The personal story of the rise and development of the Air Raid offense, the story of the men who developed and mastered it — its originators, Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, as well as coaches like Tony Franklin and Dana Holgorsen – has been told many times and told very well. The offense itself, however — its raw structure, plays, and formations — nevertheless deserves deeper study given its incredible rise, its increasing importance, and and its almost shocking omnipresence, in one form or another, at every level of football.
But the Air Raid’s evolution over time has been even more fascinating than the playbook at any one moment. To paraphrase Holmes, a playbook is but a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it cannot express the pressures and influences leading to its existing or give any indication as how it will continue to be shaped and reshaped over time. Indeed, the coaches who’ve taught and learned the Air Raid have changed, the players and formations have changed, and even the plays themselves have changed. The offense, however, remains, both shaped by these coaches and their players and somehow shaping each of them in the process. The wishbone and the Wing-T were playbooks, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense a meticulous method of gameplanning, but the Air Raid is something more akin to an idea, or at least several related ones: that to get an advantage in modern football you need to be particularly good at something, and to be good at something you have to commit to that something, and if you’re going to commit to something it might as well be different. And thus the principles underlying the Air Raid exist externally from the many coaches who have taught it: a diligent, many-reps approach to practice; a pass-first and spread the wealth philosophy; and, above all else, a willingness to live in the extremes, to do things just a bit differently, to be willing, in a game where conformity is king, to be just a little bit weird.
This article is therefore less about the blood and tissue of the Air Raid’s story — the personal stories of the men like Mumme and Leach who shaped the offense, though there is some of that too — but is instead about its bones: the history and evolution of the actual formations, plays, concepts, and gameplans that made up what you saw on some random Saturday a decade ago and make up what you will see on Saturdays this fall. This story is too complex of course for a single article, but we can still distill the broad themes and focus on four main storylines: the classical period, including the birth of the Air Raid from its BYU roots and the original two-back package used at Valdosta State and Kentucky; Leach’s Texas Tech era, where the head pirate-in-charge tweaked the offense and as a result the Air Raid found a home in the southwest and flourished like it never had before; the offense’s bubbling up from the high school ranks, led by former outcast Tony Franklin and his Tony Franklin System; and the next generation of Air Raid innovators, led by Dana Holgorsen and others, who have begun the work of deconstructing the offense for a modern and ever-changing game.
The Classical Period: Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, and Kentucky
When LaVell Edwards, head coach at BYU, decided that he wanted to throw the ball around, he and his offensive coordinator Doug Scovil looked to the NFL for inspiration. Scovil brought with him to BYU the core pass plays he’d learned there, which in fact were Sid Gillman’s core pass plays: vertical stretches, horizontal stretches, and man beating routes. These plays were almost not even plays at all, but concepts that serve as the building blocks of every passing offense. Gillman, decades earlier, had the simple insight that if one properly allocated receivers across the field at varying depths with space between them, no zone defense could cover them.
Although the offense only has five potential receivers while the defense can drop seven, eight, or even nine men into coverage, if the offense can always threaten both vertically and underneath, the field is simply too large for a zone defense to cover a well orchestrated passing attack. And if zone defenses could not stop such passing, then passing concepts could be constructed to also defeat the inevitable man coverage they’d face through the route choices that placed those receivers around the field. Defenses, in turn, would have to find ways to bring pressure to disrupt this design, and thus the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense would continue on that basis. Gillman revolutionized offense, but Scovil and Edwards streamlined it so that college kids — and not professionals — could excel with Gillman’s pro-style concepts. The story of the Air Raid over the last twenty years is simply this story retold over and over again.
Mumme, Leach, and company famously made many pilgrimages to BYU during this time, including back when Mumme was still at Copperas Cove as a high school coach. There they studied everything about BYU’s system and essentially stole it verbatim, except they eventually began adding their own wrinkles based on their experiences: they began using more and more shotgun, more spread sets, ceased flipping their formations, and generally tailored the offense to what their players — high school and small college athletes — could do.
The idea behind the “original” Air Raid package was very simple; indeed, originally, it was just the Hal Mumme and Mike Leach translation of the old BYU playbook. (I’ve included the old BYU passing game playbook at the bottom of this article as an appendix.) Mumme and Leach added a bit more shotgun and threw the ball more often than even LaVell Edwards had. Over time, too, they began tweaking the plays — changing this route here, altering this there — and, most importantly, tailoring the schemes not to an NFL quarterback, or even the great college quarterbacks BYU had like Steve Young, Jim McMahon, or Ty Detmer, but instead average high school and small college quarterbacks like Dustin Dewald at Iowa Wesleyan and Chris Hatcher and Lance Funderburk at Valdosta State.