Who Is The Greatest Offensive Mind In Football History: Bill Walsh or Don Coryell?
I often debate with sports fans on social media. Whether or not I agree with one individual and I don't agree with the other, I try my hardest to stay on topic. In this case, the question of who is the greatest offensive mind in football history, Bill Walsh or Don Coryell, is highly debatable. Bill Walsh in my eyes is the greatest offensive mind in football history, period. It's pretty amazing and rare for someone to truly change the game with his horizontal passing attack. He was like 15 years ahead of everyone else schematically. But someone said that Don Coryell is the greatest offensive mind in football history. That's debatable.
But let's be real here. Don Coryell, a genius in his own right, never won a Super Bowl. Bill Walsh was an offensive genius who designed what is now known as the West Coast Offense while as a coach in Cincinnati under Paul Brown. In fact, Paul Brown HIMSELF let Walsh come up with different plays to utilize a weak armed quarterback with shorter routes. As to the term, West Coast Offense, being a long-time student of the game, Walsh's system was actually a fusion of (1) what he learned while coaching under Paul Brown and (2) what he learned from studying the pass-oriented offense that Sid Gilman implemented during his tenure as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s. That alone is not debatable.
Don Coryell in some people's opinion was STILL the greater offensive mastermind Super Bowl ring or not; the statistics and his impressive coaching tree bear that out. In Coryell's coaching career, he only got 114 wins, 89 losses and 1 tie (Includes Regular Season and Postseason) to his name while leading the Cardinals to 2 division titles and the Chargers to 3 division titles and 4 playoff appearances. And all of those appearances he choked. Coryell’s assistants, like Joe Gibbs, Ernie Zampese, Mike Martz, and John Madden went on to coach Super Bowl Champion teams, coordinate record breaking offenses, and coordinate SB Champion offenses. Gibbs and Madden would not have been the coaches they were without Coryell, and they are in the Hall.
Bill Walsh was the better coach who got the 49ers to 3 Super Bowls in his tenure as coach. And his record wasn't too shabby; a solid 102–63–1 record under his belt, as well as 6 division titles, and three Super Bowls, all with the 49ers. And his coaching tree includes some Super Bowl Champions and great coaches. George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Mike Shannahan, Andy Reid, Brian Billick, Jon Gruden, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, Gary Kubiak, Doug Pederson, they're all on Walsh's coaching tree because they are WINNERS.
Walsh is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for not only the three Super Bowls and and amazing coaching tree, but also for his offensive strategy and making the West Coast Offense more than just nickel and dime football. That's why he's not in the Hall of Fame. Coryell to people who grew up in the San Diego area was a better offensive genius & his explosive vertical offense was more fun to watch than Walsh's “cheap knock off nickel & dime version of Paul Brown's Cincinnati/Midwest Express offense.”
Pump the brakes right there. I don’t think Walsh’s offense was a cheap knockoff of Paul Brown’s offense in Cincinnati. Brown let Bill come up with different plays to better utilize a weak armed quarterback with shorter routes. Walsh’s system was a fusion of what he learned Brown and what he learned from studying the pass-oriented offense that Sid Gilman implemented during his tenure as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s from one of his disciples, Al Davis. What’s real interesting as that, while Gilman’s Chargers were flooding the air with footballs, Coryell was doing the same thing just a few miles away at San Diego State. I like to think that Coryell was influenced by Gilman in much the same Walsh was. Thus, as far as I’m concerned, there are actually two versions of the West Coast Offense -- Walsh’s version being one of them, "Air Coryell" being the other.
But Coryell did not invent the offense we saw in the Air Coryell days in San Diego. Coryell's offense is a copy of his mentor Sid Gillman's offense, which had its roots in Gilman’s “Field Balance Theory.” Coryell did put tweaks on the offensive system by developing the “route tree” and training QB’s to read from deep to shallow during the drop back. He later developed the “timing pattern,” where a QB threw to a spot on the field, instead of to a man. Developing some tweaks to an existing offensive system does not deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. It doesn't cut it. Don Coryell's offense was explosive and exciting to watch, especially with running backs as receivers. The late great Chuck Muncie, James Brooks, Lydell Mitchell, Mike Thomas, Gary Anderson, and Lionel "Little Train" James (who in 1985 had a then NFL single season record of 1,046 yards receiving for a running back on 86 receptions which stood until Marshall Faulk of the 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams caught for 1,048 yards on 87 receptions in Mike Martz's version of Air Coryell to join the 49ers Roger Craig as the only 2 running backs in NFL single season history to both run & receive for 1,000 yards) were all running backs who caught a lot of passes out of the backfield during the heyday of the Air Coryell San Diego Chargers from 1978-86. It's just that the big play vertical passing aspect of the offense with the likes of Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow Sr., and all-pro wide receivers John Jefferson and Wes Chandler usually tends to overshadow the pass receiving contributions of the aforementioned Chargers running backs of that era. If an offense that is exciting to watch was so great, why didn't they win Super Bowls? Simple inefficient, inconsistent, and inept/choke artist like performances from Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and a overmatched defense getting exposed come playoff time having to do more of the heavy lifting than expected due to the unexpected terrible play full of numerous turnovers by the aeformentioned Dan Fouts. But when you look at the four interceptions by Vernon Perry in the 1979 AFC Divisional Round game, the 1980 AFC Championship Game where they got beat by a solid Raiders defense, and the “Freezer Bowl” in the 1981 AFC Championship Game, in which the Bengals only beat Chargers by 20, they beat them by 23 earlier in the season AT San Diego, you can see why this offense doesn't win Super Bowls in San Diego. Not saying Coryell's offense is bad, but the talent is there such as Fouts (Whom Walsh coached him for a year as the Offensive Coordinator for the Chargers before Don Coryell stepped in), Joiner, Jefferson, Chandler, Winslow, and Muncie; but defenses could catch the ball with ease with just the vertical game. Joe Gibbs, in my opinion, proved people wrong when he took Coryell's philosophies to Washington and gave them 3 Super Bowls to his credit.
Walsh on the other hand developed quarterbacks and turned players who couldn't for into any offensive scheme in great players. Joe Montana. Roger Craig. Tom Rathman. Jerry Rice. Dwight Clark. Freddie Solomon. John Taylor. Steve Young. If Coryell's offense was that explosive, Walsh's offense was ball control and movement. Coryell's offense would be like Madden on easy difficulty while Walsh's offense was on hard difficulty. To say that Walsh's offense was and is boring to watch compared to Coryell's is irrelevant. In fact, More of Walsh’s West Coast offense is being played in the league today than Coryell’s offense and there are more of Walsh’s disciples than Coryell’s coaching in the league today.
Good as Walsh was, some often think that -- when it comes to being an offensive strategist and tactician -- Don Coryell has never been equaled. That this is so can be proven by the fact that, defensively, the Chargers gave up more yards in 1981 than any team in NFL history, yet still won their division because of Coryell's offense. If he had merely had a mediocre defense instead of one of the worst ever, his team would easily have beaten the 49ers in Super Bowl 16. If you simply watch the regular season matchup those two teams had the following season (which was a strike-shortened season by the way) you'll see what I mean.
Even with that being said I always believe that the Air Coryell offense is not as superior than Walsh's West Coast Offense, though others might disagree. Don Coryell admitted about 10 years after he retired from coaching in the NFL is that he told both of his owners, the late Bill Bidwill of the then St. Louis (Now Arizona) Cardinals & the late Eugene V. Klein of then San Diego (Now Los Angeles) Chargers that they give him the players and he would coach them up. In fact, Coryell was not helped by his ownership, which let several good players walk and allowed a sustained talent drain from the team he started with replacing that talent. Bidwill, Johnny Sanders, Tank Younger, Klein, and then Alex Spanos did not help or even stay out of the way like the front offices in San Francisco and Washington DC did for Walsh and Gibbs. You can't blame Coryell for the poor decisions of his front office. He did the best he could with what he had. He later said that was his biggest mistake of career by not having a say in personnel decisions especially with two notoriously cheapskate owners like Bidwill and Klein, because as Don put it anyone who knows him knows he in his right mind never signed off on the Cardinals low balling pro-bowl all-purpose running back Terry Metcalf & letting him defect to the Canadian Football League (CFL). Coryell had a complete Chargers team in 1979 and then management low balling Hall of Fame defensive end Fred Dean and trading him to Walsh's 49ers who help win their first 2 Super Bowls in 1981 and 1984; trading all-pro wide receiver John Jefferson to the Green Bay Packers when he was clearly the best wide receiver in the NFL with the Chargers, but was unfortunately relegated to third wheel decoy status in Green Bay behind Packers Hall of Fame deep threat wide receiver James Lofton and pro-bowl tight end Paul Coffman; and letting other talented players walk. Coryell was not given the authority to pay good players enough to keep them happy in San Diego and he was not the one that traded away or did not re-sign a large part of the team’s talent.Walsh however was the general manager of the 49ers and had the final say on personnel and had a great eye for talent in the draft. Montana, Craig, Lott Haley, Rice, they all came through the draft during the Niners dynasty.
To say that Coryell is better than Walsh is asking for it from Niners fans. Coryell is a genius in his own right, but the disappointing playoff games he had is overshadowed. Walsh put up a lot of crap with his offense over the years but I will give credit where credit is due; he put the best players on the field, and has achieved greater rewards. Walsh is in the Hall of Fame, should Don Coryell be in there too? Absolutely, with all the things Don did with his offense as well as the caliber teams he coached is unmistakable in the eyes of Chargers fans.
So who is the better offensive genius, Walsh or Coryell? Answer in the comments below.