Last week, Mike Randall wrote an excellent piece on the Air Coryell offensive system. He then requested some all-22 visuals to supplement the piece, so I’m going to break down a few of the staples plays from Don Coryell’s famous vertical passing attack.
Mike also wrote a great piece on the Erhardt-Perkins system, so look for an all-22 supplement to that in the near future, as well.
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The Route Tree
Air Coryell is based on a numbered route tree. You’ve definitely encountered this numbering system in the past, if only when you’ve heard someone refer to a “9 route” in passing. And if you played high school football, you’ve almost certainly seen this numbering system. It varies slightly from team to team, but in general, odd numbered routes break outside and even numbered routes break inside.
Every play in the original Coryell system was named according to the routes the receivers ran. As Mike alluded to in his piece, this is part of the reason play names became so long. But it also has its benefits. The system has stuck around because it’s highly “visual,” meaning a basic play call like 989 is easy to visualize… a go route from each outside receiver and a post from the slot receiver or tight end.
Here are a few of the concepts that have been successful for all Air Coryell teams over the years.
The Y 20 is more recognizable today as a West Coast offense play called a drag or drive route. But it originated with the Air Coryell system. Don Coryell explained the Y 20 this way: “release inside and sprint across field aiming for 7 YD depth on the other side of the formation.”
Seems pretty simple, but it became the backbone of a number of plays that are still used today.
Here you see Ed Dickson running what is essentially the Y 20. In this image, it’s drawn slightly more square than a true drag route, but the idea is the same. It’s a quick-hitting underneath route run across the formation by a tight end or slot receiver.
Teams built on the Y 20 and created concepts like the one above, hi lo crossers. It creates natural rubs and picks in the middle of the field, disrupting man coverage and hopefully creating an easy completion for 5-10 yards.
This is the play that made Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin famous in Dallas. Teams are still using it today, because it’s highly effective against soft zone coverages.
Below, you see a play from the Ravens’ preseason game against Carolina (c/o Dan Bryden). Marlon Brown is running the 8 route from the slot while the X receiver at the top of the image is running a 9 route.
In this particular play, the defense is in Cover 2-man, but the concept is still effective. Both routes are attacking the same deep-half safety, which forces him to choose a receiver. The assignment is extremely tough if both receivers have a step on their man, or if the defense is in a traditional Cover 2.
525 Post Swing
525 Post Swing is one of the most recognizable Air Coryell plays out there. Both outside receivers run 15-yard comeback routes while the tight ends run the Y 20. Traditionally, the post route is run by a back (in which case it would be called 525 F Post or F Post Swing). In the image below, the post is being run by the slot receiver. Finally, the back runs a swing route (drawn like a flat route in this image).
The comeback routes carry the corners deep while the Y 20 carries the linebackers in the shallow middle of the field. The post is essentially an option route where the F receiver (or, in this image, the slot receiver) finds a hole in the coverage.
525 F Post Swing was so successful that it became the most-called play in Air Coryell history.