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Is The Air Raid Killing NFL Quarterbacks?

By Rick Bouch

Connoisseurs of football offense have, at the very least, heard of the Air Raid, a system that traces itself back to current Belhaven University head football coach Hal Mumme. Washington State head coach Mike Leach was Mumme’s right-hand man when the pair was at Kentucky putting up ridiculous passing numbers in the 1990s. Currently, there are plenty of teams running the full-on Air Raid offense – Washington State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma are just a few – and many others who have added some of the offense’s concepts to its existing system. So, the question is, “Is the Air Raid offense killing NFL quarterbacks?”

You hear it all the time. “He’s a product of the system.” Surely, that has been said of former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II who is currently an NFL prospect. In just two-plus seasons as a Red Raider, Mahomes threw for 11,252 yards and 93 touchdowns. Last season, he became the fifth Tech quarterback to eclipse the 5,000-yard mark (5,052). So, is he that talented or is he just a product of the throw-it-on-every-down Air Raid?

The basic essentials of the offense are that normally 65 to 75 percent of all play calls are passes. A large amount of control of the offense is placed upon the quarterback. He is taught what pass concepts work best against certain defensive alignments and can audible at any time to put the offense in the correct play. Today’s version of the Air Raid includes an up-tempo factor. The Red Raiders, Oklahoma, TCU, and now Ole Miss are just a handful of Air Raid teams that operate at a lightning-like pace.

At Ole Miss, new offensive coordinator Phil Longo installed his version of the Air Raid that puts more responsibility on receivers in an effort to make it easier on the quarterback. Longo has coached at Division II Slippery Rock and FCS Sam Houston State and, at both schools, was among the national leaders in total offense and scoring. It is well known that the Longo playbook contains between 25 and 30 offensive plays – that’s it.

Can guys like Mahomes and Davis Webb, who actually transferred from Texas Tech to California for his final season, make the transition to the NFL? One of the problems that Air Raid quarterbacks have is that they line up in the shotgun over 90 percent of the time. Many of them have to learn how to take a snap from under center. The other concern is that many guys in the system have zero experience working in a huddle. They have never had to call a play like “shift to halfback twins right open swap 72 all-go special halfback shallow cross wide open.”

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So, has the Air Raid killed the NFL quarterback? Well, go back to Mumme and Leach’s time at Kentucky. Tim Couch put up astronomical numbers, was the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, and played all of five relatively average NFL seasons. He wound up with more interceptions (67) than touchdowns (64). The number of Texas Tech quarterbacks that have attempted the NFL includes Sonny Cumbie, Graham Harrell, B.J. Symons, and current Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The four combined for zero, yes zero, NFL starts. More recently, guys like Nick Foles and Geno Smith have had some success, but there hasn’t been a true Air Raid quarterback that has had All-Pro type success in the league, at least not yet.

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