(Written by Tom Shanahan)
The Football gods and Old Man Winter owe Don Coryell a reprieve. Let us be reminded of Coryell’s absence from the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame as the calendar winds down to a destiny with Super Bowl XLVII slated for a northeastern stadium in the dead of winter.
The Football gods and Old Man Winter are obliged to deliver a massive (but non-deadly) snow storm that shuts down the New York Metropolitan area for the Feb. 2 week of the NFL’s championship.
The game should be postponed. Then, the 46-member selection committee that is scheduled to meet Feb. 1 to vote on inductees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 should be locked in a room. They should be told they can’t emerge until they get it through their thick heads the multitude of evidence that clearly spells out Coryell’s rightful place of enshrinement in the Hall in Canton, Ohio.
A year ago such a Super Bowl storm sounded plausible. The Farmer’s Almanac’s looked ahead to Feb. 2 Super Bowl date at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and forecast “piercing cold.” But the latest forecasts, using modern technology, call for no snow and temperatures as high as the 50s.
What a pity it is that the only chance for Coryell to earn his rightful place in the Hall of Fame is for a Hall-of-Fame committee to reconsider under extreme circumstances rather than go about business as usual. A veterans committee may see the light in the future, but the current voters denied the eccentric Coryell, who died in 2010 at age 85, and his players and fans the thrill of enjoying the honor in his lifetime.
Here’s why a winter storm is fitting to right a wrong: The Freezer Bowl has kept Coryell out of the Hall of Fame as a game he unfairly lost in his last chance to advance to a Super Bowl. The Freezer Bowl was the 1981 season’s AFC Championship played on Jan. 10, 1982. Piercing arctic cold weather blew through Cincinnati when Coryell’s San Diego Chargers met the Cincinnati Bengals at old Riverfront Stadium.
The NFL played that game in minus-9 degrees weather with minus-59 wind-chill conditions. The wind-chill conditions remain an NFL record. Football skills don’t decide competition played in such absurd conditions.
“I wouldn’t send my dog out in that weather,” Chargers Hall-of-Fame tight end Kellen Winslow said after the game.
Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle defended playing by saying the league checked with U.S. Army doctors about the health risk to the players and fans in the conditions. What Rozelle failed to explain to the doctors was he referred to playing a football game. They Army doctors thought he meant the desperate retreat through the Chosin Reservoir.
The Chargers also accused the Bengals of opening and closing an end zone freight tunnel door in the first half depending on when the wind was blowing in the Chargers’ faces or the Bengals’ backs.
The Freezer Bowl played out a week after the Chargers won an epic playoff battle in humid Miami, beating the Dolphins 41-38. Chargers Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts was 43 of 53 for 433 yards and three touchdowns. In those days, Fouts broke barriers with 400-yard games and 4,000-yard seasons before rules were relaxed to make such video game numbers meaningless in today’s game. Fouts did so because Coryell’s offense was so far ahead of its time.
History shows us Coryell only needed to advance to one Super Bowl to enhance his Hall of Fame credentials. George Allen coached the Washington Redskins in only one Super Bowl — a loss to the Miami Dolphins — yet he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Marv Levy coached the Buffalo Bills in four Super Bowls — lost them all — and he was inducted into the Hall in Canton, Ohio, in 2001.
Coryell’s first chance AFC Championship game was the 1980 season when San Diego lost 34-27 on a fluke bounce of the ball to Oakland Raiders tight end Raymond Chester for a touchdown. His teams wouldn’t play in another AFC Championship after the Freezer Bowl.
Not go begrudge Allen and Levy their place in the Hall, but they didn’t have the impact on the sport that Coryell’s offense had and continues to have with the current NFL rules that opened up passing attacks. All of those rule changes stem from Coryell showing the NFL poo-bahs how the game’s popularity would grow with electric scoring.
Fouts once said of his old coach: “He influenced offensive and defensive football because if you are going to have three or four receivers out there, you better have an answer for it on the other side of the ball. If it wasn’t for Don, I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.”
The same could be said for Winslow and most definitely for Charlie Joiner, two other members of the Air Coryell offense enshrined in Canton.
Brian Sipe, the 1980 NFL MVP as the Cleveland Browns quarterback, played for Coryell at San Diego State.
“When I went to the Browns in 1972, Don Coryell’s offense was ahead of anything I saw in the NFL,” Sipe, now an assistant coach at San Diego State, once told me. “I think the only reason I had the career I had, is I was so quickly able to step in and know what I was looking at. The NFL was easy for me. I felt like I was taking a step backward in terms of preparation.”
Coryell, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, is still the only coach to win 100 games in college and 100 games in the NFL. His NFL record was 114-89-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) and the Chargers (1978-86). His college record at San Diego State (1961-72) was 104-19-2.
His NFL teams won five division titles, in addition to advancing to those two AFC Championship games.
In 1979, he led Chargers to playoffs for first time since 1963. In 1974, he led the then-St. Louis Cardinals franchise to the playoffs for first time since 1948.
His passing attacks were ranked No. 1 in the NFL seven times. He originated the “digit” play-calling system still used by many NFL teams.
Listen to Mike Martz, who won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the St. Louis Rams and advanced to another Super Bowl as the Rams’ head coach.
“Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the ‘West Coast’ offense, but Don started the ‘West Coast’ decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams are running a version of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it’s still Coryell’s offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game.”
Listen to Willie Buchanon, a Pro Bowl cornerback and 1972 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers, who was an All-American cornerback for Coryell at SDSU.
“When I got in the NFL, it was easy after playing at San Diego State. I learned everything I knew from Don Coryell, Ernie Zampese and Claude Gilbert. We had a system. Coryell developed the tight end as a wide receiver when he split Tim Delaney 5 yards out. They call the passing games today the West Coast offense. That was Don Coryell’s system.”
A list of testimonials could go on and on from those that believe Coryell belongs in the NFL.
But Fred Dryer, a Pro Bowl defensive end that was an All-American player for Coryell at SDSU, cites perhaps the most convincing evidence. Dryer suggests looking at Coryell’s players with the Cardinals and Chargers and checking their Pro Bowl trips before and after they played for Coryell.
It’s quite revealing:
— DAN FOUTS (Chargers), 1973-1987, Hall of Fame: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (6) 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985.
— CHARLIE JOINER (Chargers), 1969-1986, Hall of Fame: Pro Bowls before Coryell: (1), 1976; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (2) 1979, 1980.
— DOUG WILKERSON (Chargers), 1970-1984: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3) 1980, 1981, 1982.
— CHUCK MUNCIE (Chargers), 1976-1984: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3) 1979, 1981, 1982.
— JOHN JEFFERSON (Chargers), 1978-1985: Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3), 1978, 1979, 1980; Pro Bowls after Jefferson was traded to the Packers: (1) 1982.
— WES CHANDLER (Chargers), 1978-1988: Pro Bowls before Coryell: (1), 1979; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3) 1982, 1983, 1985.
— DAN DIERDORF (Cardinals), 1971-1983, Hall of Fame: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (4) 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977; Pro Bowls after Coryell: (2) 1978, 1980.
— JIM HART (Cardinals), 1966-1984: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (4) 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977; Pro Bowls after Coryell: none.
— TOM BANKS (Cardinals) 1971-1980: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3) 1975, 1976, 1977; Pro Bowls after Coryell: (1) 1978.
— TERRY METCALF (Cardinals), 1973-1977, 1981: Pro Bowls with Coryell: (3) 1974, 1975, 1977; Pro Bowls after Coryell: none.
— JIM OTIS (Cardinals), 1970-1978: Pro Bowls before Coryell: none; Pro Bowls with Coryell: (1) 1975; Pro Bowl after Coryell: none.
Another Hall-of-Fame class is about to be selected. You can be sure it will be missing one most-deserving name. If only Coryell’s players had a vote in place of the dunderheads on the Hall-of-Fame selection committee for the past two decades.