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Do Pass-First College Offenses Create NFL QBs? (Part II)

While it was once perceived as a gimmick, the Air Raid offense has now become a perfect system to develop starting caliber NFL quarterbacks.

Continuing the discussion that we began in part one of this piece, the transition from “pass-happy” college offenses to the NFL has been much more difficult for some quarterbacks when compared to others. In this section, we’re going to take a look at a few case studies from recent history that reveal some of the reasons behind the success and failure of passers from these types of systems.

Do These Schemes (Air Raid, Spread) Mask Too Many Of The QB’s Flaws?

While we’ve seen cases of pass-first systems benefiting the development of players, there have been countless cases of the opposite outcome. Three of the most glaring flops at the QB position from this past decade (Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, & Geno Smith) have been players who teams have drafted from Air Raid schemes to build their offense around. Only to see that those passers were not equipped to make the transition from a wonky college system to a more traditional structure in the NFL. Critics of the Air Raid system have alleged that it limits the receivers’ route tree in the offense while also hiding the passer’s ability to throw deep passes. In the case of this trio, their failures resulted from more than a high-volume passing system masking their flaws.

Brandon Weeden

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

In Weeden’s case, he was a literal man among boys — 24 years old when he joined the Oklahoma State football team — who shined in Mike Gundy’s Air Raid offense. Weeden set single-season school records for passing yards (4,727), completions (408), and completion percentage (72.3%). In the Cowboys wide-open passing attack, there were times where Weeden looked like a future NFL superstar, mainly because he had the body and mind of a quarterback at the age that they would typically be hitting their prime. It also helped that he drew weekly matchups against the construction paper-thin defenses of the Big 12.

Good “OLD” first rounder

Weeden’s performance was enough to convince the Cleveland Browns to select him 22nd overall with their second first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, even though Weeden was already nearly 30 years old. In Weeden’s case, the bias regarding Air Raid passers was wholly justified, as everything from his tape suggested that he was an average passer at best, who played in a system that explicitly catered to his strengths. Surrounded by a cast of weapons that included fellow 2012 first-round pick Justin Blackmon, Weeden’s senior campaign for the Cowboys would be the last time we saw him play quarterback at a competent level.

Weeden displayed some excellent accuracy, and NFL level arm strength on many of his highlight throws for Oklahoma State. His fit in Pat Shurmur’s West Coast offense was….uncomfortable, to say the least. As a rookie, Weeden completed only 57.4% of his passes, sporting a negative touchdown to interception ratio (14:17), though he did throw for 3,385 yards. Even with a head-coaching change (Rob Chudzinski was brought in to replace Shurmur), Weeden proved to be incapable of running an NFL offense that asked him to play under center.

Following his disastrous rookie season, Weeden would play only one more year with the Browns. The Browns lost all five of his starts in the 2013 season, eventually getting cut by the team in the offseason. Weeden was a poor system fit. He was also an overachiever who benefited from having played against a bunch of young adults from offensive-minded programs. A true pocket passer with very little mobility, the former Oklahoma State standout was a sitting duck on an undermanned Browns offense. He was a perfect example of why some Air Raid products are underprepared for life as NFL QBs.

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel’s lack of fundamentals held him back in the NFL
(Credit: GoodBullHunting.com)

Johnny Manziel was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Weeden. As a redshirt freshman, Manziel won the Heisman Trophy on the strength of a monster breakout campaign for Texas A&M. He was coached by an up-and-coming Kevin Sumlin, one of the most successful pupils from the Leach/Mumme coaching tree.

In his two seasons with the Aggies, Manziel was larger than life, finding himself in the headlines weekly for good and bad reasons. Unlike the heavy-footed Weeden, Manziel was a nimble athlete who’s top trait was his scrambling ability. At Texas A&M, the undersized Manziel made his living off of scrambles, rollouts, and occasionally selling autographs. Manziel found his comfort zone as an improvisational point guard in Sumlin’s passing attack. Though Manziel’s game-tape was the quarterback equivalent of an Air Raid receiver who could only do damage when they found “soft spots” in coverage, Cleveland was convinced by the unrivaled confidence of the young passer. Two years after selecting Weeden in round one, the Browns were back to take Manziel with their second first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Just wing it and fling it

In short, Manziel was a complete and utter failure in the NFL, failing to grasp even the most basic concepts from the Browns playbook, deferring to mindless scrambles and rollouts (his bread-and-butter some may say) to generate offense. While those tactics would fly against the overzealous defenses of Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Manziel learned the hard way that NFL defenses were a different animal altogether. Following suit with Weeden, Manziel was an unquestioned bust. 

Like Weeden, Manziel lasted only two seasons with the Browns, proving to be a poor fit in Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense, which hinged on featuring a decisive, accurate passer (which Manziel was not). Rather than hanging in the pocket and running through his progressions, Manziel seemed to prefer scrambling and attempting lower percentage throws far too often. Though Sumlin’s offense spread the field enough for Manziel to get away with such antics — while providing the passer more room to roam out of shotgun sets — Shanahan’s offense was predicated upon the signal-caller making sharp decisions from under-center. Manziel’s poor work ethic made his transition much harder than it could have been, though his fit with the Browns scheme was never optimal. 

Geno Smith

Geno Smith was a dynamic playmaker in Dana Holgerson’s Air Raid attack
(Credit: NJ.com)

Perhaps the most successful player from this group by a relatively small margin, Geno Smith, was a second-round selection by the New York Jets in 2013, bookended by the Browns selections of Weeden and Manziel. Though he wasn’t a first-round pick, Smith was regarded by many draftniks as the top QB prospect in the draft, due to his dazzling statistical outputs in West Virginia’s Air Raid attack and his impressive physical profile. In two seasons as the starter under former Leach pupil Dana Holgerson, Smith threw for a combined 8,584 yards and 73 touchdowns, finishing with a 71.2% completion percentage in his final season. Yet, while Smith’s highs were incredibly exciting, his lows were quite disconcerting. Masked by his impressive passing numbers in the Mountaineers offense, Smith’s subpar decision-making skills and spotty accuracy were exposed once he found himself in a more traditional NFL offense.

Square peg, meet round hole

With the Jets, Smith had very few moments of competence. In his first two seasons with the team, Smith completed only 57.5% of his passes while sporting a touchdown to interception ratio of 25:34. Once again, Smith proved to be a poor fit with a team featuring a West Coast system on offense. Though OC Marty Mornhinweg was a descendant of Andy Reid’s coaching tree, he was far less adept at incorporating college passing concepts than Reid. A bit of a traditionalist, the Jets offense was a rather strict version of the West Coast, leaving Smith exposed due to his inexperience playing under-center. Though he’s hung around as a backup for eight seasons now, Smith has been a failed product of the Air Raid.

Though each of these passers possessed the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, they were each left unequipped to transition to more traditional West Coast schemes that asked them to play out of the shotgun on fewer sets. Perhaps they spoiled by the fact that they were surrounded with first-round talents at the receiver position (Justin Blackmon at OSU, Mike Evans at Texas A&M, & Tavon Austin at West Virginia) who consistently drew single coverage thanks to the team’s passing scheme. These passers developed bad habits and dependencies that they simply could not shake at the Pro Level.

Breaking The Mold

Shortly after the selection of Manziel, the negative bias towards Air Raid and Spread products was at an all-time high. Many believed Oregon star Marcus Mariota to be the vastly superior talent, athlete, and person compared to Florida State passer Jameis Winston. Mariota was passed over in favor of Winston as the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, mostly due to his reputation as a “system player” in Oregon’s Spread Option offense. Winston played in a slightly less eccentric Spread attack for the Seminoles. The primary reasoning behind the Buccaneers selecting him over Mariota was his “fit” in the team’s Pro-Style offense.

While Winston has proven to be a marginally more productive quarterback than Mariota through five seasons, it’s worth wondering what the former Oregon standout could have done in an offense that featured a true number one receiver (Mike Evans). This narrative would be flipped onto its head one year later, with the top three passers in the 2016 NFL Draft (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch) having come from schemes with Air Raid concepts. As the bias towards these products began to soften, we began to see a string of highly productive Air Raid products enter the league.

Patrick Mahomes

While not every quarterback from a pass-happy college scheme has the tools to become an NFL starter, we have seen various players with perceived deficiencies maximize their potential thanks to these types of offenses.

Take Patrick Mahomes, for example. Though blessed with his father’s incredible arm strength, Mahomes’ accuracy was spotty at best as an incoming recruit. Thus, he found himself as just a three-star upon his commitment to play for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech.

Between his first season as the starter for the Red Raiders (2014) and his last (2016), Mahomes attempted 1,349 passes, throwing for over 11,200 yards. The strides in the young passer’s development were evident from his first stint as the starter to his final start, as he saw his completion percentage rise from just 56.8% in 2014 to 65.7% in 2016 while throwing 283 more passes in his last campaign. Toolsy though more raw than an oyster upon his enrollment, Mahomes was allowed to play his style of football while learning to optimize that style as the pivot for the Red Raiders offense. In doing so, the young gunslinger learned to deal with his — very few — physical limitations while maximizing his strengths as an improviser.

Silence the doubters

There were some concerns regarding Mahomes’ ability to translate from TTU’s offense, which used shotgun almost exclusively, to a more traditional West Coast scheme in Kansas City. He put any questions to rest with his otherworldly performance as the team’s starter in 2018 when he won the NFL MVP and led Kansas City to the AFC Title Game. Spending a season behind veteran Alex Smith to learn the intricacies of Andy Reid’s offense also contributed to Mahomes’ successful transition. However, Reid also adapted some elements of Kingsbury’s offense to suit Mahomes better (investment in speedy receivers like Tyreek Hill, increased use of mesh and screen routes, more designed rollouts). 

Jared Goff

Credit: MWCConnection.com

Mahomes may have been the most well-known example of an Air Raid passer successfully transitioning to the NFL level, but he wasn’t the first high-profile passer to do so. Some may have forgotten that Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft out of California, was a product of Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense. Like Mahomes, Goff played almost exclusively out of the shotgun during his time with the Golden Bears. Goff’s mechanics and arm strength screamed franchise QB, leading the Rams to take him ahead of small school standout Carson Wentz — a Spread offense product himself.

A rather uncanny Air Raid product as a pure pocket passer with limited mobility, Goff had set 26 team records during his three-year run with California, sending scouts into states of frenzy with his crisp mechanics and effortless arm strength. Goff’s three-year development was on par with Mahomes’, as his completion percentage rose from 60.4% as a freshman to 64.5% as a junior. Despite throwing one fewer pass than he did as a freshman, Goff threw 25 more touchdowns in his final season as the signal-caller for Dykes’ offense compared to his first, while also upping his YPA from 6.6 to 8.9. From his first pass attempt as Cal’s starting QB to his 977th (his last), Goff progressed from a four-star recruit with excellent tools to a bonafide franchise QB prospect.

Oh, Jeff Fisher, what you doin’

Though Goff’s first season with the Rams was brutal, to say the least — he completed only 54.6% of his passes while throwing only five touchdowns in 7 starts — he has rebounded with three consecutive campaigns that have seen him throw for 3,500 or more yards and at least 20 touchdown passes. Since the Rams hiring of offensive guru Sean McVay — a student of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, who has adapted many concepts from college offenses into his West Coast outfit — Goff has been one of the top passers in the league, leading the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance in his third season. 

Baker Mayfield & Kyler Murray

Baker Mayfield & Kyler Murray were launched to No. 1 overall pick status thanks to Lincoln Riley’s offense at Oklahoma
(Credit XGames.com)

While Goff and Mahomes both tapped into tangible tools to become the best versions of themselves in these high-volume passing schemes, Baker Mayfield’s path to stardom was far more difficult (and unexpected). Though Mayfield rose to a starting role as a walk-on for Texas Tech, he was soon displaced by Davis Webb — who would later be supplanted by Mahomes. Mayfield transferred to conference rival Oklahoma in rather spiteful fashion. 

Welcome to Norman

Once he landed in Norman, Mayfield developed into one of the most efficient passers in NCAA history, winning the Heisman Trophy in Lincoln Riley’s first season as Head Coach. Mayfield and his successor Kyler Murray — a former five-star recruit who transferred in from Texas A&M — managed to maximize their strengths in Riley’s spread offense, overcoming their size deficiencies by peppering throws into the short and intermediate parts of the field off of quick reads. While Riley’s attack was inspired by but not specifically “Air Raid,” both Murray and Mayfield arrived from programs that had schooled them in the ways of the offense (Mayfield with Kingsbury at Texas Tech and Murray with Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M).

Both Mayfield and Murray have had rather successful transitions to the NFL because they have been placed into schemes catered to their strong suits. Though Mayfield struggled in 2019, his rookie season saw him break the NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie (28), despite playing in only 14 games. With precise accuracy, an aggressive mentality, and enough mobility to create room for himself, the former Sooners standout has been far more effective than Manziel and Weeden despite playing in a similar West Coast scheme under Freddie Kitchens. 

Fits like a glove

Though we have just a one-year sample size of Murray in Kliff Kingsbury’s NFL version of the Air Raid, it was quite an impressive sample. The reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Year completed 64.4% of his passes for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding 544 rushing yards and four more touchdowns on the ground. At 5’10, Murray is one of the shortest starting quarterbacks in NFL history, though he has incredible instincts regarding knowing when to avoid taking hits. At Oklahoma, Murray developed tremendous accuracy and decision-making skills thanks to Riley’s offense. Given Murray’s success in Arizona’s newly adapted offensive system (so far), more NFL teams may follow suit adapting schemes with similar concepts. Thanks to their quick releases and advanced footwork, both Mayfield and Murray were perfect fits for Riley’s offense, which schooled them into becoming high-quality quarterbacks. 

Those passers were the most significant examples of Air Raid products that have failed to transition to the NFL. They are not alone. The Air Raid and Spread systems have created the highest percentages of first-round “busts” this decade. For the sake of context, a “bust” by my definition is a player who either failed to do anything tangible as their team’s starter (no playoff appearances, no accolades of any sort) or flamed out extremely early in their careers. Thus my criteria for this somewhat arbitrary distinction places passers like Teddy Bridgewater, Josh Rosen, and Robert Griffin III into the “bust” category, while moderately disappointing players like Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Dwayne Haskins, and Mitchell Trubisky avoid that fate.

Why are some succeeding, why others do not?

Why did these three passers fail in the NFL, when others (Goff, Mahomes, Mayfield, Minshew, etc.) have managed to achieve success? We have seen the designs of the Air Raid system installed into multiple NFL playbooks these past few seasons. RPOs, dual-slot receivers, heavy use of “Mesh” routes & screens have created a sense of familiarity for these systems. The consensus among “old school” football minds was that passers from these schemes would struggle to hit tougher throws and decipher defenses with fewer easy reads at their disposal.

As the offensive philosophy of the game has evolved in a manner that is catered towards making the quarterback’s life more comfortable — the exact reasoning behind the initial development of the Air Raid offense — we’ve seen more overlap between the once-taboo college offenses like Leach’s and Chip Kelly’s with the NFL product. Rather than forcing a passer into uncomfortable sets with limited reads and bailouts, NFL offenses have begun to embrace the idea of incorporating more “checkdown” receivers. These slot receivers and pass-catching backs move the chains with short receptions by running high percentage routes (slants, ins, meshes, shovels, etc.). The concept of opening up as many passing lanes as possible to give the passer the best chance to succeed seems simple. Until very recently, it was considered out of pocket.

No tight end, no problem

Offenses like Leach’s focus on getting the defense out of position and finding “soft spots” in coverage. Those soft spots rarely occur in the NFL. There is a growing emphasis on the blocking ability of receivers. This helps to offset the lack of a true tight end in the offense. By being able to land downfield blocks, the offense gives the running back — who most likely will be taking the ball on a swing, screen, or shovel pass rather than a traditional hand-off — more room to operate.

Many NFL teams see that it’s possible to run an effective offense without using fullbacks and tight ends. This is just one feature of the Air Raid that has wriggled its way into the minds of NFL offensive coordinators. This has contributed to the near-extinction of positions like full back (graphic below) and the “blocking” tight end. The latter archetype has become outdated, replaced thanks to the emergence of well-rounded playmakers like George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski.

Did College Football Kill The Fullback Position?

Conclusion

As the offensive philosophies of football teams in both NFL and NCAA have become less distinguishable, the record-setting passers of College Football have had more success carrying over their proficiency to the NFL. Air Raid schemes cultivate accurate passers with good decision-making abilities, and we have begun to unravel the paradox that once surrounded passers from these systems. 

In general, mobile passers with good throwing mechanics, footwork, and decision-making ability will have the best chance of succeeding in the NFL coming out of pass-first college schemes compared to similarly skilled passers from more conservative offenses. Compared to other types of offenses that we’ve seen in College Football, the Air Raid and Spread attacks have become the breeding ground for starting-caliber NFL quarterbacks, with a little help from some of the more innovative offensive minds in the league (Andy Reid, Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury), who have focused on building an offense for their young quarterbacks rather than forcing the player to conform to the conditions of the offense. 

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