It’s often said that college football and the NFL are two completely different sports. But many concepts that long thrived on campus have recently taken hold in the league. We’re spending today examining the intersection of both levels of the game, and how certain schemes and tendencies are shaping the future of the modern pro offense.
2017 was the year the Air Raid quarterback succeeded in the NFL.
For years, we’ve been told that quarterbacks who played their college ball in the game’s most explosive offense couldn’t cut it in the pros. Tim Couch, the Kentucky product who was taken no. 1 overall in the 1999 draft, went on to have a dismal career; Brandon Weeden, the Oklahoma State star who was a 2012 first-round pick, quickly proved he was better suited to be a backup than a starter; Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner who became a 2014 first-rounder, failed out of the league within two years. (It’s possible that the common link here was the Cleveland Browns.)
But last year bucked the trend. Jared Goff, the Cal product who once piloted the Bear Raid offense under head coach Sonny Dykes, led the Rams to the playoffs while ranking fifth in the NFL in passer rating and second in adjusted yards per attempt. Case Keenum, whose co-offensive coordinator at Houston was Kliff Kingsbury, lifted the Vikings to the NFC championship game and ranked second in QBR. And Nick Foles, whose coordinators at Arizona were Dykes, Bill Bedenbaugh, and Seth Littrell, was named Super Bowl MVP with the Eagles. The common link? Dykes, Kingsbury, Bedenbaugh, and Littrell all had worked with or had been coached by current Washington State head coach Mike Leach, the Air Raid whisperer.
Still, some NFL minds worry that Air Raid passers can’t thrive in the NFL. The Air Raid, they contend, lacks the complexity required of a professional offense. The reads that Air Raid quarterbacks have to make are too simple; the throws to receivers are too wide open. When these QBs get to the league, the thinking goes, they won’t be able to adequately decipher opposing defenses or hit the throws they’ll need to make.
This was the case against selecting Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield first overall in the 2018 NFL draft. The Air Raid stigma affects nonquarterbacks, too; when Cleveland traded 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman to Buffalo last week, some argued it was because Coleman’s experience playing in an Air Raid offense at Baylor had left him ill prepared to play wide receiver in the NFL. (Coleman also played for the Browns. I’m sensing a trend here. Mayfield might be doomed.)
When it comes to the Air Raid, I believe those in the NFL are asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be trying to figure out whether players like Mayfield can make every tough throw. We should be wondering why NFL coaches are so steadfast in forcing quarterbacks to make tough throws in the first place. Why do teams keep looking for great quarterbacks, instead of running the system that consistently makes bad quarterbacks look great?
The Air Raid is less of a football strategy and more of a religion on painted grass. Some see its followers as heathens, but Air Raid adherents believe that faith in this system unlocks the true meaning of football. They spread the gospel through missionary trips to opposing end zones.
Like many religions, Air Raidism is strictly against violence. Whereas other football strategies emphasize physical confrontation, asking ball carriers to power through defenders who stand in their path, the Air Raid teaches its disciples to find solitude in the unoccupied parts of the field.
Take the Air Raid’s signature play, Four Verticals. It sounds like an 8-year-old’s preferred play call, the real-life version of Da Bomb from NFL Blitz, but it does more than just stretch defenses deep. Four Verts also exploits the field horizontally, by having four receivers run evenly spaced routes across the gridiron. Not every pass is a deep shot; in fact, many Four Verts plays end with midrange attempts to receivers whose defender is trying to prevent a deep heave. As Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown explains, the idea isn’t “just run into the end zone.” It’s “stay in your vertical lane, but get open.”
Four Verts is really a math problem: The defense doesn’t have enough men to put multiple players in each of those four lanes. No matter what coverage the defense uses, it has to make a choice about which receiver to leave in single coverage. And Air Raidism stresses that a receiver left in single coverage is not actually being covered at all.
Or take the Air Raid’s other signature concept, Mesh. This play design features two receivers crossing the middle of the field so close to each other that some teams teach their wideouts to high-five while running the routes. It’s impossible for linebackers to cover both players as they cross. And if a defense devotes additional resources to stopping them, that would leave other receivers in single coverage. We already know what happens to Air Raid receivers in single coverage: They get open.
The Air Raid has grown more complex over the years, but its tenets remain relatively simple. Those who coach it believe that you could run Four Verts or Mesh for an entire drive—or quarter, or half, or game—by just rolling down the field and reacting to the choices a defense makes. (What’s more religious than a group gathering once a week to recite the same plays?) The variety inherent to the system doesn’t come from the play calls, but from the adjustments an offense makes once it sees how a defense lines up. The best Air Raid offenses have practiced these plays so thoroughly that they make adjustments instinctually, forever moving toward unguarded space.
Leach is the Air Raid messiah. Like many religious figures, he is eccentric and misunderstood in his own time. He is given to lengthy and confusing parables, and occasionally seems to be communing with a higher power during the middle of games:
Go for two, or whatever... pic.twitter.com/rnKRnOTnyf— WSUFootballBlog (@WazzuFBBlog) October 11, 2015
While Leach didn’t invent the Air Raid (that would be Hal Mumme, who hired Leach at Iowa Wesleyan), he’s had more success with it than anyone else. And his coaching tree has taken root across college football: Four of his former players are now FBS head coaches (Riley at Oklahoma, Kingsbury at Texas Tech, Josh Heupel at UCF, and Neal Brown at Troy), as are four of his former assistants (Riley, Dykes at SMU, Littrell at North Texas, and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia).
In 2005, Michael Lewis wrote a profile of Leach, then at Texas Tech, for The New York Times Magazine. The story introduced the world to much of Leach lore: It detailed how he is obsessed with pirates and sometimes gave his players three-hour lectures on topics unrelated to football; how Leach devoted a day to Rollerblading down the main street in Lubbock, Texas, as fast as he could; how Leach once forgot that he was supposed to celebrate a win and instead spent a few minutes contemplating a nearby grasshopper. Just a few years removed from chronicling baseball’s analytics revolution in Moneyball, Lewis portrayed Leach as a football Billy Beane. Like Beane, Leach was a quirky outsider tasked with beating opponents who had more money and resources. And like Beane, he used a system some saw as ridiculous to achieve success. Beane found a way to identify undervalued talent; Leach used strategies that generated wins with replaceable talent. Lewis seemed to hint that sooner or later, NFL teams would come for Leach and his Air Raid disciples.
In 2018, Major League Baseball runs on Moneyball. Every team has its own analytics department, and even casual fans know what OPS is. Mainstream baseball has gone from viewing Beane’s strategy as foolish to realizing it’s the smartest way to assemble a roster. But no NFL franchise has come for Leach. In fact, by going to Pullman, Washington, Leach has moved to a place that’s somehow even more off the radar than Lubbock. Mainstream football views Leach not as a prophet, but as a heretic.
Air Raid skeptics offer two common refrains as to why the system will always fail in the NFL.
The first is that NFL defenders are simply better than college defenders. They’re faster, stronger, and better at reacting quickly. This isn’t amateur hour. Pro defensive backs will not let receivers get so open; pro defensive linemen will smash through porous Air Raid offensive fronts.
The second is the difference between the college and NFL fields. Although both are the same width, stretching 160 feet from sideline to sideline, the hash marks on college fields are spread much farther apart, with 40 feet between them instead of 18 feet and 6 inches. Functionally, this means that the ball can be spotted all the way to one side of the field in college. Air Raid offenses love to take advantage of open space, and there’s less of it when the ball is snapped from a more central location.
Yet while many people in NFL circles deride the Air Raid, the best teams in the sport have come to embrace its core concepts. Here is a compilation of NFL teams running Four Verts:
The NFL Copy-Cat Play Of the Year...— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 6, 2018
We’ve (@jco3215 @fduffy3 ) been tracking the usage of this play (seen it many times in NCAA over past few years too)
Anyone have a name for the concept? pic.twitter.com/aG0dSL3h4Z
And in case you think Four Verts works only in the college football hinterlands, Alabama ran it to win the national title last year:
Oh, and here are the Eagles whupping the Patriots in Super Bowl LII by running Mesh:
Philadelphia went 4-of-4 passing for 81 yards on plays using Mesh concepts in last season’s Super Bowl. The NFL’s snootiest proponents can insist that the Air Raid is too simple to succeed at the highest levels of the sport, but time and again, offenses have proved otherwise. Air Raid principles work just as well in the pros as they do anywhere else.
Now, none of the teams mentioned above employ the Air Raid full time. They just borrow a handful of Air Raid plays, mixing them in among more traditional offensive tactics. Perhaps this opens up the success of Air Raid plays. But maybe these plays would work even better if, like many college programs, NFL teams dedicated themselves to complete Air Raid mastery.
The Air Raid’s biggest problem is not strategy, but perception. It’s seen as good for winning 59-54 shootouts against West Poopsville State, but little more than that. It’s seen as a way for teams with bad defenses to score lots of points against other teams with bad defenses.
After all, no full-on Air Raid team has won a college football national championship. Leach has had impressive tenures given the historical standards of coaches at Texas Tech and Washington State, but he hasn’t captured a conference title at either stop. Oklahoma’s run to last season’s College Football Playoff was a landmark achievement for an Air Raid team, but the Sooners still made the offense look gimmicky in a 54-48 Rose Bowl semifinal loss to Georgia. Falling short in a shootout—how predictable.
But the main reason Air Raid college teams tend to have bad defenses has nothing to do with those teams’ respective offenses. (Imagine someone arguing that an NFL team couldn’t have a good running game if it ran a base Cover-2 defense. That wouldn’t make sense, because those two things aren’t related.) Air Raid college teams tend to have bad defenses because when an NCAA program hires an Air Raid head coach, it is immediately presumed that program no longer cares about defense. And at the college level, those presumptions matter greatly.
To have a good defense, a college program needs to recruit great defensive players and coaches. Prized defensive recruits dream of one day making the NFL, so they generally commit to coaches who have track records of getting defensive players to the NFL instead of coaches who have track records of putting up 57 points per game. And great defensive assistants are often reluctant to work for Air Raid head coaches, too; if a college roster lacks high-end defensive talent, it could give up a ton of points, putting the long-term reputations of those assistants at risk.
These problems would be mitigated in the NFL. Recruiting doesn’t factor in as much, as franchises have assigned draft picks depending on their record. And front offices can offer hefty contracts to defensive stars in free agency, since players are allowed to accept money as compensation for their labor.
When Lewis portrayed the Air Raid as football’s version of Moneyball, he did so by showing how a team could succeed offensively even with a lightly recruited quarterback, receivers whose primary skill was running fast, and undersized linemen. Imagine an NFL team following that blueprint and ensuring offensive competence despite having lower-tier talent. That team could then use all of its draft and free-agency capital on the best defensive players available. There’s no doubt that an NFL team running the Air Raid would score fewer points than college Air Raid teams do. The defenses are better, the clocks don’t stop after first downs, and the spacing of the hash marks would make life more difficult. But NFL teams don’t have to win by scores like 59-54. They just have to score more points than the opposition.
I doubt an NFL team will ever fully adopt the Air Raid. The league is famously risk-averse, and converting to this system would be undeniably risky. But maybe the Air Raid isn’t just possible in the NFL—maybe, given how rosters are constructed, the offense is an ideal fit for the league.