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Air Raid Quarterback: The Future of the QB Position

Has the Air Raid Offense become the perfect primer for creating starting caliber NFL quarterbacks?

The Rise Of The Air Raid Offense

Football is a sport with 22 starting spots on offense and defense. There is an additional amount of specialty roles reserved for more niche aspects of the game — kicker, punter, returner, etc. It’s clear that one position holds far more esteem than the rest: quarterback. The quarterback position is the most valuable role in not just the sport of football but also the entire realm of professional team sports. The QB’s role in an offense is a mixture of the point guard in basketball, the pitcher in baseball, and the midfielder in soccer. The quarterback operates as both a facilitator and a weapon. Since the game’s inception, we’ve seen the responsibilities of the QB increase tenfold due to the ever-changing dynamics of the sport.

As football coaches have embraced throwing the ball more and more, we have seen the sport go from a hard-hitting affair with single-digit point totals to a game with combined scores in the triple digits (at least in the Big 12). With the continued evolution of passing offenses, we have seen passing records shattered on almost a yearly basis. Often by the least expected sources (looking at you, Joe Burrow).

The Revolution

We can trace the beginning of this “Passing Revolution” back to the turn of the millennium. Oddball coach and Air Raid offensive engineer Mike Leach took the reins as the head coach for Texas Tech University. Leach’s offense, which is predicated on concepts designed by former University of Kentucky coach Hal Mumme (whom Leach worked under as an offensive coordinator), coincided with the rise of Joe Tiller’s famous “basketball on grass” spread offense at Wyoming and later Purdue. The influence of Tiller and Mumme’s offenses spread throughout college football like wildfire. Leach’s version has had the most longevity. In his two decades as a head coach, Leach has had several former players and assistants go on to head coaching gigs of their own. Wunderkinder Kliff Kingsbury and Lincoln Riley as well as longtime assistants Sonny Dykes and Dana Holgerson. 

The Air Raid QB Bias

From the start of his tenure until his dismissal in 2009, Leach’s offense produced four different 5,000-yard passers. Two of them (B.J Symons in 2003 and Graham Harrell in 2007) still hold spots at the top of the list for the highest single-season passing yardage. As Leach’s unorthodox yet effective offense continued to dominate the NCAA, various programs began to install Air Raid inspired schemes. Simply put, the upside of throwing the ball 40+ times per-game allowed mid-tier programs (East Carolina, Baylor, Houston, West Virginia) to hang with more talented teams in high-scoring affairs.

Leach’s offense, which borrowed concepts from the Run-And-Shoot (popularized by June Jones in the ’90s), West Coast, and Mumme’s original version of the Air Raid, managed to launch numerous QBs to collegiate superstardom. Several Air Raid passers like Harrell, Kliff Kingsbury (who would bring the scheme to the NFL as a head coach), Kevin Kolb, and John Beck — the latter two having played under different coaches in very similar schemes — would go on to parlay their prolific statistical outputs into brief stints in the NFL.

While the video game-like numbers were impressive, there appeared to be an apparent disconnect between collegiate and professional success for these passers who made their names thanks to the Air Raid. Even as the NFL ushered in its pass-first offense era, the term “System Quarterback” became the shutdown response to those who suggested an Air Raid passer could transition to the NFL successfully. That was until Patrick Mahomes II entered the league as the first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. The rest is history. The last three number one overall picks (Mayfield, Murray, Burrow) have been the top passers in the nation via schemes with heavy Air Raid influence. 

Do “Pass Happy” College Offenses Create NFL QBs?

The Air Raid Offense is obviously, a system that asks the quarterback to throw the ball a lot. It is both literally and figuratively a “raid” from the air. Taking a look at the graphic below, you can see that in general, passers who have thrown for over 3,000 yards in a season from this past decade have come from programs that ran Air Raid or Spread offenses. 

Not every high-volume passing offense fits the category of Air Raid. The idea of an offense that focuses on throwing the football almost exclusively while spreading the field is the Air Raid philosophy in a nutshell. Though this scheme may be unorthodox and occasionally impractical, there is a multitude of reasons why the Air Raid is beneficial to the development of a passer. 

Reading, Writing, and well just Reading

First and foremost, any offense that asks a signal-caller to run through a multitude of reads on consecutive play calls will undoubtedly season the player. By repeatedly running through their progressions, the quarterback can master the timing of their reads and learn to be more decisive as they see more reps. In Leach’s scheme specifically, the ability to have multiple reads and multiple opportunities to throw to open receivers will often teach the passer to play to their strengths without becoming deferential.

Brains or Brawn?

As we saw with Leach’s last two starting quarterbacks at Washington State (Gardner Minshew II and Anthony Gordon), a smart, decisive passer can be as dominant as one with the natural talent that Mahomes possesses. With so many pass-catchers to account for, the designs from this scheme are perfect counters to double coverage. Four and five receiver sets spread the field to create one-on-one matchups. With unlimited control at the line of scrimmage, the signal-caller assumes the role of general. The scheme essentially asks the QB to take full control of the offense’s strategy on the fly. Suppose you have any familiarity with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory. In that case, the idea of a quarterback throwing the ball in-game as many times as possible could have a similar correlation. However, I’m sure college quarterbacks must spend well over 10,000 hours studying film and throwing passes.

Likewise, the simple fact that the offense is asking the passer to be a catalyst by throwing the ball on virtually every play will ultimately help the development of the player. By staying warm and “in rhythm,” the passer can tap into an almost unconscious state where they become the engine of the offense. In more traditional run-heavy schemes, we often see the QB turn into a hand-off machine. They are only throwing when they have to (think of Ryan Tannehill in the 2019 NFL Playoffs). While those passers may find themselves putting up more efficient averages at times, asking a young passer to do so in college can be very detrimental to their development. Quite often, passers from those types of systems are not asked to attempt many difficult throws or make complex reads. That leaves them ill-prepared to do so once they reach the NFL.

Is this Where Back-Ups are Made?

Spread and Air Raid quarterbacks have generally been more successful as early-round draft picks. They’ve also found success as later round selections. The chart below does not even account for passers like Nick Foles (who played under Sonny Dykes at Arizona) and Brock Osweiler (who played in Noel Mazzone’s spread offense at Arizona State) who barely missed the 3,000-yard threshold. 

While Pro-Style, non-first round picks passers have generally had more success in the NFL. This is likely because they were brought in primarily as backups to entrenched starters based on their familiarity with NFL systems. Even so, nearly 50% of passers from this group come from Air Raid or Spread systems, demonstrating their preparedness for the NFL game.

Leach is now coaching at Mississippi State. Fellow Air Raid technicians are installed as play-callers around the nation.

  • Kevin Sumlin (Arizona)
  • Dana Holgerson (Houston)
  • Sonny Dykes (SMU)
  • Seth Littrell (North Texas)
  • Josh Heupel (Central Florida)
  • Graham Harrell (OC for USC)

The passing revolution is still alive and well. Seeing as how some of the top quarterback prospects in college football belong to these programs:

  • Kedon Slovis (USC)
  • Shane Buechele (SMU)
  • K.J Costello (Mississippi State)

It may be worth investing your interest in them now before their bandwagon gets rolling. Or you may very well be missing out on the next Mayfield or Mahomes. Although given the recent surge in Kedon Slovis hype, you may already have missed that train.

What Does The Future Hold For Air Raid Products?

The NFL and College games have begun to converge. A more common offensive philosophy, passers from schemes that were once condemned to gimmick status have had more fruitful transitions. Success stories like Baker Mayfield and Gardner Minshew have been far less efficient in the NFL than in college. Their skill sets have translated much better than a guy like Johnny Manziel. It seems that the successful transition for a passer from an Air Raid college offense to the NFL depends on three elements.

The first of these elements being physical tools, which almost every passer drafted into the league will have in spades. After all, when was the last time we saw an untalented player drafted into the NFL? Please save the Nathan Peterman jokes here. The second element is statistical proficiency, which is virtually ensured by the scheme considering the passer’s constant usage rate. The third and most important element by far is the ability to make the right decisions in a timely fashion. Suppose a passer can be decisive and accurate while having already succeeded against inferior college defenses. In that case, they should generally become dependable NFL passers. Schematic changes have become more favorable for these types of players. 

The Next in Line

As things stand right now, the current Air Raid passer to watch is K.J Costello. Leach’s presumed starter at Mississippi State and former Stanford passer. At 6’5, 225 lbs, Costello is a typical pocket passer. He would have NFL scouts drooling over him ten years ago based on measurables and arm strength alone. The SEC’s best defenses are slightly more talented and ferocious than the PAC-12 offers. Costello may also be the most talented passer that Leach has had to work within a long time.

If Costello’s 2018 breakout campaign is any indication, the upside for him in the Bulldogs offense is limitless. He completed 65% of his passes for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns that season. If you’d like to get a better idea of Costello’s strengths as a passer, then this video from Matt Wyatt is an excellent breakdown of his tape from Stanford. Considering Leach’s offense threw the ball on 77.92% of plays last season, the volume should be no concern. Costello will be battle-tested against elite defenses such as Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. If he can swim, the graduate transfer will almost certainly be the next Air Raid product to leap to the NFL as a starter. Costello checks the physical tools box right now. It remains to be seen how he performs under Leach to meet the remaining criteria. 

Credit: The Athletic

Overcoming the Bias

The bias against passers from systems such as Leach’s is beginning to fade. It is fair to wonder whether being an “Air Raid Product” has become a positive quality for a prospect. There will still be draft insiders who bash guys like Costello for playing in offenses that create easy reads and open looks more often than their brethren from more balanced offenses. However, others will heap praise upon the passer for their ability to run through progressions in the blink of an eye while dissecting defenses on drives with quick throws. Be prepared to hear the term “empty stats” as well. Players like Costello, who possess the arm talent and mechanics to be NFL starters, playing in an Air Raid style system can be an extremely valuable experience. This experience could teach them about their ceiling as a QB.

In a high-volume passing offense, players like Costello can learn to become confident in their abilities and accountable for their mistakes. Which will inevitably be made when throwing 600+ passes in a season. To a degree, the ability to cope with, learn from, and shake off mistakes that an Air Raid system teaches to its quarterbacks. That may be more valuable than the things they do well. After all, playing quarterback is about limiting your mistakes, not letting your mistakes restrict you. Though there are dozens of college passers playing in offensive systems inspired by Leach’s system. Costello is the only one who will get to play under Leach himself in 2020, making his case far more interesting than the rest. 

We’re Done for Now

That is a wrap on Part I. Keep your eyes peeled for Part II. You can find my other articles here. Are you a member of the Nerd Herd? For the cost of a cup of coffee each month you get access to exclusive rankings, extra podcasts, and more. Bundle the Nerd Herd with the DynastyGM tool for just $4.99/month.

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