches John Madden, Gibbs, and Walsh.

“If you talk about impact on the game … influencing how things are done, Don Coryell is probably right up there with Paul Brown,” Dungy said. “He was a genius.”

Coryell’s most famous quarterback noted the impact his head coach had on his fortunes.

“If it wasn’t for Don, I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame,” said Dan Fouts.

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The Passer: The Bearded Bomber

Fouts didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like a lumberjack.

Dan Fouts helped the Chargers' Air Coryell offense change the NFL
Dan Fouts, 1984. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

With broad shoulders, a wide face, and a thick beard, Fouts seemed like he should have been living in Oregon with a pet grizzly bear. But Fouts was the man whose arm altered the game of football forever.

When he met Coryell, Fouts was in his sixth NFL season, having never thrown for as many as 3,000 yards. In 1979, under Coryell, Fouts became just the second QB to pass for 4,000 yards in a season, setting an NFL mark with 4,082 through the air.

He broke his own record in each of the next two seasons, topping 4,800 in 1981. Today, we’re accustomed to seeing 4,000-yard passers, but more than four decades ago, it was shocking.

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Amazingly, QBs back then were still largely unprotected from the violent defensive linemen aiming to break their bones. Yet, Fouts maintained his stature in the pocket and set records for pass attempts and completions. In 1979, San Diego became the first AFC team to pass the football more than they ran it for a full season.

In 1982, Fouts was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year, and he was in the top five in MVP voting four times.

“You can’t stop Dan Fouts,” said Jets head coach Ray Perkins after his team was scorched for three TDs and 444 yards by the San Diego Slinger in a 1980 game. “He’s smart, has great vision and (great) timing. Great field general. He’s the guy, the operator.”

The Receivers: Joiner, Jefferson, Winslow

When you’re doing all that passing, you need targets. Fouts had several great receivers at his disposal. In 1980, San Diego had three 1,000-yard receivers: Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson, and the big tight end Kellen Winslow.

The goggles-wearing Jefferson was an exciting playmaker and among the best leapers in the NFL. He topped 1,00 yards receiving and 10 TD catches in each of his first three seasons. His bookend teammate was the veteran Joiner, a cerebral athlete with an impeccable training regimen.

Called “Master Charlie” by his teammates, Joiner was known for his obsession with running perfect routes. Some also called Joiner “The Thinking Man’s Receiver.” An accountant for an oil company in the offseason, Joiner always paid attention to the details.

“You can’t ever be off by even one penny,” Joiner said. “I’m trained to be precise, and sometimes I think it pays off for me on the football field.”

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Joiner was 32 in Coryell’s first full season in San Diego, but he quickly learned to love the new passing attack. He had 3,320 yards receiving from 1979-81.

The third big name receiver was Winslow, a freakish 6-foot-5 specimen who could outrun most wideouts. Helped by Coryell’s pioneering offensive sets, Winslow changed the way NFL teams used tight ends.

Fouts loved throwing to him, and Winslow led the league in receptions in 1980 and 1981. He was a five-time pro bowler who gave the Chargers a threat on inside routes, and created nightmarish matchups for undersized linebackers.

Coryell never took credit for Winslow’s success.

“If we’re asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I’m not a very good coach,” Coryell said.

Legacy of Air Coryell

The Chargers of the Air Coryell Era never went to a Super Bowl.

In four straight seasons, the Bolts were eliminated in the playoffs, twice in the AFC Championship Game. But we can never forget the way they played the game, even if a championship never came to be in Ron Burgundy’s favorite city.

Fouts, Joiner, and Winslow are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Somehow, Coryell, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 85, isn’t yet. In 2022, he was a finalist.

Every time a quarterback throws for 4,000 yards, or a team has multiple 1,000-yard receivers, or a tight end catches 140 passes (which Winslow did six times), we should think of Fouts and his merry receivers, and the head coach who drew up the plans to take football by air.

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About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is a writer and contributor for California Casinos with plenty of experience under his belt. Dan has written three books about sports and previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. Currently, Dan is residing in Michigan with his family.