Commentary

Kellen Winslow and 'Air Coryell'

An excerpt from Ron Jaworski's new book, "The Games That Changed the Game"

Updated: September 15, 2010, 3:01 PM ET
By Ron Jaworski | ESPN.com

Don CoryellAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDon Coryell helped design a system that capitalized on Kellen Winslow's size and athleticism.
Editor's Note: The following is the third in a series of excerpts from Ron Jaworski's book, "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays."

The 1979 NFL Draft would drastically reshape the look of the San Diego Chargers' impressive offensive system -- known as "Air Coryell"-- and would permanently change the NFL passing game. San Diego's two veteran tight ends, Bob Klein and Pat Curran, were showing their age, and the team needed new blood at the position. After orchestrating a deal with the Browns, the Chargers were able to move up in the first round and select the University of Missouri's Kellen Winslow.

"I didn't play high school football until my senior year," Winslow recalled. "Up till then, I was kind of a nerd. I was in chess club and had an after-school job with UPS. Once I finally got out on the practice field, I didn't know what I was doing -- I was pretty green. But my chess knowledge actually helped me figure things out. It wasn't till the end of my sophomore year in college at spring practice that I realized I was the 'knight' of a chess board. At that point, the light went on, and football began to make sense to me. There's only so much time and space to get certain things done. You can't be everywhere. The knight is the only chess piece that can move eight spaces in multiple directions. It helped me understand what the wide receivers and backs were supposed to be doing."

During his rookie year in '79, the Chargers used tight ends primarily to shuttle in plays. Their duties were traditional to the position: run blocking and short-to-intermediate routes originating next to either offensive tackle. Winslow caught only twenty-five passes before a leg injury prematurely ended his season. That winter, Head Coach Don Coryell and his staff thought long and hard about better ways to take advantage of Kellen's skills. "The Chargers' offensive line coach back then was a guy named Dave Levy," remembered Al Saunders, who coached for Coryell. "Dave said, 'If you gave me Kellen for a year, I could make him into an All-Pro tackle.' That's how athletic he was. He was a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body.

"You have to understand how tight ends were being used in the early 1980s," Saunders added. "Their primary function was as a blocker, then to move out to the back side as part of the route and run a drag route. Or they'd run hooks inside, or get open in the flat. That was it. They were all big guys, 'tackles' who could catch the football. Plus, outside linebackers could still grab a guy and smack him around trying to defend the run."

[+] EnlargeWinslow
Getty ImagesKellen Winslow was the first tight end to lead the league in receptions in back-to-back seasons ('81 and '82).

It pained offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs to see Winslow's talent being held back by the traditional limits of the position. "When we lined him up at the standard tight end spot and he went to release, he got pounded by the outside linebacker in a 4-3 or the inside linebacker in a 3-4," he recalled. "He had a tough time getting off clean, and we felt we had to do something. So Ernie, Don, our O-line coach, Jim Hanifan, and I said to ourselves, 'Maybe the thing to do is take him off that line of scrimmage and start moving him all over the place.'"

The idea itself wasn't entirely new to Coryell. "I remember at San Diego State when Don, out of nowhere, moved a wide receiver to the tight end position when he thought the guy could get deep in the middle," recalled Tom Bass. "We ended up getting a touchdown on that play. Even then he was thinking this was an alignment that was ripe for exploitation. That got everyone's attention back then."

The experimentation with Winslow began when he was running dummy drills before a 1980 summer camp scrimmage with Dallas. "The Cowboys had a lot of motion, lots of sets," Winslow recalled. "I was working with backup quarterback James Harris on the scout team, and it was hard to mimic what they did before the snap, because a lot of it was impromptu. So they'd hold up a card and say, 'Line up where you want, but end up in this formation.' So we just started playing around with it. Our coaches saw something, and so I ended up in practice running the same routes as the wide receivers. I loved running those routes, the 'skinny post,' the 'deep post'-- and there weren't many guys then at six five, 245 who could run these traditional wideout routes. When you looked at the film, I ran the routes about as well as the wide receivers, although I was usually a step or two behind where they were."

What Coryell and receivers coach Ernie Zampese did with Winslow was to take a player with extraordinary pass-catching ability and create positions in which he could be the primary receiver. "Now you had a guy in the middle of the field who took advantage of personnel matchups or man-on-man matchups," said Saunders. "Back then, either a strong safety or linebacker was going to have to cover him.

Winslow was a big target, but he was also courageous ... He was always better than the defender he was going up against.

--Al Saunders

They didn't play zone defenses then like they do today, giving Winslow much more space to operate. The more Kellen showed what he could do, the more Coryell added to the system. And because of that offense's versatility, everybody could play a part in what was going on. Winslow was a big target, but he was also courageous, catching in a crowd. He was always better than the defender he was going up against."

Turning Winslow into what I call The Roving-Y created a kingsized headache for opposing defensive coordinators, including Denver's Joe Collier, who faced the Chargers twice a year. "During the early years of Air Coryell," he said, "the strong safety wasn't much more than a glorified linebacker; basically a run defender who could cover an average tight end. You put a guy like Winslow out in the slot and he's going up against coverage that's a lot slower than he is. It's not the matchup on defense we liked. So we'd try to give that strong safety some help, like bringing a linebacker out to him or bringing the other safety over to help. Of course, this weakened us in other areas. It forced us to do things we didn't want to do."

San Diego opened the 1980 season on the road with a relatively easy 34-13 win at Seattle. Winslow was barely a factor, catching only two passes for 41 yards. The Chargers were saving him, along with some creative new play calls, for their home opener the following week against the arch-rival Oakland Raiders. "Ernie Zampese was a master at handling top talent," Winslow recalled. "He was quick to compliment and encourage. After I caught only two passes against Seattle, he made a point to say he'd try to get me a lot more in the next game. We were so tied to the team concept that we all knew if you caught two passes one day, you'd get a big increase in another game. Teams would try to take a guy out who did well the week before, so things would open up for someone else."

Rod Rust was the Chiefs' defensive coordinator during the heyday of Air Coryell. As a division foe, he became all too familiar with San Diego's share-the-wealth receiving strategy. "By design, the Chargers went through a rotating 'receiver of the week' scheme," he explained. "What you would see on game film from the previous three weeks was not what you were going to see in your game.

If you went back more than four weeks, then you might be able to see what they were more likely to run. They used so many formation variations, moving people around, and there are only so many hours in the week for film study." During the '80 draft, the Raiders selected a big and physical Penn State linebacker named Matt Millen in the second round. The week two matchup with the Chargers was only Millen's second professional game, and what he saw that afternoon was the first glimpse of an offensive approach that would profoundly affect pro football strategy.

"That day, they ran a bunch of stuff we hadn't seen, hadn't practiced against," Millen confessed. "Today all this stuff is commonplace, but not then. The Chargers' coaching staff was fortunate to have Winslow, and he was fortunate to have those coaches. Had it not been in San Diego, it would eventually have been done someplace else, because it was time. This was the right place at the right time for both."

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From the book, "THE GAMES THAT CHANGED THE GAME: THE EVOLUTION OF THE NFL IN SEVEN SUNDAYS" by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ron Jaworski. Reprinted by arrangement with ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ron Jaworski

NFL analyst / writer
Ron Jaworski is one of the most popular and knowledgeable analysts covering the NFL today. Since joining ESPN in 1990, the former standout NFL quarterback has covered the league from virtually every angle -- sideline reporter, game-site reporter, host and both studio and game analyst. From 2007-11, Jaworski occupied one of the most coveted positions in sports as a Monday Night Football analyst.