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The NFL’s Air Raid Revolution Is Nearly Complete

It’s not just Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray. Nine teams seem set to head into Week 3 with starting QBs from Air Raid backgrounds. How did the long-stigmatized system transform into one of the league’s defining philosophies?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

As the NFL awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, it found that it had transformed into the Air Raid cockroach. It’s a pesky critter, one the league had tried to stomp out for years. But sheer force can’t defeat the bug; it is unusually designed to find open grass and survive. And now, the NFL is peering down from its pillow and seeing six spindly legs flailing skyward.

On the one hand, this evolution was gradual, a yearslong integration of snippets of the philosophy favored by college football’s wildest minds and most efficient offenses. Many plays that are staples of the Air Raid, like mesh and four verts, have been used by pro teams for years. Now that the NFL has widely accepted that passing the ball is more effective than running it, though, those plays are becoming increasingly common.

On the other hand, this all feels jarringly sudden. A year and a half ago, people debated whether Baker Mayfield was worthy of a high draft pick because he came from an Air Raid system at Oklahoma. On Sunday, it’s expected that nine of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks—including the reigning MVP, rookie of the year, and most recent no. 1 draft pick—will be products of Air Raid college systems.

Five starting QBs—15.6 percent of the league’s total—will have been coached by just two men: Mike Leach, the scatterbrained genius who brought the Air Raid and an obsession with pirates to the college football mainstream, and Kliff Kingsbury, who played quarterback for Leach at Texas Tech and later became the head coach of the Red Raiders. (The QB count rises to six if we count Kyler Murray, considering that Kingsbury is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.)

The indoctrination of Air Raid into the NFL is visible in three ways. The first is that the stigma long associated with using top draft picks on Air Raid quarterbacks has vanished. A popular talking point used to be that QBs who played in this system couldn’t cut it in the pros. The Air Raid, by its nature, is supposed to help level the playing field for underdogs; it was created largely to help less talented players at historically inept college programs defeat more talented opponents by introducing a scheme that allowed quarterbacks to make easy throws to wide-open receivers. For a while, NFL decision-makers believed that the gaudy stats put forth by Air Raid college quarterbacks were reflective of those easy throws, not the skill of the players making them. And given that the system produced draft busts like Tim Couch, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel—sorry, Browns fans—this critique seemed fair.

Now, three of the last four no. 1 picks in the draft—the Rams’ Jared Goff, the Browns’ Baker Mayfield, and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray—have come from Air Raid college backgrounds. That doesn’t even include Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ quarterback and 2017 no. 10 pick, who is redefining what’s capable in modern offense. Mahomes, a Texas Tech alum, makes the anti–Air Raid argument look silly. It’s impossible to make a salient case that pro teams should have passed on Mahomes—who throws deeper and more accurate passes while sprinting than the next-best NFL quarterback does at a complete standstill—just because of the scheme he used in college. NFL scouts and executives have finally learned that succeeding in an Air Raid offense is not mutually exclusive with having arm talent. They’ve also come to realize that the Air Raid philosophy has virtues. (“What if giving QBs easy throws that lead to lots of yardage is, in fact, good?” is a question that took NFL folks a surprisingly long time to ask.)

The second way the Air Raid takeover is evident is that an NFL coach is running an Air Raid offense right now. In August 2018, I wrote a post fantasizing about how a coach could adapt a form of the Air Raid for the pros. (Mike Leach liked it!) Then the Cardinals hired Kingsbury, and, well, he’s doing the damn thing. Arizona’s offense is lining up with four receivers on basically every play, which once seemed impossible given the NFL’s roster limits. It seems like Murray has total freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage, which is essential in the Air Raid. The Cardinals aren’t a full-blown Air Raid team—I watched every play from their Week 2 loss to the Ravens, and Arizona ran mesh only once, as opposed to 50 times—but they’re about as close as I ever thought we’d get. The concepts are there, the stylistic traits are there, and the general ethos is unmistakable.

The third way the Air Raid metamorphosis is apparent—and this didn’t become fully clear until last week—is that NFL offenses now borrow so many elements of the system that teams reliably bank on QBs with Air Raid upbringings to fill in should their starting quarterbacks get hurt. In Week 1, Jaguars starter Nick Foles went down with a broken clavicle; in stepped Washington State product Gardner Minshew II, an instant folk hero who went 22 of 25 passing for 275 yards just days into his pro career. In Week 2, Steelers mainstay Ben Roethlisberger departed with an elbow injury; Pittsburgh turned to Oklahoma State product Mason Rudolph, who went 12-of-19 for 112 yards with two touchdowns. And on Monday night, the Jets’ quarterback depth chart got depleted, with Sam Darnold being ruled out with mono and backup Trevor Siemian suffering a gruesome ankle injury; former Washington State QB Luke Falk stepped in and went 20-of-25 for 198 yards. All three quarterbacks will be their respective teams’ starters for the foreseeable future.

It was one thing for people in NFL circles to acknowledge that talented quarterbacks sometimes played for Air Raid college teams. But what’s happened with the Jags, Steelers, and Jets is different. Minshew, Rudolph, and Falk were drafted in the sixth, third, and sixth rounds, respectively. None possesses Mahomes-like arm strength or Murray-esque athleticism. Only Rudolph was drafted with any expectation that he might one day emerge as his organization’s full-time starter.

They became NFL backups because of—not in spite of—the college system in which they played. In 2019, NFL offenses feature enough elements of the Air Raid that coaches are comfortable sending in Air Raid backups when injury strikes, because they know these players can handle a snap from shotgun, scan the field quickly, cycle through their progressions, and make safe, accurate passes. Of course you’d want a quarterback capable of doing the things Air Raid quarterbacks do on every snap—NFL teams do them on virtually every snap too. I wouldn’t be surprised if more pro teams started using late-round picks on QBs like Minshew and Falk, who might be better prepared to step in at a moment’s notice than their peers who played in—and here’s where you’re supposed to laugh—“pro-style” offenses.

The rise of the Air Raid backup is arguably the strongest indicator to date of how thoroughly the approach has seeped into the pro game. The Air Raid is no longer a fringe passion project for college crazies; it is where NFL teams look to find dependable standbys. The sign that the Air Raid has taken over the NFL is not that the most talented practitioners have excelled in the pros. It’s that even the league’s less significant players have a touch of the stuff that was previously considered taboo.