WHAT IS THE AIR RAID OFFENSE?
The complete history of the Air Raid offense has been recounted numerous times, I'll leave the details to those texts (links at the bottom), but our main questions today are:
- What exactly is the Air Raid offense?
- Is it a specific playbook?
- Is any pass heavy play style an Air Raid?
- Is it a football philosophy?
- Can a Air Raid team be a run first team?
- Where is the line between the Air Raid and other offenses?
- What varies coach to coach?
- Are there different types of Air Raid offenses?
AIR RAID AS A PLAYBOOK
From a certain perspective, the core Air Raid plays show up in virtually every Air Raid program there is, while certainly not every play is used by every team, the majority of the plays run are mostly the same for all Air Raid teams. How they run them and minor tweaks to them vary coach to coach, with every coach having their own unique twist on the plays. So why these specific plays?
In the 1980s, no college passed more often and more efficiently than BYU. Under Lavell Edwards they produced numerous high pick NFL QBs including Steve Young, Jim McMahon, and Ty Detmer. Coach Hal Mumme and his offensive coordinator Mike Leach visited BYU in the off-season and were given permission to watch their game film from the past few years. Over several weeks they detailed all of BYUs most effective formations and plays and built their prototype air raid playbook.
From these early analytics and doodles of play designs gleaned from grainy betamax tapes they put together their new offense. Through trial and error they tweaked the plays and called all the plays simply by a number system. They found that their 2 minute offence worked better than their standard offense. So they moved to a no huddle / up tempo offense all the time. They found the QB on the field had a better vantage point than they did on the sideline, so they came up with ways for the QB to hot route or audible as they see fit. They found the QB turning his back to the defense in a standard under center drop back was problematic, so they were early adopters of using the Shotgun alignment full-time.
At this time the offense was 5 formations:
- Blue/Green which were Gun Split-Backs with a slot/TE on the left (bLue) or right (gReen).
- Ace which had the receiving back in the slot opposite the slot/TE with a running FB in the backfield.
- Early & Late were trips formations with trips to the left (Late) and trips to the right (eaRly). This is how the offence ran for most of the 1990s, culminating in Tim Couchs big years at Kentucky.
In 1999 Leach was hired as Bob Stoops first Offensive Coordinator at Oklahoma. After a big first year, Texas Tech hired him away. At this point Leach embraced the spread before it was fashionable and went 4 wide full time, virtually eliminating the Blue & Green formations, Leach deleted redundant plays, he locked Y (right slot) and X (left outside wideout) on the line of scrimmage and never motioned them. H (left slot in ace) would motion right for Early, and Z (Right wide out in ace) would motion left for Late. He got the idea from the Indianapolis Colts who at the time always had Marvin Harrison on one side of the field to make the wide out's route memorization easier.
At Texas Tech the Air Raid was refined into a spread passing attack that didn't care about time of possession, but solely on scoring as many points as possible by executing a limited number of highly effective passing concepts and simplifying everyone's job. The offense under Leach shook college football. Texas Tech, who had nobody recruits, overnight the Air Raid made them into studs. The first to benefit were Kliff Kingsbury and Wes Welker. But then would come BJ Symons, Danny Amendola, Michael Crabtree, Graham Harrell, but what was more important was the coaching staff, who would boast multiple future NCAA head coaches and offensive coordinators.
From a certain point of view all of the coaches that came from the 2000s Red Raiders, except Art Briles, run 90% the same plays as Texas Tech did then, which was just a more refined and focused version of the 80s BYU offence… right? Not so fast. You know who also came out of BYU in the 80s, a small offensive lineman who loved offensive football named Andrew Reid, who'd go on to be Brett Favre's QB coach in Green Bay a few years later then wind up a NFL Head Coach. Andy's offenses are in no way the same as the Air Raid (though in 2018 they borrowed heavily from the air raid as things came somewhat full circle).
Those old 80s BYU teams were good passing teams but they weren't Air Raid...they were organized and drilled like the Don Coryell teams. Lavell Edwards had taken Don's offence as a starting point for his offense and built out from there. That old BYU offence was far more conventional in approach. They ran power, trap, play action bootleg, counter, with big wordy playcalls. Mike Leach at Texas Tech only ran a draw play and a zone rushing play and had short play calls like "Early 92". Playcalls got simpler when he made Ace the default formation. So unless you heard a formation name you assumed it was Ace, so now a playcalling could be something as simple as "6".
BYU had big clunky playbooks while the Air Raid from the early days decided that if their players can't remember the plays then they are over thinking on the football field so they did away with paper playbooks entirely and almost never used them.
When Kliff Kingsbury prints his first Cardinals playbook this offseason it will be the first one printed since 1999 at the college or pro level. So BYU isn't air raid… and it isn't just the playbook that makes an offense an air raid offense.
AIR RAID AS A PHILOSOPHY
Some of the more interesting aspects of the Air Raid is how it takes a different look at how to play traditional offense.
Conventional football wisdom says to keep the offense balanced you should run it about as often as you pass it. Which has led to teams like the Rex Ryan Jets feeling they needed 25 carries a game and 25 pass attempts a game to maintain balance. Building off this approach leads to I formation, 2 tight end formations, etc that open holes for the running back. Mike Leach thinks that's f#©king stupid.
To Leach, the rules of football state that there are 5 down linemen who aren't eligible receivers, plus the QB as the ball distributor, leaving 5 players every down the defense must account for as rushing or receiving threats. Balance is achieved when you make each of these 5 playmaker positions weapons that can attack your defense different ways. That may be a wr on a drag, a screen, or a jet sweep… or a back running up the gut. He figures no defence can cover 5 playmakers for more than 3 seconds, especially not when you have the most efficient pass concepts that your team executes flawlessly due to repetition.
When the ball is snapped is the QB's decision, meaning the tempo of the 5 playmaker attack is at the QBs discretion. Motions, shifts, and audibles keep the defense guessing what's next and when it's coming and the offense can terrorize the opponents defense. At it's finest, this is what the Air Raid does. This is why the big 12 has a reputation for poor defence.
“When we say ‘tempo offense’ we’re trying to get the ball snapped as many times as we can in a game." -Kliff Kingsbury
Another unique approach is the Air Raid is usually installed over 3 days. The whole non-written playbook is taught in 3 days in training camp, then those same 3 days repeated ad nauseum. Through repetition comes perfection. They run drills where the WRs run their routes and 4-5 QBs or coaches stand back and throw a pass to each of them in rhythm, teaching every WR to expect the ball every down and getting every QB reps. Week to week during the season new variations on plays can be added to attack that weeks opponent, but the practice schedule doesn't change much.
Leach at Texas Tech used to do two things on his play call menu sheet, first he'd put a x or a check mark next to plays after they were run to track what's effective that day. And secondly, he tracked touches by the 5 playmaker positions. He wanted all 5 to have equal touches, and at halftime, he'd stress who to get the ball more to as a result. Make the defense defend 5 players spread sideline to sideline and 30 yards down field and watch the defence fail somewhere. Somewhere a playmaker will find green grass, the QBs job was to deliver him a catchable ball. So much so that Leach and his disciples teach their QBs to throw to green grass and avoid throwing into traffic altogether. The schemes ability to generate wide open WRs has led to some calling it a gimmick offence, while others just call it smart football.
6 of the top 11 NCAA career passing leaders are Air Raid QBs, not counting Ty Detmer at BYU as well as 16 of the top 30 NCAA single season passing records (including the top spot in both categories), from 2002 to 2018, a 16 year period, 10 of those years the NCAA leading passer ran the Air Raid. The success numerous coaches have had with the offence can't be stressed enough, an Air Raid QB has been drafted in the top half of the first round the past 4 years in Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray. A group of QBs many would predict will dominate the NFL over the next 15 years.
So in this pure form the Air Raid can be a mighty passing attack. Today though, only Leach runs this pure form of the Air Raid. The next generation of Air Raid coaches took the lessons from coach Leach, combined them with the old, and created something new. The idea was simple, Art Briles stumbled upon it first. Remember him? I mentioned him earlier. Art was Leach's running backs coach in the early 2000s at Texas Tech. A job that sounds like the worst job there, so little wonder when he was the first to bail to take over as head coach at Houston.
Houston is a old school that at the time had experienced 2 high periods and 2 low periods in rapid succession. A force in the old South Western conference, Houston was known for its old unique offence: the Split Back Veer. As it sounds, two split backs, and a bunch of triple and double option plays (vaguely kinda like Army or Georgia Tech's offence in how different the approach to football it was). One aspect of their option attack was the pass option. The QB would hand the ball off or pass it to the other back on a swing route the other way. The program got blacklisted in the 80s and coach Yeoman was fired in disgrace.
The Cougars hired Jack Pardee and Run and Shoot guru John Jenkins to bring the run and shoot to the Cougars after success with Jim Kelly in the USFL. It was instant success, 9-2 Andre ware went from middling option QB to breaking every passing record in college and becoming a very high draft pick in 1990. Jenkins became head coach while Pardee brought the shoot to the Oilers.
Jenkins tinkered and tinkered more with the offence. And earned a reputation as a arrogant mad scientist who would run the score up on everyone. One of his innovations was moving his wide outs to the edges of the field to make defenders play man coverage or give up easy catches in zone. Which was fine until his weakness was exposed. Blitz often and fast. Just as fast as it had found success there, the shoot died at Houston.
Art saw these two aspects and added in what he learned from Leach and his 'Veer and Shoot" offence was born. He took the basic idea of the run pass option Yeoman ran, the wide split out WRs running option routes, and a all 5 playmaker up tempo no playbook approach to attacking defenses and put it together to create a perfect storm that produced first Kevin Kolb at Houston, then RG3, Nick Florence, etc at Baylor.
After his first success there was a off-season get together called the One Back Clinic, Leach, his offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, Rich Rodriguez, Noel Mazzone, and a few others attended that year. It was a conference for spread coaches to share their innovations. Art Briles stole the show with his first RPO demonstration. The next season Rich used Run pass Options with Pat White at West Virginia, a move that got him hired on at Michigan. Mike Leach wasn't really sold on it. Dana Holgorsen kept trying to get him to run more, but Mike Leach felt it was only the time to run if it's a 5 man box or lighter. He ran… just when the defence was giving away free yards. Art Briles was hired up to Baylor and Houston wanted a replacement, they hired Stoops disciple and Oklahoma defensive mind Kevin Sumlin who in turn hired away Dana to run his offence. Finally Holgorsen was going to run the offence himself.
Dana was the first Wes Welker type slot receiver the Air Raid produced, and after graduation he got right into coaching for Mumme, then Leach. Dana was the WR coach for Wes Welker and the offensive coordinator for Graham Harrell. At Houston he hired Kliff Kingsbury to be his offensive understudy. There Dana and Kliff took true freshman Case Keenum and 5 years later Case was the NCAA all time passing leader. But one thing that was immediately different in this offence than the Texas Tech offense was the quick passing game and screens were merged into a more robust run game. RPOs.
After 3 seasons there Dana left for Oklahoma State as OC for a year before becoming head coach at West Virginia. Kliff took over and coached Case his final 2 years then went with Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M where they turned true freshman Johnny Manziel into a star.
This trend spread to most of the Air Raid teams who now run some variation of RPOs. Dana a few years at West Virginia ran more than he passed, however by that point the big 12s defenses we're all stocking up with defences intended to kill spread passing attacks. Teams expected Dana to pass and they emptied the box, so he ran. Didn't hurt he had better backs than QBs those years either. The Air Raid fundamentally is adaptable.
We have seen the Air Raid thrive at the University of Arizona with Rob Gronkowski at TE, and seen Oklahoma run the ball very effectively with their stable of 4 and 5 star backs. Leach hasn't changed his playbook or philosophy much in 20 years. Now it's coming to the NFL. We already seen some Air Raid plays in the NFL. We've seen up tempo teams at times. We've seen teams spread the ball around. Arguably the 2007 Patriots philosophically were a air raid team, even if they used their dusty old Erhardt-Perkins playbook instead of Air Raid plays. The question now is, can a actual full time Air Raid offence work in the NFL. With the Cardinals we will find out this season.
The Air Raid is many things, but the core elements all the Air Raid teams have in common include:
- The same core plays.
- The same 3-4 day install on repeat
- The same up tempo, score a bunch of points approach.
- The same commitment to spreading the ball around to 5 playmakers evenly.
- The same commitment to creating space for these weapons to thrive by attacking sideline to sideline and 30 yards deep every down
- The same commitment to excellence in execution through repetition.