San Diego coach Coryell takes aerial route in bowl bid
San Diego — Everybody knows the football philosophy of head coach Don Coryell of the San Diego Chargers, a former World War II paratrooper who has never lost his enthusiasm for the sky.
Coryell likes his quarterback, Dan Fouts, to throw the football on every series of downs -- not once, not twice, but often three times if necessary. If this makes the defense nervous, it has the opposite affect on Coryell, who bristles at the sight of running backs.
It will be this part of the Chargers' game plan that will most concern the Oakland Raiders on Sunday when they meet here in the American Football Conference championship game, the winner going to Super Bowl XV in New Orleans on Jan. 25.
It is rumored that the Chargers spend at least 12 minutes a day working on their ground game. It is during this period, people say, that Coryell gets a drink of water, bird watches, and thinks about possible income tax deductions.
Don's all-or-nothing-at-all passing philosophy would, of course, be a prime target for Boo Birds, conservative Charger fans, and armchair quarterbacks except for one thing. He wins -- 11 times in the 1980 regular season followed by last weekend's 20-14 playoff victory over Buffalo; 12 times in 1979; and nine times in 1978 with his first San Diego team -- an outfit that didn't look before the season as though it could get out of its own way.
Fouts threw the ball 589 times this year -- mostly to people named Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson, and Charlie Joiner. Winslow caught 89 passes; Jefferson 82 (including a team-high 13 touchdowns); and Joiner 71. When his primary receivers are covered, though, Dan is quick to adjust and find the open man -- as he did in connecting with Ron Smith for the winning TD against Buffalo.
It isn't so much that San Diego's pass patterns are noticeably better than those of other National Football League teams as that that the Chargers have been able to achieve success because of their numbers. While opposing defensive backs are understandably reluctant to move quickly against any one receiver for fear that they might pick the wrong man, Fouts is taking advantage of this extra time.
If Coryell were a magician, he surely would be described as someone who could put all his baskets into one egg. Although all the how-to books on winning consistently in the National Football League caution against pass overkill, Don turned in his library card years ago. He is undoubtedly the type, in neighborhood traffic, who would optimistically drive down pathways marked dead-end street.
What has made Coryell so successful, aside from his own organizational abilities, are Fouts, excellent defensive personnel, plus an offensive line that has given an added dimension to the word aggressive as it appears in the dictionary.
But since almost everything on the field begins with Fouts, he gets most of the credit when the Chargers win and most of the blame when they lose. Although Dan has a tremendous throwing arm in terms of durability, it is not considered exceptionally strong by NFL scouts, most of whom prefer passers who can zip the football 65 yards without any apparent effort.
What Fouts has, to an exceptional degree, is touch. He is an expert on throwing speed, timing, loft, and leading his receivers. He has seen so many blitzes that dealing with them holds no special terrors.
"Physically, Fouts doesn't have everything you want in a quarterback," Coryell said. "He's not a scrambler and he doesn't have a lot of speed. But I don't know of any quarterback who uses his protection better, who picks up his receivers quicker, or who understands more what the passing game is all about."
One man to whom Fouts owes a great deal is current San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh, who was the Chargers' offensive coordinator in 1976.
It was Walsh who taught Dan the fundamentals of his position, showed him how to read defenses, and schooled him in handling the blitz with short rainbow passes to his running backs. Once he learned the technical side of his job, then his leadership abilities started to get noticed.
In fairness to Coryell, who is also a better defensive coach than most people credit him with being, the Chargers do have two people who can run the ball with authority.
One is Chuck Muncie, who may have trouble reading airline schedules, but has little trouble anticipating the moves of most linebackers and who ran for 827 yards during the regular season. The other is Mike Thomas, who couldn't buy the headlines Muncie often gets for nothing, but who averaged better than four yards per carry this year.
During the regular season the Chargers and the Raiders split two games, San Diego winning 30-24 in overtime at home and losing in Oakland 38-24.