On this day in 1982, the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins squared off in what the New York Times described as “the wildest, highest scoring playoff game in National Football League history.” It is still considered among the best of all time.
The story begins with Coach Don Coryell -the first coach ever to win more than 100 games at both the collegiate and professional level.
After a record of 104-19-2 at San Diego State, Coryell took over as coach of the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. The Cardinals had not won ten games or more or been to the playoffs since 1948. In five years he was 42-27-1 with three consecutive double digit win seasons and two playoff appearances.
In 1978 he moved to San Diego and instituted the famous “Air Coryell” offense, leading the NFL in passing for five consecutive seasons – which is still an NFL record. The Chargers had not been to the playoffs since losing the 1965 AFL Championship Game, but Coryell lead them to four consecutive playoff appearances and two AFC Championship appearances.
In 1980, the Chargers lost the AFC Championship game at home to the Oakland Raiders 34-27. They bounced back with a 10-6 season to win their third consecutive division title, with Dan Fouts setting a then-NFL record with 4,715 yards (breaking his 1980 record).
In addition to future Hall-of-Famer (“FHOFers”) Fouts, the Chargers featured two others FHOFers – receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow, along with running backs Chuck Muncie , who led the NFL with 19 touchdowns, and rookie James Brooks who led the league with 2,093 all-purpose yards.
The Chargers faced the AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins (11-4-1) in the Orange Bowl on sunny, humid Florida day. They jumped out to a 24-0 First Quarter lead, but the Dolphins had cut the lead to 24-17 by halftime. The Dolphins went up 38-31 in the fourth quarter, but Fouts drove the Chargers 82-yards for the tying score.
The Dolphins drove back to the San Diego 26, but on the last play of the game could not covert a field goal attempt as 6-5 Kellen Winslow was able to tip it. In addition to his blocked field goal, Kellen Winslow recorded an NFL playoff record 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, despite suffering numerous injuries. During the contest, he was treated for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a gash in his lower lip that required three stitches.
In overtime, both teams missed field goal attempts, before the game ended as it began – with a field goal by Rolf Benirschke with 1:08 left in overtime.
Afterwards, both coaches said that the game was one of the greatest ever.
A picture of an exhausted Winslow (above) being helped off the field by two teammates has become legendary, as the New York Times noted Winslow “looked more like a boxer at the end of a fight.”
End of an Era
The following season, the Chargers were back in the Orange Bowl needing a win to return to the AFC Championship but lost 34-13. For Air Coryell leaders – Fouts, Winslow, Joiner, and coach Coryell – that would be their final postseason game.
The Dolphins would lose in the Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins, led by second year coach Joe Gibbs who had been the Chargers offensive coordinator until 1980.
In “Missing Rings” NFL Films looked at the 1981 Chargers and asked this question, “how did “Air Coryell,” among the greatest passing offenses in NFL history never win a Super Bowl?
The Chargers finally did make it to the Super Bowl under coach Bobby Ross in 1994,where they were crushed by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers 49-26.
Coryell is credited with
a laundry list of innovations. He was the architect behind the one-back formation, developed the “joker” tight end, pioneered the use of option routes, devised the flood route combination, conceived the numbered route tree/play-call lexicon, and was integral in the advancement of the use of pre-snap motion and running back screens.
Danny Kelly, Don Coryell, the man who created the modern NFL, SB Nation (July 17, 2014).
Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy said
If you talk about impact on the game, training other coaches — John Madden, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs to name a few — and influencing how things are done, Don Coryell is probably right up there with Paul Brown. He was a genius.
Coryell’s coaching tree is legendary:
- Super Bowl coaches:
John Madden, Joe Gibbs
- Super Bowl offensive coordinators:
Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower.
- Second Generation OCs
Zampese has had two former staff members reach the Super Bowl as OCs – Norv Turner (Dallas Cowboys) and Mike Martz (St. Louis Rams).Dan Henning, the OC for the Carolina Panthers 2003 Super Bowl team coached under Joe Gibbs.
Coryell, however, has yet to be elevated to the Hall of Fame to join his coaches and players. He is a semifinalist this year for the 8th time.
Coryell died in 2010.