Kansas football fans are a week away from game one of the David Beaty era.
They aren't sure what to expect. Scratch that. Most expect the worst. With good reason: limited scholarship players, brutal schedule, no quarterback...
Perhaps the last remaining thread of excitement for Kansas fans is hanging onto the fact that Beaty and his coaching staff brought the Air Raid offense to Lawrence. Heading into 2015 Kansas will be one of seven Big "12" programs to use at least a variation of this pass-gasm of an offense.
When TCU's coach, Gary Patterson, switched from his methodical defense first, bouyed by a strong running offense, system to the Air Raid following a disappointing 2013 season, his Frogs lept into national title contention.
For the first 90+ years of college football it was ground and pound, strength on strength, and every other system was viewed as a marginalized gimmick. With college football having morphed into a monstrosity of a multi-billion dollar industry, anything seen as capable of giving a program the possibility of a competitive advantage can't be copied fast enough.
Jayhawk fans around Lawrence have been dropping "Air Raid" into casual football conversations all summer long. But what does that even mean? And why should it inspire hope?
The brainchild of Hal Mumme and expanded by his partnering with Mike Leach while at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State in the early 1990s, the offense has evolved substantially since then with each new program to convert putting their own spin on the system. Just because a team is running the Air Raid doesn't necessarily mean it will look like Mumme's old Tim Couch led Kentucky Wildcats, Leach's Red Raider teams, or even Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies.
While the basic tenets of the system remain the same, the reason for the offense becoming known as "the great equalizer" is owed more to the spirit in which it was created in the first place.
But before we can talk about the Air Raid, we must first talk about... Mormons!
When Brigham Young University coaching legend LaVell Edwards took control of the Cougars in 1972, he took over a broken down program that hadn't even been to a bowl game. Edwards quickly realized BYU could not compete in the world of run-dominated offenses that were the norm of college football in the 1970s. The Cougars had neither the size nor the talent to succeed that way. He decided to run an offense dominated by a short passing game meant to spread the defense out in order to get the ball in the hands of his play makers.
At that time nobody was flinging the ball around like Edwards' Cougars. With this innovative offense BYU quickly turned into a national football institution, culminating in their win of the 1984 college football national championship. To this day the Cougars remain the last non power conference team to win the title.
In a recent article by Rustin Dodd, he writes of how Air Raid creator, Mumme, became obsessed with the BYU system, studying its every aspect. Yet, Mumme wanted to take it a step further. The Air Raid took the BYU system and injected it with more unbridled experimentation: no huddle; insanely wide splits for the offensive line; passing as much as 80% of their plays;
With all that passing, people are quick to label the offense as complex or high risk. That's not quite accurate. In Dodd's article, Mumme talks about how the Air Raid is very much predicated on repetition. Dodd recounts a story of how one of Mumme's teams threw 80 passes in a game, completing 61 of them, with 52 of those completions coming on the same exact play call - a staple of the BYU offense called "Mesh."
That story reminds me of that old NFL Films footage of Vince Lombardi mapping out the Green Bay Packers' power sweep on a chalkboard. "You want a seal here, and a seal here..." Lombardi and his Packers would run that play non stop, every game. He openly bragged about his playbook going just three pages deep.
While the amount of passes thrown in the Air Raid would give a guy like Lombardi a heart attack, this ain't the old pro style offense of running to bring the defense up so that Norm Van Brocklin and Daryle Lomanica type quarterbacks can launch a 40 yard passes down the field that Lombardi rejected. That notion reduces passes to a low percentage feast or famine affair. Go back and look at quarterbacks who've played in Mumme and Leach's Air Raid system, or Edwards' BYU system before that, and you'll see high completion percentages and piles of yardage - the results of safe passes and good blocks that free up backs and receivers for yards after the catch.
In a way, the Air Raid is strangely comparable to the old staggered veer or wishbone option running offenses. Just replace quick pitches with quick passes, using shallow crossing or rub/ pick routes to disjoint the defense instead of pulling guards and backs crossing in opposite directions. Both offenses were contingent on wideouts who could effectively and consistently lay seal blocks to bust plays open; the goal being to wear down defenses by keeping them constantly guessing on where the ball is going until the big play presents itself.
When Mumme and his protégé Leach finally got their shot at a Division 1 program, it came at basketball power, and football doormat, Kentucky. They took the Wildcats to a couple bowl games and the gaudy offensive stats the Air Raid produced turned quarterback Tim Couch into the NFL's #1 draft pick in 1999.
When Bob Stoops brought Leach with him to Norman to install the Air Raid at historically wishbone option running Oklahoma, Stoops was taking over a program mired in losing and mediocrity the likes of which Sooner fans hadn't seen since the 1930s. That 1999 season Stoops and Leach returned the Sooners to a bowl game as the team became one of the best offenses in the nation. Leach left in 2000 to take the Texas Tech job. Even so, his installed offense helped bring the Sooners their first national championship since 1985.
In his nine years at Texas Tech, Leach's Red Raiders shattered NCAA passing records and went to nine straight bowl games, a period of sustained success unseen in Lubbock before his tenure.
Leach assistant Art Briles brought the Air Raid offense with him to Houston and then Baylor, turning both programs around in the process.
Briles' successor at Houston, Kevin Sumlin, kept Briles' offense going. After promoting Leach's former Texas Tech QB, Kliff Kingsbury, to offensive coordinator, the Cougars finished 12-1 with a Cotton Bowl Victory. Sumlin took Kingsbury with him to Texas A&M where the Air Raid helped turn living, breathing, Norman Rockwell painting of a small freckle faced child, Johnny Manziel, into a Heisman Trophy winner.
But lest anyone think the Air Raid is some magic formula that produces instant success wherever it lands, it should be noted that the offense's creator, Mumme, flamed out in his second shot at a Division 1 program at New Mexico State. After being let go at Texas Tech, Leach has yet to post a winning season in his three years at Washington State. And Kliff Kingbury, following the success at Texas A&M, spent some time as the young coaching flavor of the month after posting eight wins in his first season at his alma mater. But year two at Texas Tech was less kind as his Raiders' win total was cut in half.
The biggest thing the Air Raid had going for it in past years was its element of surprise. When Mumme ran it at Kentucky in the '90s it was alien to the SEC. When Leach and Stoops brought it to Oklahoma, Nebraska's power running game ruled the conference. When Patterson switched to the Air Raid at TCU last year, it caught everyone by surprise because there was no tape of TCU's personnel running it. Now with more and more teams believing in and implementing the Air Raid, specifically in the Big "12", more and more defenses are made familiar with its tendencies and sets.
Given the video game type numbers quarterbacks have put up in this system, there is a tendency to believe you can just plug anybody in at the QB slot and they will shine. That hasn't been the case. Kentucky never replaced Tim Couch. Graham Harrell took Texas Tech to heights it couldn't reach with other quarterbacks. Texas A&M has been mediocre without Manziel. Dana Holgerson's West Virginia record has been much less impressive without Geno Smith. You still need a dynamic trigger man in the backfield, because three quarters of the Air Raid system puts the game in their hands and ability to make quick decisions.
In that regard, it feels a bit like Kansas is perhaps a tad too late to the Air Raid party, and aren't close to having the quarterback to even run it. However, it's unclear what Kansas actually has in newly named starter, Montell Cozart, given that Charlie Weis' undefinable offense - changing from week to week - didn't give Kansas fans the best sampling of Cozart's capabilities.
If nothing else, if your team is running the Air Raid, historically, win or lose, it has produced a far more entertaining brand of football. To beleaguered Jayhawk fans, that's all they're honestly asking for at this point.