Right out of the gate, the San Diego Chargers were a championship caliber franchise. As a charter member of the American Football League (AFL) in 1960, in their maiden season as the “Los Angeles Chargers” they won their division and then lost to the Houston Oilers in the first-ever AFL Championship Game. After a move south to San Diego, in the following five seasons the club captured their division an additional four times, lost three more AFL Championship Games but also captured the AFL title in 1963, the city’s first pro football championship.
After the merger with the National Football League (NFL), the Chargers played in one Super Bowl, a 49-26 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. In their history, they have won 15 division crowns.
The franchise’s greatest stretch occurred from 1979-1982. During these glory days, they were known as “Air Coryell.”
Captain in Training
Don Coryell became head coach of the Chargers in 1978. His philosophy was to let the pass set up the run instead of the normal trend of the exact opposite. Most teams at all levels were run-happy offenses which threw the ball when they had too, usually on second and third downs with hefty yardages to gain.
Coryell developed his offensive strategy while the head coach at San Diego State University (SDSU) from 1961-1972. At SDSU, their roster was limited to how many star-quality running backs and offensive linemen were available because most of the really talented players at those positions went to either USC or UCLA instead. Back in those days, most college players chose a school relatively close to their state or hometown. The fact that most of the blue-chippers headed to the bigger colleges nearby left the crumbs for lower-tier schools like SDSU to grab.
So Coryell developed an offense that relied on a top-notch QB and wide receivers who could catch. As a highly recruited WR, those players knew that huge school programs such as Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA ran the ball over 80% of each game. Coryell offered a concept that would bring the wide receiver out of the third down game plan and into the limelight.
At a time when absolutely no program threw on first down, this was the norm at SDSU. In fact, they threw on almost every down regardless of the down or yardage needed. In Coryell’s 12-year tenure, SDSU captured 104 wins against only 19 losses and two ties. His 1966, 1968 and 1969 teams went undefeated. Twice there were long win streaks: one of 25 games while the other was a staggering 31 in a row.
With this much success, this obviously got the attention of the NFL. The St. Louis Cardinals last division title was in 1947 and 1948 as the then-Chicago Cardinals. Since relocation to St. Louis in 1960, the years were very futile indeed. After consecutive 4-9-1 seasons, Coryell was offered the head coaching job for 1973. After one season, the Cardinals went 10-4-0 and won the division, then lost in the playoffs. Coryell was named NFL Coach of the Year. The following stanza, the Cards once again won the division with an 11-3-0 record, but lost once again in the playoffs.
Home Sick Manifest
But Coryell was a West Coast guy and yearned to be back, especially to California. When his Cardinals contract ran out and during renegotiations that weren’t going as he wished with the financial aspects, Coryell did not resign. As luck would have in, Chargers’ head coach Tommy Prothro resigned his post after starting the 1978 season 1-4. Their first call was to hire Coryell as their new man and a large contract.
As with the norm, Prothro played a running attack scheme, but on his roster was QB Dan Fouts and wide receivers Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson. Plus, the RB was a gifted receiver in Lydell Mitchell. The Chargers had all the makings of a really good club, but as it turned out, their personnel just wasn’t being utilized to their potential.
Coryell fixed that – and quickly.
That 1-4-0 1978 season ended 9-7-0. Fouts went from tossing 22 passes in a game to 41. Rarely did a QB in those days of the NFL go over the 300-yard mark in a contest, yet Fouts threw for 331 yards in Week 14 and 368 in the final game while two other games teetered just shy of the coveted 300-yard mark.
Cancelled Flight – Dan Fouts’ Early Retirement
If you watch the NFL today and tune into a CBS broadcast, you have seen Dan Fouts as a color analyst since 1988. Dan Fouts the quarterback was an amazing player who owns 11 Chargers franchise records, selected to six Pro Bowls, was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year once, four-time NFL passing leader, NFL Most Valuable Player in 1982, named to the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team as the QB, and has had his number 14 retired by the Chargers. He also has been elected to five Hall of Fames: San Diego Hall of Champions (1989), University of Oregon Hall of Fame (1992), State of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (1992), Chargers Hall of Fame (1992), and as a first-ballot member into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
But way back before Dan Fouts the athlete became Dan Fouts the demi-god, he retired from football in a contract dispute.
Fouts was taken by the Chargers in the third-round of the 1973 NFL college draft to replace the aging John Hadl. In his first few seasons, although the starter, Fouts did not put up huge numbers under head coaches Harland Svare and Prothro. However, for the 1976 season the Chargers hired as their offensive coordinator a young buck by the name of Bill Walsh. Fouts flourished under Walsh’s motion-oriented, fast paced and big play offense. The Chargers had also just traded for WR Charlie Joiner to add speed and great hands to the new offense.
The end result for 1976 was that Fouts had gone from 1,396 passing yards and two TDs in 1975 to 2,535 yards and 14 TDs. And better yet, his rookie contract was going into its last year. Fout’s agent, Howard Slusher, suggested to Fouts that the contract should be re-done for more money and for a longer period. Gene Klein, the Chargers’ owner, told Slusher he had no intention of re-working his contract and that Fouts should honor his agreement and play out the upcoming season.
Then Klein traded for the NFC’s top rated QB – James Harris of the Los Angeles Rams. The Chargers were in rebuilding mode whereas the Rams had just lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game. With the addition of Harris, suddenly Fouts demanded to be traded. When Klein told him he had no intentions of trading him, Fouts announced his retirement. Klein wished him well in whatever his new career was.
Next, the Chargers traded for QB Bill Munson from the Detroit Lions to be Harris’ backup and then drafted QB Cliff Olander from New Mexico State in the fifth-round of the 1977 NFL draft. Harris started nine games and became injured. Then Munson filled in and got hurt as well. Both ended up on the IR list. So, in Week 10, Fouts was still retired and the rookie Olander was the starting QB.
Olander then led the 4-5-0 Chargers to a 12-7 victory over the 8-1-0 Oakland Raiders. Fouts came out of retirement the following week and San Diego finished 7-7-0.
The following season Walsh became the head coach at Stanford University. Before he accepted the job, he inquired with owner Gene Klein if the Chargers position might become available anytime soon. Klein’s answer was that Prothro still had some years left on his contract and as much as he wanted to hire Walsh full-time, just as with Fouts - a deal is a deal and he was bound to honor it. Walsh would later capture three Super Bowls as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Air Coryell has officially left the terminal
Most NFL owners were inserted into various committees based on their personal and business strengths. Chargers’ owner Klein had a background in television and was on the league’s broadcasting and also competition committees. He frequently offered changes that would assist the league in matters concerning things that would make the league more interesting. Like adding the two-point conversion. This was a standard in the AFL and was eliminated once the two leagues merged. Klein wanted it instituted into the present day NFL and eventually the league did indeed adopt it.
After the 1977 NFL season, the networks complained that there wasn’t enough scoring. The more points per contest meant higher ratings which meant more advertisers bought space during NFL telecasts. At the time, defensive backs could maul a WR all the way down the field. A new rule that helped the offense was then inserted which allowed contact with the receiver for only the first five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Under Coryell’s new offense which threw the ball constantly, this single new rule opened up their aerial attack. Klein wished the networks would complain some more so that other new rules could be devised to assist the offense.
And there were other rule changes that would eventually help out his new offense under Coryell.
For one, the league liberalized the holding rules for offensive linemen which made sure that the QB was better protected. Air Coryell needed as much time to throw as possible. Next, the hash marks were moved in to line up with the goal posts. Before, as with college and high school, the hash marks divided the field into thirds which made for a short side (i.e. weak side) and a wide side (i.e. strong side). Now, both sides of the playing field were almost equal in proportion. More field width meant more area for pass catchers to work their magic.
The clubs who featured strong run offenses were against these new rules. When it was mentioned that all of the above would increase scoring which would make the TV network executives and their millions very happy, each rule was voted on and passed.
The Chargers cashed in on the new rule changes. The franchise won three consecutive AFC Western Division crowns and Fouts became the greatest passer in the league.
Klein didn’t hire Coryell because he made San Diego State University into a national college football powerhouse. He hired him only after he took the St. Louis Cardinals to two consecutive post-seasons. The opinion generally had been that a college coach can’t make the transition to pro football instantly, but has to be groomed as an assistant and learn the pro game that features grown-ass men who have greater speed, regular weight training and power.
Under Coryell, the Chargers depended on their passing attack, and virtually no other team in the NFL could stop them. The problem, though, was that their defense couldn’t stop anybody either.
Coryell’s offense was basically an off-shoot of the beginnings of the AFL which threw the ball constantly whereas the NFL was always a conservation run-first attack. The AFL needed fans and thought that high scores would put more butts in seats. Coryell’s teams passed on almost every down from anywhere on the field and in any situation. It was a very complex offense which was difficult to digest at first. It also required a QB that was extremely intelligent and had a strong arm that could throw 40-50 times a game.
It also meant gathering as many offensive weapons and competent offensive linemen as possible. This meant the defense suffered. Coryell’s first draft pick in the first-round of the 1979 NFL college draft was TE Kellen Winslow from Missouri. In total, he selected five offensive players.
Selected the year earlier was WR John Jefferson along with a trade with the Baltimore Colts that brought over RB Lydell Mitchell. WR Charlie Joiner came to the Chargers in a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1975. Winslow was the final piece needed for an offensive attack that took the NFL by surprise.
In 1979, the first official year of Air Coryell, the Chargers went 12-4-0 and tied the Pittsburgh Steelers with the best record in the NFL. Three of those losses were by less than a touchdown and scored 411 points - second in the league. Fouts led the league in passing with 4,082 yards. Jefferson placed fourth in receiving yards with 1,090 while Joiner had 1,008 yards marking a single team with two 1,000-yard seasons. Mitchell was one of the league’s top pass-catching running backs and topped 500 yards on 57 catches to go along with his 820 rushing yardage.
Chargers elected to the Pro Bowl included OG Ed White, DT Gary Johnson, OT Russ Washington, WR Jefferson, QB Fouts and WR Joiner.
They won the AFC Western Division and because they had defeated the Steelers 35-7 during the regular season, they were the number one seed in the playoffs. They faced the 11-5-0 Houston Oilers and their top-rated defense in the playoffs and lost 17-14.
Year One of Air Coryell had conquered, but failed to finish.
In 1980, the club went 11-5-0, won the West again and earned the second seed for the playoffs. They had outscored their 1979 total with 418 points and for the second year in a row, the Chargers led the league in total passing yards.
Fouts was strictly a pocket passer but was physical and tough. He once again led the league in passing yards (4,715) and what was truly remarkable was the trio of weapons he had this season. Jefferson led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,340 followed by Winslow’s 1,290 while Joiner ranked fourth (1,132). Ranked one, two and four, plus three players on the same squad with over 1,000 yards was a feat that was unmatched in the history of the NFL, and hasn’t been seen since.
Jefferson led all receivers in touchdowns with 13 while Winslow ranked third with nine. Chargers elected to the Pro Bowl included WR Jefferson, QB Fouts, TE Winslow, DE Fred Dean, WR Joiner, DE Louie Kelcher and OG Doug Wilkerson.
The Chargers defeated the Buffalo Bills 20-14 in the divisional playoff which sent them one game away from their first Super Bowl appearance.
Coryell believed the defense should stay out on the field long enough for the offense to get some rest. The longer the other team drove and kept the ball before scoring, the more rest his offense got. The strategy was to score just enough points than the other team to win. Unfortunately against the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, the 27 points the offense got was seven less than the 34 points the defense surrendered.
Year Two of Air Coryell had been a banner season, but once again a failure to finish.
The Chargers drafted RB James Brooks of Auburn in the first-round of the 1981 draft which gave them speed in the backfield and another weapon in the passing game. They had also traded for New Orleans Saints former first-round pick RB Chuck Muncie late in the 1980 season which gave him a year to digest the playbook. In a contract dispute with the Chargers’ front office, Jefferson was traded to the Green Bay Packers. San Diego got WR Aundra Thompson, a first-round pick and two second-round selections for the league’s best WR. The team then finished 10-6-0 and won a third consecutive AFC Western Division title.
Muncie gave the Chargers a threat in the running game to counter the passing attack as he gained 1,144 yards and scored an incredible 19 TDs. For the third year in a row, Fouts led the league in passing yards with 4,802 and tossed a league-high 33 TDs. Winslow led the league in receptions with 88 catches and netted 1,075 receiving yards with 10 TDs. He was the first tight end to lead the league in receptions. Joiner once again went over the 1,000-yard mark with 1,188. Wes Chandler, who came over in a trade with the Saints, gained 857 yards with five TDs. Thompson played in only one game with zero catches and was subsequently traded.
San Diego traveled to Miami and then defeated the Dolphins 41-38 in a wild overtime victory. The following week they were beaten 27-7 by the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game. Chargers elected to the Pro Bowl included TE Winslow, DT Johnson, RB Muncie and QB Fouts.
Year Three of Air Coryell and another season ended one game away from the Promised Land.
The 1982 campaign was shortened by the strike year which lasted 57-days long. The Chargers finished 6-3-0 and then lost 34-14 to the Dolphins in the first-round of the playoffs. The lack of defense reared its ugly head in subsequent years and Air Coryell was playoff grounded for the next four seasons.
Not that the Chargers during this time span did not have some excellent players on defense. Throughout the years this unit was littered with excellent players such as DE Coy Bacon, DT Gary Johnson, LB Woodrow Lowe, SS Pete Shaw, DE Fred Dean, CB Mike Williams and DE Louie Kelcher.
Air Coryell: The Hangar and the Flight Plan
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Coryell was an offensive guru. But he was nine-part genius and one part quirky. His playbook was so complicated that even his assistant coaches weren’t exactly sure how to teach it. Once, he was convinced that his players would get cramps and insisted that in the hotel before the game that each one had a banana despite it was New Year’s Eve. Another time he wanted the players to eat popsicles on their breaks during practices.
Don Coryell was admired and cherished by his players. Coryell’s coaching tree includes John Madden, Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, Jim Hanifan, Rod Dowhower, Bill Walsh, Jack Pardee, Ray Perkins, Gunther Cunningham and Joe Gibbs.
Many of his players went to multiple Pro Bowls and even to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dan Fouts led the league in passing yards five straight seasons – a remarkable feat – and went to six Pro Bowls. As far as receivers, John Jefferson proceeded to four Pro Bowls and twice was the league’s TD leader. Winslow was elected to five Pro Bowls and was the TE on the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team and made the NFL 75th Anniversary Team. Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler each went to three Pro Bowls.
On the offensive line, guards Doug Wilkerson and Ed White were elected to three and four Pro Bowls, respectively. Tackle Russ Washington was named to five Pro Bowls. Each of these players, along with center Don Macek, were named to the Chargers 50th Anniversary Team.
Winslow and Fouts would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Jefferson had become the first WR to ever gain over 1,000-yards in his first three seasons.
The Chargers led the league in total yards five different seasons and in passing yards six consecutive years, an NFL record that remains today. The nickel and dime defenses that are commonplace today are a direct result of the Air Coryell days and an attempt to defend it.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.