The ink on Brian Schottenheimer’s contract to join the St. Louis Rams has only begun to dry, yet we’ve already seemingly beaten to death every relevant scenario, good and bad, from this deal. Barely a day into our next offensive philosophy, "Schotty" is sparking shockingly similar approval ratings to Josh McDaniels?
Many fans see another brash, daring up-and-comer with a turbulent coaching past and an ego to boot. In short, comparisons between the two appear to be uncannily similar. However, writing off a coach for just those reasons is a mistake. Remember, if the Rams hadn’t taken chances on coaches with egotistical and hectic backgrounds, they may never have won a Super Bowl. (See: Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz)
To gain perspective on the future of Sam Bradford and Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, we may want to check with a bit of history: the Don Coryell system. I won’t try to convince you that Schottenheimer was right for the job until we at least see his product, or play calling, at work. That being said, I will try to answer two equally pertinent questions about his task ahead. First - what is the Air Coryell offense? Second - why should we trust it?
Air Coryell may sound like, and under the right circumstances appear to be, a Barnum & Bailey Circus act. In actuality, it is one of the most important links in the evolution of football as we know it today. The system was born in 1978, Don Coryell’s first year as head coach in San Diego. In that same year, the NFL enacted the Mel Blount Rule which states "defensive backs can only make contact with receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage." It changed everything.
Under Coryell, the Chargers set the football world ablaze. Dan Fouts became a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and Kellen Winslow transformed the tight end position forever. The offense is built on the popular premise that forces opposition to defend the entire field, or at least try. Much like we saw in the Greatest Show on Turf, it often requires perfect timing and rhythm, putting a lot of added responsibility on every member of the offense. Coryell managed to maintain an edge by combating both press and man coverage with constant motion. He split backs out wide and shuffled receivers along the line of scrimmage to make defenders hesitant; complicating defensive assignments or, at the very least, keeping them on their toes.
There are several ways to back these claims. For instance, you simply cannot jam a wide receiver if he is already running. Also, if you are shuffling around players while the defense is set in man-coverage, players’ assignments are bound to change, possibly leaving someone unaccounted for, or wide open. Finally and most importantly, by judging how the defense reacts to a player in motion, you become fully aware – pre snap – whether they are in zone or man-to-man coverage.
In terms of personnel packages, the Air Coryell offensive scheme is by no means standardized. No two coaches run the offense the same way, but the philosophy remains the same. Under Brian Schottenheimer, the Rams will emphasize a power running game to set up the pass and he will air it out to back you off. He’ll aim for the yin and yang of football – Balance.
There are a few pieces that will need to be added before anyone can try to predict the early features of the Rams Schottenheimer-led Air Coryell. The St. Louis Rams will need wide receivers with size and/or speed on the outside; polished route runners with a knack for making adjustments on the ball. The system basically doesn’t work without talented receivers. With the sidelines covered, that leaves the middle of the field, where danger and fear collide. This is where the quarterback’s safety nets reside - his clutch slot receiver and an able-bodied tight end. Pair these pass catchers with a workhorse like Steven Jackson in the backfield and you’ll get what I believe to be is an early look at the Rams’ new aerial game plan.
Don’t expect to see a reincarnation of "Mad Mike" Martz. Schottenheimer won’t go to similar extremes. He won’t shy away from pounding the ball with a fullback, nor will he abandon the tight end in the passing game. Martz either detested, or misconstrued the effective use of tight ends; never showing any eagerness to throw their way. Nevertheless, the position is one of the key components of the Air Coryell system. Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow and Antonio Gates - who will eventually be in the NFL Hall of Fame - are just two of many TE’s who have excelled in the Coryell, having both played their entire careers in the offense’s birthplace. Also, not even the greatest of Jets fans would call their own Dustin Keller elite, yet he has managed to accumulate over 2,500 yards receiving in just four years in the NFL, all under Schottenheimer.
When people watch the Coryell offense at work, they sometimes make comparisons to the West Coast Offense. The similarities are certainly there; they both highlight the use of play-action and developmental routes. The difference between the two is what those routes seek to accomplish. In a West Coast system, the offense stretches the field horizontally to move the ball vertically through use of short QB drops and lateral routes like slants. In the Air Coryell, the QB’s first look is to attack the field vertically through the seams, or a go-route, either finding an open receiver outrunning his defender or his receiver draws double coverage with the safety, in which case he checks down.
Now, the playbook is nowhere near as predictable as simply "taking the top off the defense," but that is its premise. The number one concern on the minds of Rams fans should be the safety and wellbeing of the face of the franchise - Sam Bradford. The longtime misunderstanding of Air Coryell is that it is a "QB killer." It’s something that Rams fans can easily relate to after years of seeing both Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger flat on their backs. While the evidence is there to support these claims, there truly is an easy solution for that problem, and balance is the key.
The Ram will, finally, implement a two back approach in their offense. This hopefully means two things: the Rams will add a RB in this year’s draft and Steven Jackson’s days of 30+ touches are over. As much as I love Jackson, this is long overdue. He needs help carrying the load, whether or not he’s too proud to admit it. I don’t think either Cadillac Williams or Jerious Norwood will be back next season, so why not start the predecessor search as soon as possible?
It’s ultimately up to you to decide if you buy into what Schottenheimer is selling. I believe the amount of negative criticism and publicity that he is receiving is vastly overstated; although, I won’t pretend that I was not skeptical about the hire. Sometimes all a person needs is a change of scenery, but only time will tell. The next few months will be very telling as to exactly how the Rams offense will be tailored, preferably to fit the talents of the players who are already on the team.