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Summer School: The Air Coryell Offense

We bring back an old Summer School post that has value today with Jason Garrett becoming Giants’ offensive coordinator

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

[EDITOR’S NOTE: With Jason Garrett having been hired by the Giants as offensive coordinator, I thought it was appropriate to bring back this 2016 ‘Summer School’ post from former BBV contributor Alex Sinclair. Garrett’s offense with the Dallas Cowboys was one generally considered to be an Air Coryell based system, so this might offer some insight into what his offense in New York will look like. At the bottom, a few of my early impressions.]


Don Coryell was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1978 to 1986. In those nine years, his team led the NFL in passing yards six times, including every year from 1979 to 1983. His offensive scheme was an evolution of another Chargers coach, Sid Gillman, and pushed the limitations of the vertical passing game in ways football had never seen. As such, his offense went down in history as one of the best the league history. The gaudy numbers and high-flying style earned his style the nickname "Air Coryell."


Vertical spread

The thing that defines the "Air Coryell" the most is that it relies on vertical routes to spread the field. Last week, we talked about how the West Coast offense used horizontal routes to keep the defense thin, and this is the same principle only sideways. A team running the WCO is happy with an 80 percent completion rate for a bunch of 4-yard passes. The short distance makes it an easier throw for the QB to complete and it's a useful solution for a team without a superstar at that position. But what if you have a top talent under center? What if you think he has the mental and physical ability to generate downfield yardage? That's what a certain coach thought of his QB at the time, Dan Fouts, and that's how the Coryell offense was born.

The Coryell system trusts that the higher risk of throwing downfield will pay off over the course of a game. If a WCO team attempts 10 passes, and gains an average of 4 yards per completion with an 80 percent completion rate, then they will end up with 32 passing yards. The Coryell team will be okay with a much lower completion rate (50-60 percent), if it means they can generate yardage quicker. If executed properly, the Coryell team could potentially double or even triple the yardage gained per pass attempt when compared to a WCO team.

With Coryell calling the shots, Fouts repaid his coach's trust with a 1982 MVP award, six Pro-Bowl appearances, four All-Pro nods as well as earning the reputation of arguably being the greatest Chargers player of all time.


One of the ways the offense can gain an advantage over a defense is by using timing patterns to complete the pass. The means that rather than targeting a specific receiver, the QB targets a specific spot within the receiver's route and trusts that the receiver can get to that spot before the ball arrives. The 1999 St. Louis Rams used this technique to great effect in their Super Bowl run under offensive coorindator Mike Martz. At the time, Kurt Warner was a relative unknown but his ability to read a defense and throw with anticipation was the catalyst for the Rams to raise the bar in terms of offensive production. In contrast, while Martz was offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, it was Jay Cutler's inability to "throw to a spot" that held them back as an offense.

Power running

To compliment the downfield passing game, the Coryell offense typically employs a power running scheme. If the defense is forced to cover deep passes on a consistent basis, they cannot stuff the box with extra players to stop the run , because doing so could result in a big play. If the offense can get a numbers advantage up front, then huge holes can be opened up for a power run on demand.

The majority of Coryell plays are run from a shotgun formation with at least one running back flanking the QB. From here, the QB can see where the offense may have an advantage. If a safety creeps down towards the line of scrimmage on a run play, he can audible to a pass and shoot with a deep pass. If it's a pass play and the defense is plays soft coverage, he can audible into a power run and get cheap yardage on the ground.

The Norv Turner-era San Diego Chargers would be a good example of a Coryell team. With Philip Rivers at QB and LaDanian Tomlinson in the backfield, the Chargers offense was a highly potent unit that could hurt you in many ways.

Strong line

Given that the QB is targeting downfield receivers and the running game uses a power scheme against a numbers advantage, it's important that the offensive line is among the best in the league. The WCO can operate with smaller players and mask their deficiencies with movement and speed. The Coryell offense cannot and requires significant investment in the OL in order to produce consistent results.

The early 1990s Washington offenses of Joe Gibbs are emblematic of a team whose success came from their dominance in the trenches. The Washington OL was consequently nicknamed "The Hogs" after the team rode their success to three Super Bowls.

Tight end

Guys like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are touted as groundbreakers within the game. Their receiving prowess and versatility changes the dynamic of their respective offenses once they take the field. Long before these guys were even in high school, there was Kellen Winslow.

Prior to the Coryell system, tight ends were primarily blockers who ran short routes. In 1980, Coryell expanded on his system to include a variety of intermediate and deep passes to the TE. By splitting him out wide, using him in the slot and motioning, the Winslow became a major weapon. In two years, he averaged more than 1,100 yards, 88 receptions and 9 touchdowns. Not bad for a position many considered to just be a blocker.


The main flaw in the Coryell system is that it requires everything to go right in order to succeed. If one element of the system fails, it can drag the whole team down. If your QB cannot master the delicate art of timing throws rather than player-based throws, then you're going to have added accuracy issues in a system that already causes a low completion percentage. If you don't have a dominant set of blockers up front, then your star QB could get mauled and your advantage in the running game is obsolete. If you're simply having an off-day against an excellent defense, then you better hope your own defense can hold up because Coryell offenses have been known to totally vanish for long periods of time.

Additionally, this is a system that causes additional stress for the other units on the team. It's quite likely for a QB to miss three consecutive passes in this offense, and if that happens, then you're likely about to punt. If this keeps happening, then your own defense is going to get severely worn down from being on the field so long. For all its benefits in chunk yardage and big plays, a bad game for a Coryell offense can from troublesome to downright putrid in less than a quarter of play.

Example play

Let's take a look at our example play. "Jet Dart Three-Six-Eight Y-Flat Train on one" is what you hear in the huddle. What does it mean in a Coryell offense?

- "Jet" is our protection. The offensive line will block towards the weak-side linebacker.

- "Dart" means it will be a play-action pass. The QB will fake a hand-off to the RB and then attempt to pass.

- "Three-Six-Eight" refers to our receiver routes. The Coryell playcalling system is helpful to receivers because it tells each one their route right there in the huddle based on the number system from the route tree. However, remember that each coach has their own route tree, so it's important to reference within a specific playbook. A "368" for one team could be totally different for another. In this example, our "X" receiver on the left runs a 3-route, which is a deep out-route in this playbook. Our "H" receiver in the slot runs a 6-route (curl). Our "Z" receiver on the outside right runs an 8-route (post).

- "Train" is our formation. This is an 11-personnel set (one RB, one TE). Both the attached TE and slot receiver align to the right, with a single-back set.

- "Y-Flat" gives an instruction to the TE to run a flat route into the space vacated by the two right-hand receivers.

- "On one" is just our call for the ball. The center will snap on the first "Hut" with no false calls before that, so the whole team needs to be ready to go immediately.

The Coryell offense aims to have at least two receivers running deep routes on every play, while also providing opportunities to the TE and an option to switch to a power-run. As you can see above, all of these bases are covered.

You can see small bracketed numbers beside some of the routes in the playsheet above. These represent the QB read progression. You can tell that the emphasis is placed on vertical passing because the QB reads from the deep right to the shallow center. Ideally, he can hit that outside post-route by throwing it towards a spot closer to the middle of the field before the receiver has even made his break.

Talking points:

If they wanted to, do you think the New York Giants have the necessary personnel to run the Coryell offense?

Do the advantages of a Coryell scheme outweigh the disadvantages in a two-minute drill?

As a fan, do you prefer to watch short efficient passes or stop-start chunk plays?

Further reading:

'Don Coryell, the man who created the modern NFL' by Danny Kelly - SB Nation

'Getting vertical with the Air Coryell offense' by "Rufio" - Dawgs by Nature (SBN)

'Football 101: Deep Shots with the Air Coryell Offense' by Alex Dumonjic - Bleacher Report

Air Coryell playbook -

A few Garrett thoughts

I will be asking Chris, Mark Schofield and Nick Falato to dive into different aspects of what we might see from a Garrett offense. Here are some initial thoughts. I went back and watched the Giants’ 2009 Week 2 victory over the Cowboys to see if I could learn anything. That’s the game in which the Giants ruined the opening of the Jerry Dome by beating Dallas. I noticed two things that haven’t been common to the Giants’ offense:

  • Lots of pre-snap motion.
  • Some interesting sets with wide receivers or tight ends lined up in the backfield.

A few other notes:

  • In his two seasons, Saquon Barkley has averaged 16.3 and 16.7 carries per game. Ezekiel Elliott has averaged more than 20 carries in three of four seasons, with 18.8 per game in 2019 being a career-low.
  • The idea that Garrett runs a low-completion percentage passing attack isn’t really right. Dak Prescott has never completed less than 62.9 percent of his passes, and his four-year career mark is 65.8 percent. Tony Romo completed 69.5 percent of his throws with Garrett calling plays in 2010, and never had a year below 61.5 percent with Garrett as offensive coordinator.
  • The Dallas passing attack undeniably got more aggressive in 2019 with Kellen Moore calling plays, as Prescott’s Intended Air Yards per attempt jumped from 7.5 to 9.2. By comparison, Daniel Jones averaged 8.0 Intended Air Yards per attempt in 2019.