Long live the Air Raid! The Air Raid is Dead?

The Air Raid offense — the pass-first attack developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach from the old BYU offense — is seemingly everywhere. In the last couple of weeks, Cal hired former Leach and Mumme assistant Sonny Dykes as well as his offensive coordinator, the mercurial Tony Franklin; Southern Miss hired Oklahoma State’s nouveau guru Todd Monken, after he impressively orchestrated the Cowboys attack over the last two seasons, both with a future first round quarterback and while rotating three different quarterbacks; Mark Stoops is bringing prodigal son Neal Brown back to Kentucky to run the Wildcats’ offense; and Kliff Kingsbury, fresh off his tutelage of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, returns to his old stomping grounds at Texas Tech to become one of the youngest head coaches in college football history. These new hires, together with existing Air Raid programs, brings my count to ten different college football teams that will all be using some variant of the Air Raid in the fall of 2013.

“OK, loser has to chug a six pack of Red Bull.” “No, the winner does that.”

And when you throw in teams that I consider part of the extended Air Raid family, like Oklahoma, UCLA, and Indiana — offenses heavily Air Raid influenced even if they don’t quite fit the definition — you have thirteen different schools whose offenses are direct descendants of the ideas Mumme and Leach developed at places like Copperas Cove high school, Iowa Wesleyan, and Valdosta State. And last season, nine of the top twenty offenses in the country were among this group — and we’ve only added more Air Raid schools to the mix. As someone who has had his hand in this offense in one way or another for roughly fifteen years, the feeling is not quite vindication; it’s more like contentedness: yes, this is where it all was undoubtedly headed all along, the questions were only how and when.

But there’s another element, maybe less of a feeling so much as it is a realization: This may be as good as it gets. The larger trends are going to continue independent of this offense, contra the wishes of Nick Saban (and, admittedly, maybe every defensive coach in the country): for the foreseeable future at least, the game will continue to get faster and more wide open at basically every level, and athletic directors will continue to hire hotshot offensive coaches who promise yards and points to draw crowds and eyeballs for TV, something increasingly important as schools crane their necks to be noticed in an era of conference realignment. This factors are not unique to the Air Raid, and other attacks, primarily Chip Kelly’s at Oregon, are arguably more famous.

Yet this recent spate of hiring of Air Raid aficionados seems to me to represent a different realization: not only can these guys put up big numbers, but they can replicate it elsewhere. When Steve Spurrier left Florida for the NFL, he didn’t leave a fixed system in place that others could easily pick up and translate. Indeed, even Spurrier had difficulty translating his system from the wider culture, tradition, and environment that he had at Florida. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as that’s how most institutions operate. Whether it’s successful businesses, schools, departments, etc., the answer is often the same: the success is difficult to replicate because you can almost never identify the essential elements in the overall gestalt of one place’s success. The one guy who offered his services on the promise that he could bring Spurrier’s offense somewhere else was Buddy Teevens, the assistant offensive coordinator at Florida at the time Spurrier left. Stanford hired Teevens and he promised big results; in three seasons, he went 10-23.

The Air Raid, by contrast, was always designed to be picked up and installed elsewhere. Mumme and Leach brought it to several schools before they wound up at Kentucky; Leach was hired to install it verbatim at Oklahoma, and he left after one season to go to Texas Tech; and, of course, Tony Franklin has taken it the next step by systematizing “The System” into something that can be bought and then installed anywhere, for any high school or college that wants it. But this wasn’t entirely about moving from school to school. It also was an acknowledgment that in college football, every year brings a different team, so you might as well start over. One of the difficulties with prior passing systems — the west coast offense most prominently comes to mind — is that they took years to master, and for a team to have a great season they needed the right confluence of talented but also veteran players, primarily at quarterback. Now a redshirt freshman playing in the country’s toughest division for a team in its first year in the system can win the Heisman trophy and lead his team to ten wins. This is what athletic directors hope they are hiring, and what the Air Raid now promises.

What gives me pause, however, is that the offense was also always designed to be different, and it’s difficult to be different when two-thirds of your conference, in the case of the Big 12, runs the same offense, or when prominent teams all over the country all use the same attack. Ask any high school coach and they will tell you that being “contrarian” is largely a function of what their district looks like: if everyone in the district is pro-style, then the wing-T is pretty different; but there are districts where teams are predominantly wing-T, or flexbone, or Air Raid, or Oregon spread, or whatever. The Air Raid as a system is well organized, well defined, and well practiced enough to succeed even if the other team knows all about it; but it can’t be doubted that something is lost when your opponent has faced a version of your offense on six of the prior seven Saturdays.

So enjoy this moment when weirdness became normal, and it seemed that suddenly everyone realized that what these guys were doing was both just a little easier on the kids to learn and practice and just a little bit ahead of the curve for defenses to prepare for. Because to say both of those things is to indicate why neither status can last: you can’t fight the establishment when you are the establishment. The schools who’ve hired these guys are hoping it’s the beginning of the Air Raid era, but in doing so they’ve guaranteed it’s the end of the Air Raid as the quirky, outsider attack it has been until now.

It may even be time to inter the very term “Air Raid,” as while all of these excellent coaches are from the same intellectual family, it’s inevitable that the offense will splinter apart and evolve in new directions. But if that’s the case then they can’t all be Air Raiders, and the term should instead be reserved for the offense as it coalesced over these last few decades rather than vapidly used to describe increasingly different attacks. Even if it’s not the old Air Raid, I’m confident it will remain true to the underlying principles: simplicity, fundamental football, and a whiff of contrarianism, whatever that happens to be. And, of course, points. Lots of points.

  • Will Barrett

    If you want to include the Erickson/JLS connection, you’ll expand even further with the work of Jim McElwain at Colorado State and Doug Nussmeier at Alabama, though admittedly those are different branches of the one-back tree.

  • It is interesting that this many people are being hired to run it. I believe that a lot of these new guys will change and adapt the Air Raid and that it’ll grow, but the originators of the offense, guys like Mike Leach, Hal Mumme, maybe Tony Franklin, will all keep it at its roots.

  • IrishBarrister

    I think the Air Raid’s proliferation may become its downfall for reasons that you have already hit on.

    From a defensive perspective, the primary reason the Air Raid is so difficult to prepare for is that so few teams run it (or some version of it). You may be a 3-4 stack-the-box-with-a-creeping-safety defense ten weeks out of the year, but when you face that one Air Raid team on your schedule, that all changes. That kind of defense will get killed by the Air Raid, so you have to change your scheme (3-3 stack would be a logical choice). The problem, however, is that defensive execution is so dependent on individual players developing pattern recognition as part of their assignments, and thus these overnight changes are rarely effective. You may have the right scheme in, but without all of the practice that goes with it, teams often find themselves becoming another victim of the Air Raid.

    But when you get to face the Air Raid several times a year, or even the opportunity to play that same Air Raid team year after year, that all changes – particularly if you have a guy on your coaching staff that understands the Air Raid from the offensive perspective (e.g., wide receiver coach) to help your scout team give you a good look. Now, not only can you develop the right scheme for the job, but your players have practiced it and can really go out and execute it proficiently. The Air Raid’s simplicity, one of its primary strengths, also makes it easier to prepare for: when there is only two to three dozen plays, its a lot easier for pattern recognition to kick in and know when to jump the route, for example.

    I think you can analogize it to the spread offense and how its proliferation helped defenses steadily adapt to it. And that adaptation lead to offenses integrating spread offense concepts into their game plan without adopting the spread offense as a whole (I think that makes offenses a lot scarier – nothing quite like seeing a normally ground-and-pound team suddenly go to shotgun and zone read on 2-and-7; its enough to give a man heart palpitations). I see the same integration of more and more Air Raid concepts into offenses, which in turn will require greater defensive adaptations (and a lot sleepless nights for defensive coordinators).

    Just my 2 cents.

  • salt_bagel

    Regarding the whole cycle of new-thing-becomes-old-thing-becomes-new-thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if more offenses don’t start working in more multi-TE power running sets, ala the Harbaugh/Stanford offense. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more deep analysis of Stanford in this space.

    It seems to me that the success of those offenses isn’t just a matter of size and strength/personnel matchups, but also the fact that defenders have gotten so used to zone plays that they get caught unawares when a team comes at them with all sorts of blockers coming from weird angles.

  • Jerome Bell

    I agree that the system becomes redundant and that defenses may adapt to it if it faces that system more often. However its one thing that 3 teams that you might face may look the same, but that 4 team with elite 4 and 5 star players running it and executing at a high level is another. Its the “Jimmy’s and the Joes” that will make the difference at that point.

  • Bear Raid 2013!


  • DaRealMG

    The biggest difference between Spurrier and Teevens is Spurrier’s ability as a play caller. That can’t be replicated in a play book

  • zpitman135

    Hey Chris, I am a student at the University of Kentucky, and in light of the hiring of Neal Brown I have decided to write a paper in my history 301 class on the development of the air raid offense. Your articles are the best that is out there on the subject, I would love to get in contact with you sometime and pick your brain or see what kind of sources you have. Keep churning out this great stuff! Big Blue Nation will eat it up next year.