You’ve probably heard a lot of things about Lincoln Riley’s offense. As a Browns fan, you’ve almost definitely heard a lot of things about Baker Mayfield playing in that offense. Maybe you’ve heard it called an Air Raid and seen the long list of NFL busts coming from such offenses. Maybe you’ve heard about what a genius Riley is, and are worried that Baker’s college numbers were “artificially” inflated because he played for a savant.
I’ve got my own opinion on all of these things, but I’m not here to sway you (for now). Mayfield is a Brown, and whether you are comfortable with him or not, he’s our guy. So let’s begin a deep dive into Mayfield’s offense and see what he actually did in college.
What is an Air Raid?
Offensive systems in football are often talked about as though they are concrete and unchanging. In reality offenses are living, evolving things. Big changes can be seen from year to year, especially when a coach takes a new job or gets to move up into a bigger role.
If you want some great background on the classic Air Raid, Chris Brown’s Smart Football is the source. To summarize Brown, there are usually two offenses thought of as “the” Air Raid:
- The original Air Raid at Kentucky (Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, Tim Couch)
- Mike Leach’s Air Raid at Texas Tech (Leach, Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen, Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, etc)
However, as Brown notes, what sums up the Air Raid might not be any set of plays:
“the Air Raid is something more akin to an idea, or at least several related ones: that to get an advantage in modern football you need to be particularly good at something, and to be good at something you have to commit to that something, and if you’re going to commit to something it might as well be different.”
Both of the classic Air Raid offenses were “different” in the same way: they threw the ball. A lot. This perhaps reached peak aggressiveness with Leach’s 2006 Texas Tech team, which threw an average of 50.4 times per game, running it only 16.9 times per game.
For many football traditionalists, this was off-putting. How could a team that throws the ball so much run out a clock at the end of a game? How could they win in short yardage? Throwing the ball so often simply challenged the traditional notion of balance; that the ideal football offense would run and pass the ball an equal amount of times each game.
Leach did not accept the traditional view of balance, instead saying:
There is nothing balanced about running it 50 percent of the time and throwing it 50 percent of the time if you are only utilizing two or three offensive skill positions and only attacking part of the field […]
People get overly impressed by that artificial balance, where it’s half run, half pass, but with only a couple of players touching the ball. You can run the ball every snap, but if you’re in the wishbone, and everybody touches the ball, that’s real balance. Or you can throw the ball every snap, and if everyone touches the ball, that’s real balance
What many of those detractors too often ignored was the absolutely incredible output of the Air Raids, often with talent that didn’t match their opponents. As Browns fans, we all are familiar with Tim Couch, who threw for 4,275 yards in the Kentucky Air Raid in 1998, an era when not many were putting up those kinds of numbers. In 2007, Graham Harrell threw for 5,705 yards.
Mumme and Leach and Co. were streamlining their offense, specializing in throwing the ball. And if they didn’t have time to convince doubters of their offense’s “balance” it was because they were too busy scoring points.
Mumme and Leach were committing to the passing game. That commitment meant getting rid of plays and decreasing the amount of things they could do, while being very good at fewer things.
One example of this was that Air Raids almost always kept the X and Z receivers to their side of the field. In doing so they lost the ability to move receivers around the field to generate mismatches against the defense. But their receivers were able to become very, very good at doing what they were asked to do because of the volume of repetitions they were able to get in at their spots.
Consider these route trees from the Air Coryell offense, courtesy of College and Magnolia:
Let’s say that an offense also required some sort of screen route from it’s wide receivers to make the math easier at an even 10 routes. If every receiver had to learn both sides of the field, they had to spend time practicing each route from both spots. If you wanted to move them into the slot, that’s another 10.
If you have practice time for 100 total routes and a receiver can play 3 spots, he only gets 3 reps for each route. But if you limit him to one spot he can get triple the reps. By paring down what their offense did, Leach and Mumme built this kind of efficiency in to every spot on the field. Linemen could focus on pass blocking and blocking for screens, Quarterbacks could focus on reading the field and throwing the ball as opposed to their footwork on handoffs, and backs could focus on pass protection and route running.
What they ended up with was a playbook without many plays in it. In fact, the Air Raid famously takes only three days to install. Unfortunately, I don’t have three days in this article, so I’ll introduce a few of the classic Air Raid plays here.
These are staple Air Raid plays, and almost every concept is considered a “ball control” pass with options for the QB all over the field. Most are plays that came to the Air Raid coaches from other offenses, and their lineage can be traced through LaVell Edwards/Norm Chow at BYU, back to Bill Walsh and Sid Gillman. They weren’t really new plays in the Air Raid, they were just packaged differently.
All images from the 1999 Oklahoma Mike Leach Playbook, where Leach coached between stops at Kentucky and Texas Tech.
94 Y Sail
This is a classic three-level flood to one sideline. One receiver stretches the defense deep, usually as a decoy, while another runs an out or corner to that side of the field, and a third runs to the flat. If the defense over-pursues to the flood, the backside receiver settles into space.
A two-level flood to the sideline, Smash usually is read off of the CB. If he drops to take the corner route, the WR should be open underneath. If he stays tight to the WR, the corner route should be open. Sometimes the WR would run a slant or a “slant-return” route instead of this fake fade route, which Leach called “Lisa/Rita” (for left/right).
Shown here from a two-back formation, Smash evolved over time to be run in a 4-wide set by the slot receivers at Texas Tech.
Perhaps the most classic of all Air Raid plays, Mesh was great against the man to man defenses Kentucky saw in the SEC. Two players “mesh” on shallow crossing routes over the middle, which creates a natural pick or “rub” in the routes, making it difficult for man to man coverage. It remains a great concept for beating man to man coverage to this day, and is a mainstay of Chip Kelly and his disciples as well as Air Raid teams.
Originally run with a post over the middle at BYU by Norm Chow/LaVell Edwards, Leach and Mumme ran it with a corner route attached. Many Kelly disciples now run the play with a player sitting behind the mesh point.
Y Corner AKA Snag
It’s called “F-Shoot” in this diagram, and the play is read differently by the QB here, but the concept is largely the same: Y runs a corner route, Z a slant (which can be broken off against zone to sit in a soft spot) and F runs a route to the flat.
Later at Tech, the Y was the first read, the play was read deep-to-shallow (TE first), and there were double-slants on the backside from two wide receivers. However you run it, this creates both a vertical stretch and a horizontal stretch for the defense to the “snag” side (a “triangle read”), which presents plenty of options vs. 2-deep or 3-deep zone, or man to man.
Snag’s cousin “Stick” is largely the same concept, only with different players getting into the triangle. Wes Welker made a killing on H Stick at Texas Tech.
4 Verticals and variations
Almost nonexistant at Kentucky, Leach ran this a LOT at Texas Tech. The play gives the receivers basic landmarks for spacing, but allows them the freedom to adjust to what the defense is doing within their lane. There are some predetermined variations here, but Leach eventually gave his receivers the instruction to “stay in your vertical lane but then get open” as Chris Brown puts it. Receivers and quarterbacks would read it on the fly instead of making a pre-snap call to alter the play.
Lincoln Riley’s...Ground Raid?
While it seems that a good amount of the Air Raid has carried over to Riley and Mayfield’s offense, it doesn’t feel right to call it an Air Raid. There are similarities in the passing game, (more on that soon), but Riley has decidedly moved toward running the ball. He is certainly still raiding teams, but not exclusively through the air.
For comparison, here are the run/pass splits for OU and one of Leach’s teams:
OU vs. TT Run/Pass
|Oklahoma 2015||Oklahoma 2016||Oklahoma 2017||Texas Tech 2006|
|Oklahoma 2015||Oklahoma 2016||Oklahoma 2017||Texas Tech 2006|
|Runs Per Game||44.2||44||39||16.9|
|Passes Per Game||33.8||29.5||30.9||50.4|
With running talents like Joe Mixon (I feel the need to mention here that he’s done some unspeakable things, and that one of the games I was watching in my film review mentioned that he claimed he broke a young woman’s face “in self defense” which now seems like a complete falsehood) and Samaje Perine, and versatile blocking receivers like Mark Andrews and the criminally underrated Dimitri Flowers, it is not really a surprise that Riley chose to run the ball.
And this roster difference between OU and TT doesn’t really seem like a fluke. Oklahoma has been able to recruit 4 and 5* linemen and backs for decades. They can rely to some extent on their ability to recruit and develop players who are bigger and stronger than the opposition. Meanwhile, here is Leach disciple Tony Franklin on passing the ball:
People say Baylor can’t play defense. You know what? Before Art Briles got there, they couldn’t play offense, either, and they couldn’t win games [...] Obviously if you can line up and you’ve got better players than everybody else and play great defense and eat clock...that’s a great way of playing football, too.
The problem is, 95 percent of us don’t have that type of talent to do that. So when they fall into that trap of saying, ‘Here’s how Alabama has won championships. Here’s what we should do,’ to me, that’s the trap that Coach Saban would want everybody to fall into.
So, is Riley successful because Oklahoma can out-recruit the rest of the Big 12? Or is he consciously being “different” by running the ball at a time and in a conference when everyone else is throwing it every down? I’m not really sure, but it’s working.
Whatever you call it, the Lincoln Riley offense was humming with Baker Mayfield running the show. And it has decidedly evolved away from the offenses of Leach and Mumme.
Soon we’ll take a look at the foundation of OU’s offense— their running game—and at their passing game and it’s evolution from the classic Air Raid.