The Air Raid Offense Invades an N.F.L. That It Already Conquered

It has been called basketball on grass. It also has been written off as a gimmick that can’t possibly work in the N.F.L. But with Kliff Kingsbury going full-bore with his version of the Air Raid offense in his first season as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, it is a safe bet that the hyperactive, pass-heavy college scheme is going to be the talk of the N.F.L. this fall.

People will talk about it if it works. Even more people will talk about it if it fails.

Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who dominated while running the Air Raid at Oklahoma, and was snagged by Kingsbury with the No. 1 selection in this year’s draft, thinks any skepticism is unnecessary.

“I don’t see why everybody thinks that it can’t be successful,” Murray said last month, adding: “It works at the college level. I don’t see how it couldn’t work at the pro level.”

The Air Raid, a brainchild of the coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach from their days together at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky in the 1990s, sets up the pass with the pass (and passes again if the first two passes fail). It had inspired countless debates in terms of pro viability long before the 40-year-old Kingsbury, a devotee of the system at Texas Tech, where he once played for Leach, was tapped to take over the Cardinals.

But Leach, 58, now the head coach at Washington State, sees just one problem in the consternation about whether his and Mumme’s creation can be adapted to the pro game: a handful of N.F.L. teams already run it.

“The last several Super Bowls, those were Air Raid teams,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t necessarily call themselves that, but they ran a ton of Air Raid concepts.”

Leach was not just referring to Coach Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who incorporated Air Raid aspects into his offense to better suit Nick Foles in the lead-up to Super Bowl LII. He was also talking about the New England Patriots. He went as far to say that the Patriots’ current offense has more in common with his old Iowa Wesleyan teams than it does with the scheme New England employed under Charlie Weis when Tom Brady was just getting started.

Mumme, 67, who has navigated a winding road since he and Leach parted ways, is currently lined up to be the offensive coordinator for the Dallas team in the rebooted XFL. He proved he was still on the same page as Leach, though, by quickly making the same point.

“I think the Patriots have been doing a good bit of it for a long time — probably about 10 years,” he said. “From the time they got Wes Welker I think they’ve been doing very similar things.”

Put simply, the Air Raid is a supercharged descendant of the pass-happy offense LaVell Edwards pioneered as the coach at Brigham Young. It’s built around a shotgun formation and three- and four-wide receiver sets, and relies on a great deal of improvisation rather than the extensive playbooks used by most N.F.L. and college teams.

The N.F.L.’s newfound embrace of the Air Raid, a system it once rejected, is perhaps best seen on draft night: teams have used the No. 1 overall pick in three of the last four drafts on Air Raid quarterbacks (Cal’s Jared Goff and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Murray).

Patrick Mahomes, the winner of last season’s N.F.L. Most Valuable Player Award, ran the Air Raid at Texas Tech. His coach? Kingsbury. And who coached Kingsbury during his days as a star quarterback at Texas Tech? Leach.

CreditIowa Wesleyan Newsom Archives

‘That’s kind of where the Air Raid as people know it was born right there. Pretty much out of necessity.’

Hal Mumme, right, who along with Leach, center, created the Air Raid offense during their time at Iowa Wesleyan. The team’s defensive coordinator, Charlie Moot, left, took over the Tigers in 1992.

“I guess it was flattering,” Leach said when asked about the frequent talk of an offensive revolution in the N.F.L. last season. “We’ve kind of felt like it was that way for a while.”

Perhaps because of the skepticism the Air Raid inspired over the years, Philadelphia’s Pederson and New England’s Bill Belichick — and Belichick’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels — have seemed careful not to name the system from which they have cribbed. But Pederson, in the days before Philadelphia’s divisional-round game against Atlanta two seasons ago, drew a fairly clear picture of the offense when discussing how he would accommodate Foles, who had excelled in the Air Raid in college at Arizona.

“I just wanted to go back and just see the types of plays,” Pederson said. “As you mentioned, the quick throw was there, a little play-action pass, the shotgun stuff.”

The strategy worked: Foles passed for a combined 971 yards in three postseason games, a run that included a Super Bowl M.V.P.-winning performance against the Patriots in which Foles completed 28 of 43 passes for 373 yards and 3 touchdowns. Foles even caught a touchdown on a trick play.

It was enough to inspire a playful debate on Twitter between Mumme’s son, Matt, and Jared Lorenzen, an Air Raid star at Kentucky under Hal Mumme and later a backup for the Giants, about who was the first Air Raid quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Brady, though, has a case for that distinction even if he came upon the Air Raid only after he entered the N.F.L. His undefeated 2007 regular season was the first one in which he worked with Welker, a veteran of the Air Raid from his days as a walk-on on Leach’s team at Texas Tech. In the years since, which have included three Super Bowl wins for the Patriots, Brady has continued to employ a wide array of Air Raid-style plays, and the Patriots have brought in more players with Air Raid experience.

In the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia, for example, Brady attempted 48 passes and passed for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards. His most productive wide receiver in that game? Danny Amendola, another wide receiver who had cut his teeth under Leach at Texas Tech. Brady’s most frequent target? Rob Gronkowski, a tight end who played in the Air Raid under Mike Stoops and Sonny Dykes at Arizona.

Mumme said the Patriots had stayed out of the Air Raid debates through typical Belichickian avoidance.

“They’re smarter about the way they do things,” he said. “They don’t go around talking about it a lot.”

Skeptics of the Air Raid tend to point toward players who did not work out as well as Mahomes or Goff. Tim Couch, who rocketed to the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft after starring for Mumme and Leach at Kentucky, is often written off as a bust — despite playing for a talent-starved expansion team and dealing with serious injuries — as are other players like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden.

Leach contends those players — none of whom ran anything close to the Air Raid in the N.F.L. — hardly serve as an indictment of the offense, and that scouts and the news media have let their reverence for the N.F.L. and the status quo cloud their judgment when it comes to evaluating players’ potential.

“Without knowing the Air Raid, they’d say, ‘You can’t do that in the N.F.L.’ and of course that’s absurd,” Leach said. “If you can successfully do something in high school, with rare exception you can do it anywhere else.”

Mumme argues that it was as simple as letting players run an offense they had grown up using.

“Suddenly in the last five years they decided to stop trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole and started letting guys do the things they could do,” Mumme said. “Lo and behold, you’ve got guys like Mahomes and Goff.”

It’s one thing to incorporate aspects of the offense. This year’s wrinkle is that the Cardinals, while not discussing the finer points of their offense, have made it clear that they will be running the Air Raid. It would be awfully hard to hide that, considering the pairing of Kingsbury and Murray.

“There’s two pretty good clues,” Mumme joked.

Murray, who last week was 6 for 7 on the opening drive of his first preseason game — a 17-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers — drips with the confidence of a 22-year-old so athletic that he was the No. 9 pick in the 2018 Major League Baseball draft in addition to being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 N.F.L. draft. But he also understands that by virtue of having the words “Air Raid” spoken out loud, he has assumed the mantle of proving it works, regardless of how many teams have tried out parts of it in the past.

“I got to go out and play well,” Murray said. “And if I don’t, then people are going to be mad, I’m going to be mad, everybody’s going to be mad. So, my focus is — play well.”

If history is any indication, succeed or fail, Murray will stay loyal to the offense, just as Kingsbury has, and just as so many assistants who studied under Mumme and Leach have as they have spread throughout college football.

“The great thing about this offense is that once they played in it or coached in it, they really didn’t want to do anything else,” Mumme said. “So it’s kind of made for a neat little fraternity.”