Mike Leach: The Father of Modern Football

On Monday night, Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach passed away at the age of 61 due to a heart attack. He was taken from us far too soon, and we lost one of the truly great characters and personalities that make the sport of football so wonderful. Mike Leach is an irreplaceable part of this incredible sport, and while the game is of course bigger than any individual, it has definitely lost some of its color, personality, eccentricity and joy.

The picture I chose of him above, I think, encapsulates him perfectly: his QB at Washington State, Gardner Minshew (known for the mustache) put a fake mustache on Leach after a win. Leach is doing an interview with a reporter wearing the fake mustache, but keeping a completely straight face.

From all the tributes that have poured out in the hours and days following Leach’s passing, it’s clear that the man made an impact on just about everyone who ever crossed his path. And not only that, but a positive impact.

People are remembering Mike Leach for his character and personality–the kind of man he was–rather than just rattling off his football accomplishments (and there are many of those as we’ll soon go over). That says it all. Very seldom are sports figures remembered for who they actually were as people over their sporting achievments.

We lost a great one in Mike Leach, truly. He was truly one of a kind, and football will never be the same without him.

However, I think the best way to honor Mike Leach, given that I never knew the man, is to highlight the profound effect he has had on the game of football itself. Because while Mike Leach touched the lives of so many people who knew him, his influence on the game of football itself is something we can all appreciate.

To really understand it, though, we have to talk about the story of the sport of football itself–where it began and where it is today. Because Mike Leach played a massively important role in the evolution of the game into what it has become. That is a truly profound legacy: to have literally changed the way the game of football is played. Nick Saban is widely regarded today as the greatest college football coach ever, but did Nick Saban ever really change the way the sport is played?

I’m not trying to take a shot at Saban, or say that Mike Leach is a better football coach than Saban. But it’s just a fact that Mike Leach’s impact on the game of football goes beyond just the number of games he won, or how many times his team won their conference, etc. Mike Leach was one of those rare individuals who altered the way the game of football is played.

As in, if Mike Leach had never become a football coach–if he had simply gone on to practice law after earning his law degree–the sport of football that we know today would look very different.

It opens up a whole philosophical debate: do we evaluate coaches purely based on how many championships they won, or should we focus more on innovation, schematic brilliance–how much a coach contributed to the evolution of the game? It’s a debate that is certainly not warranted now; right now, we should only be celebrating Mike Leach’s life and legacy, but it’s nonetheless worth considering.

If you’re anything more than a casual football fan, you probably already know that Mike Leach is considered the pioneer of the air raid offense. But what you may not know is just how much the air raid offense has changed the way offensive football is played.

It really revolutionized the sport.

However, in order to truly put Mike Leach’s innovations in their proper context, and to really understand his place in the history of the sport, we have to really understand how the game of football began and how it changed over the years.

For most of his its history–and I’m talking going all the way back to the days of Yale and Princeton in the 1800s–football has been a running-oriented sport. American gridiron football itself is a sport originally derived from soccer and rugby–in fact, the first football game ever played, between Rutgers and Yale in 1869, featured a round ball that could not be picked up or carried. Players had to either kick or bat the ball with their feet, arms and head.

In those early days of the sport, it evolved into a game that most resembled rugby. Footage of old football games from the early 1900s shows a brutal, violent sport that looks more like medieval infantry warfare than anything else. Like the battle scenes in Game of Thrones almost.

Football back then was one mass of humanity trying to push another mass of humanity backward and advance the ball down the field. The same fundamental principles are still in place today, but the game has evolved significantly over the years.

It was not until 1906 that the forward pass was legalized–37 years after the first American football game was played.

The invention of the forward pass was more of a necessity than anything else. The sport was so violent that in 1904, 18 collegiate players died, and in 1905, 19 died. Football in the pre-forward pass era was a sport primarily played by the wealthy and privileged, as the lower classes, who typically worked manual labor jobs, could not risk the injuries that were so frequent to football players. The wealthy could afford to sit at home for a few months on the mend with a broken arm or leg, manual laborers couldn’t. This is why baseball was more popular with the poor and working classes–the risk of injury was much lower.

Being an avid football fan (and also from a wealthy, aristocratic family), President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1906, spearheaded a movement to make changes to the sport of football that would allow the game to not only survive (several schools, due to the number of player deaths, dropped the sport entirely after 1905) but thrive and grow into something better, while maintaining the fundamental essence of the sport–again, advancing the ball down the field while the other team tries to stop you and get the ball back for themselves.

The changes brought about in 1906 included the implementation of a “neutral zone” between the offense and defense; increasing the distance of a first down from 5 to 10 yards (so as to prevent teams from massing at the line of scrimmage and forming a deadly scrum) and legalizing the forward pass (also to prevent deadly scrums).

Obviously, before 1906, football coaches and players had considered the idea of a forward pass. You look at the mass of humanity between your ball carrier and the first down line, and it’s only natural to think, “Boy, what if we could just chuck the ball up and over that big scrum of people?” But it was against the rules for many years, and not only that, it was simply considered to be cheap, cowardly and at odds with the spirit of the game. What kind of man worth anything would rather throw the ball than run into the pile?

When the forward pass was finally legalized in 1906, it was met with a fair degree of skepticism and opposition:

Although any player behind the line of scrimmage was permitted to pass, the rules committee imposed severe restraints that hampered offenses. Passes couldn’t be thrown or caught within five yards of each side of the line of scrimmage, and only the two ends on the line of scrimmage were eligible to make catches.

Additionally, passes that crossed the goal line resulted in touchbacks to defenses, and out-of-bounds throws were given to defenses at the spots where they left the field. Passes that hit the ground without being touched by any player resulted in turnovers.

“The forward pass has been so well hedged about with restrictions as to make it a play that must be thoroughly practiced and well executed to be of use,” wrote rules committee member Walter Camp, a staunch foe of the play.

Pass proponents such as Georgia Tech coach John Heisman believed the forward pass would inject speed and skill into football and open up the game by compelling defenders to spread out in coverage. But opponents such as Camp believed it emasculated the sport’s brute nature.

“Many predict the ruination of the game through the drastic reformation,” reported the New York Times of the sport’s rule changes heading into the 1906 season.

For many years following the legalization of the forward pass, most teams viewed it as a novelty, a cheap trick that really had no place in the sport. And I’m sure that if old Walter Camp, who died in 1925, could come back to life and see the game of football today, he would be thoroughly disgusted by what it has become. The game today is unrecognizable from what it was a century ago. If you think the old heads today are the only ones who criticize the perceived decreasing toughness of the game, just realize that to even older generations, the forward pass itself was derided as making the game soft and “emasculated.”

There were a few teams here and there after 1906 that really embraced the forward pass and had a lot of success–notably, Notre Dame, whose football program actually came to prominence in 1913 after they used the forward pass to upset Army. In that era, Army was a powerhouse program and Notre Dame was unknown.

But even then, the ball itself was less pointed and more round, and was not really meant to be thrown all that much. Players used underhand tosses or two-handed “shoves” on forward passes, not the traditional over-hand throwing motion common today.

The NFL itself was founded in 1920, and by the 1930s, the slow, gradual embrace of the forward pass at the collegiate level made its way to the NFL. This is an important dynamic to be aware of: while the NFL is the pinnacle of American football, and represents the sport being played at its absolute highest level, it is still ultimately dictated by trends, evolutions and innovations made at the college level. Because eventually, the players at the college level will populate the pro level.

I remember about 10 years ago or so a lot of football analysts were talking about how because of the prevalence of the shotgun formation at the college level, it would eventually take over the NFL. Same with mobile quarterbacks, too. All that stuff has happened. The college game is typically 5-10 years ahead of the pro game in terms of play style. It takes a while for these changes to really be felt at the NFL level because oftentimes what works in college is little more than a gimmick at the pro level, what with all the speed, strength and athleticism.

You think about Michael Vick: he was a novelty almost in the 2000s, a one-of-a-kind player who, while exciting and obviously difficult to stop and game-plan against, was very different from all the other quarterbacks in the league. You wanted your quarterback to be a great thrower of the ball, not a great runner.

Well, nowadays, half the quarterbacks in the league can run the ball. It’s almost expected that you be able to at least pick up yards with your feet if you’re a quarterback. This is because after seeing how successful running quarterbacks were, coaches all the way down to high school and Pop Warner levels started taking their best athletes and making them quarterbacks–teaching them to throw the ball and execute the RPO. Soon these players moved up to the college level, and then eventually the pro level.

Anyway, while the forward pass made great strides in the decades following its legalization in 1906, it would still be a very long time before it was truly embraced by everyone–from the pros to college down to high school.

Guys like Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, Davey O’Brien and Sid Luckman in the 30s and 40s were the earliest great “modern” quarterbacks, who really embraced the forward pass and dedicated themselves to mastering it. In other words, these are the earliest QBs that modern football fans like you and I could actually watch old videos of and see a connection to today’s quarterbacks: they dropped back to pass and threw the ball overhand. The game they played resembled the game we have today.

Prior to the late 1930s (Baugh came into the league in 1937), you would not really recognize the names of the guys who were considered great quarterbacks: Jimmy Conzelman and John “Paddy” Driscoll were named the two quarterbacks on the NFL’s 1920s All Decade Team (this team was assembled retroactively by the Hall of Fame in 1969).

O’Brien won the Heisman Trophy in 1938, becoming the first quarterback to win the award (it was first awarded in 1935, to Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger). Nile Kinnick of Iowa won the Heisman in 1939 as a “HB/QB,” but if we look at his stats, we can see that in the 1939 season, he had 93 passing attempts in 8 games vs. 106 rushing attempts. He really wasn’t a full-time quarterback as we understand the position today.

But still, even though guys like Baugh and O’Brien were showing how valuable a competent passing game could be, it took a while for the forward pass to truly be embraced by the sport at large as something that was as important an offensive tool as running the ball was. From 1935-1962, only four true quarterbacks won the Heisman: O’Brien in 1938, Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli in 1943, Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack in 1947, and Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in 1956.

While today we recognize that the Heisman is primarily a quarterback award, there was a time when it certainly wasn’t. It was a running back’s award. Starting in 1962, with Oregon State’s Terry Baker, quarterbacks would win the Heisman far more frequently, but it was still predominantly a running back’s award.

The reason there are “half” players in the 1930s and 1940s is because some players (specifically Nile Kinnick in 1939, and Les Horvath in 1944, are listed as “HB/QB”).

However, back in the 1960s, when college football was dominated by teams like Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide, and Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes, it was still predominantly a running sport. Woody Hayes’ offense at Ohio State was famously described as “three yards and a cloud of dust,” meaning your running back goes three yards and then runs into a massive pile of bodies. Hayes also famously quipped that “three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

You look at the 1964 National Championship-winning Alabama football team, for example–which was quarterbacked by none other than Joe Namath–and they averaged, on offense, 17.4 passing attempts per game vs. 44.5 rushing attempts a game.

Even as recently as the 1990s, only 4 of the 10 Heisman Winners were quarterbacks (Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, Charlie Ward and Danny Wuerffel). The rest were non-QBs: you had Desmond Howard, who was a WR/KR, running backs Rashaan Salaam and Eddie George, Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne, and then cornerback Charles Woodson.

Since 2000, however, 19 of the past 23 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks. The only non-QBs to win it over that span: Reggie Bush in 2005, Mark Ingram in 2009, Derrick Henry in 2015 and DeVonta Smith in 2020.

We can see the rise of quarterback-centric football begin in the 2000s with the players that won the Heisman Trophy. Clearly something changed in the early 2000s that shifted college football into the quarterback-driven sport we know today.

In fact, the sport of football advanced similarly to the way warfare has “advanced”: it began as a bunch of guys running at each other and hacking away at one another in a big field with swords, while nowadays it’s all about air superiority–flying over top of the enemy and dropping bombs on him without having to send 40,000 guys into a big, bloody melee. You think about basically every “advancement” in warfare technology–from the gun to the cannon to the ICBM–it’s all about hitting the enemy from a further and further distance away.

Same with football. The appeal of the forward pass is that you can throw a ball a lot faster than a guy can run the ball, plus, you can throw the ball through the air–you don’t have to have your guy carry the ball into a big scrum of people who are all trying to decapitate him. You can throw the ball over the defenders’ heads.

(However, I want to make something clear: football is and always will be a sport based on blocking and tackling. Even the best quarterbacks stand no chance if their offensive line cannot block for them. And running the football will always be an integral part of the game of football–you cannot expect to win at a high level without the ability to run. But what is different about the modern game is that you cannot expect to win at a high level without being able to competently throw the football. You simply can’t.)

The passing game was embraced quicker at the NFL level than it was at the college level. The reason for this is likely that in college, there are vast disparities in the talent level from team to team. The big time programs have the best players, and so they can consistently rely on simply pushing lesser teams around and bulldozing them with the run game. There was no great secret or schematic genius to Woody Hayes’ “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense: he just had bigger, stronger and just plain better players than most everyone else.

However, in the NFL, there is not nearly as much of a talent disparity: every team is full of big, strong, fast, athletic and smart players, so it was not really possible to ground and pound your opponents with the single wing formation or the triple option; you had to find an edge some other way. Thus, out of necessity, NFL teams had to begin throwing the ball more, if only to keep the defense honest and discourage them from crowding the line of scrimmage. Eventually, some teams figured out that they could do incredible things with the passing game, and thus throwing the ball became a huge part of the pro game much earlier than it did the college game.

This is why we still have this belief that young quarterbacks fresh out of college need to sit behind a veteran and develop before really getting thrust in there as the starting QB: because NFL offenses asked so much more of the quarterbacks than college offenses did. It’s still true to some extent–some quarterbacks are projects and just aren’t ready to be NFL quarterbacks straight out of college–but for the most part (and largely because of Mike Leach) passing attacks in college these days are so sophisticated, and quarterbacks are asked to throw so much, most of them are ready for the NFL as rookies. You look at Justin Herbert, he was pretty much a top-10 QB in the NFL from the first start of his rookie year.

Obviously there’s still somewhat of a learning curve moving from college to the pros, but not nearly as much as there was in, say, the 1970s or 1980s, or even the 1990s and into the 2000s. It is no longer necessary for these QBs to sit for 2-3 seasons before they’re ready to start in the NFL.

Because back in the 1980s, there really was a world of a difference between NFL passing offenses and college passing offenses. It was a gigantic leap for these quarterbacks, because very few schools were actually running pass-first offenses, whereas in the NFL, starting in the 1980s, the West Coast offense really took off with Bill Walsh and the 49ers, and that was a radically different style of play from what most teams in college were doing.

If we take a look at the numbers, going by NFL league-wide average passing attempts per game, we can see that pass attempts shot up in the 1980s:

Passing was growing increasingly popular starting in the 1930s (the numbers only go back to 1932), and you can see a steady increase from the 1930s to the 1940s, and then from the 1940s to the 1950s, but then from the 1950s through the 1970s, pass attempts per game plateaued around 26-27.

Then, in the 1980s, the number jumped up to nearly 32 a game, showing the impact of the West Coast offense. Passing grew even more prevalent in the 2010s, and since 2010, NFL teams are throwing the ball on average over 34 times per game.

To really illustrate it: in 1977, the average NFL team attempted 25 passes per game against 37 rushing attempts. Last season, the average NFL team attempted 34 passes a game against 26 rushing attempts. It’s almost been completely flipped.

Okay, so we know that passing has grown in importance over the years since its legalization in 1906. But who were the real innovators of this movement towards more passing-oriented football offenses? Who were the guys that really pioneered this push towards more and more passing attempts?

Well, at the NFL level, as we went over a bit ago, it was Bill Walsh. Walsh was the offensive coordinator for Paul Brown’s Cincinnati Bengals in the 1970s, and formulated an offensive style for a quarterback named Virgil Carter, who had a relatively weak arm but was very accurate. So Walsh came up with an offensive strategy that centered on short, quick pass plays horizontal rather than vertical wide receiver routes, and really eschewed the deep bomb throws in an attempt to play to his quarterback’s strengths. The short, quick pass plays and horizontal routes were almost like an extension of the run game because they were high percentage completions–long handoffs, essentially.

When Bill Walsh became the head coach of the 49ers in 1979, he implemented this offensive system to great success, led by Joe Montana at quarterback and Jerry Rice at wide receiver. With Walsh as head coach, the 49ers won three Super Bowls, and then a fourth under George Seifert, who maintained the same West Coast offensive system. The 49ers won yet another Super Bowl in 1994 with Steve Young at QB and the West Coast offense in place.

If you go and watch some highlights of Joe Montana, you’ll see that he typically gets rid of the ball quickly–basically as soon as he completes his drop-back, that ball is out on most plays. And with Jerry Rice, he was never the fastest player in the league, but he knew how to get open and run routes like no other, and so many of his yards came after the catch.

At the college level, it really all goes back to longtime BYU head coach LaVell Edwards, who coached the program from 1972 until 2000. Edwards is unquestionably the most important figure in BYU football history (the stadium is named after him, and he led them to their only National Championship back in 1984), but what “football guys” really know him for is pioneering the passing-centric offensive system at the college level and developing quarterbacks like Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer (who won the Heisman in 1990).

Edwards developed a passing-centric offense in the early 1970s that was simple, in that it only had about 12 different passing plays and 5 basic running plays, but could be run out of a number of different formations.

In 1972, Edwards’ first year at BYU, his offense was similar to every other team’s: they averaged 24.6 passing attempts per game against 47.3 rushing attempts per game on offense. The next year, though, in 1973, they averaged 37 passing attempts per game.

This was radically unconventional for that time. Alabama, who in 1973 went 11-1, averaged only 8.5 passing attempts per game against 60 rushing attempts. Notre Dame, who beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that year to win the National Championship, averaged 14.2 passing attempts a game against 67.3 rushing attempts per game.

But this was how all the top teams approached offense back then. Ohio State, who went 10-0-1 and won the Rose Bowl over USC in 1973, averaged only 7.9 pass attempts per game against 66.2 rush attempts. John McKay’s USC teams passed the ball a little bit more–21 times per game give or take over most of his tenure–but still were heavily skewed towards running the ball, which they did more than 55 times per game under McKay most years.

What LaVell Edwards recognized was that his BYU teams would never be able to compete with programs like Alabama, Notre Dame, USC and Ohio State. Those teams got all the biggest, strongest recruits and the fastest, most powerful running backs. Little BYU could never line up and beat those teams playing that style of football. They had to figure out another way, which turned out to be throwing the ball and running a completely unconventional offensive system.

Now, let’s be clear: in the 1970s, LaVell Edwards’ BYU teams never competed with the big boys of college football. In the 1970s, they got invited to a few bowl games against Oklahoma State and got smacked around both times.

But in 1979, BYU really committed to the pass-first offense. They threw the ball 42 times a game against only 33 rushing attempts per game that year. They went 11-1, but lost to Indiana in the Holiday Bowl. From then on, BYU was fully invested in throwing the ball. Jim McMahon was the quarterback in 1980, and he threw for 4,571 yards and 47 touchdowns, and those 47 TDs absolutely obliterated the previous record of 38 set by Doug Williams at Grambling State in 1977. McMahon also set the record for passing yards in a season.

In fact, from 1980-1990, four BYU quarterbacks led the nation in passing yards: McMahon in 1980, then Robbie Bosco in 1985 with 4,273; Ty Detmer in 1989 with 4,560, and then Detmer again in 1990 with 5,188. Detmer became the first college quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season.

BYU became a powerhouse program in the early 1980s, culminating in a 13-0 season in 1984 in which they defeated Michigan 24-17 in the Holiday Bowl and were crowned National Champions (although in fairness, Michigan was only 6-6 that year; you can really see the glaring flaws of the old college football system before the BCS, and before even the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance).

Eventually, Edwards balanced his offenses out to feature basically an equal amount of runs and passes in a game, but still, even by the late 1980s, this was radically different from what the big boy programs were doing. In 1989, BYU lost to Penn State in the Holiday Bowl, and Penn State’s offensive breakdown that year was 20 pass attempts vs. 48 rush attempts a game. The Miami Hurricanes, who were a major national powerhouse in the 1980s, adopted some elements of the pass-first offense, but even they were pretty balanced in terms of their pass attempts vs. run attempts on a game to game basis.

Okay, so where does Mike Leach come into this story?

Well, soon. Mike Leach worked for a coach by the name of Hal Mumme, who is most known for coaching Kentucky in the late 1990s. Mumme worked his way up from obscurity, making a name for himself at an NAIA school called Iowa Wesleyan (a great story you can read about here), and then at Valdosta State in southern Georgia.

Hal Mumme was inspired by the LaVell Edwards offensive revolution, and it was after studying the BYU offensive system that Mumme and Leach developed the offensive system now known as the “air raid,” the elements of which have become commonplace in the sport of football at all levels today. Leach himself was probably inspired by Edwards on his own, as Leach did his undergrad at BYU from 1979-1983–although Leach was on the rugby team, not the football team. (Yes, Mike Leach played college rugby, not college football–the guy is truly one of a kind). Obviously, Leach had a great interest in football, and was no doubt aware of the offensive revolution that LaVell Edwards’ team was leading.

Mumme was the offensive coordinator at UTEP from 1982-1985, and they faced off against BYU every year. Mumme saw first-hand how effective the Edwards offensive system was, and he wanted to emulate it. He visited with Edwards and his staff in Provo multiple times throughout the 1980s to learn more about how they approached offense.

Leach was hired on to be Mumme’s offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989, went with Mumme to Valdosta State in 1992, and then accompanied him to Kentucky in 1997, serving as the offensive coordinator the whole time.

It was at Kentucky where Mike Leach made a name for himself, developing quarterback Tim Couch into the eventual #1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft.

Leach was then hired to be the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. The quarterback at OU that year was none other than Josh Heupel, and you can see elements of the Leach offensive style in Heupel’s system at Tennessee today.

Most importantly, Oklahoma’s offense improved dramatically in 1999. In 1998, Stoops first year in Norman, they ranked 101st in the country in scoring offense.

In 1999, with Mike Leach in charge, they ranked 6th in scoring.

After just one season at OU, Texas Tech hired Leach as head coach, and the rest is history. In a decade, the Air Raid system had brought him from Iowa Wesleyan to the head coach of a Power Five program. It was at Texas Tech where he really popularized the system, and brought it mainstream, because he showed that it could work at a very high level: he went 84-43 at Texas Tech. They went 11-2 in 2008 and beat #1 Texas Longhorns. No longer could you say it was just a gimmick. It had beaten arguably the best team in the country.

You cannot exactly say that Mike Leach was the sole reason the game of football has evolved to be more passing-centric. That would not be accurate, because the trend toward a more pass-centric game of football began when Mike Leach was barely a teenager by Bill Walsh in the NFL and LaVell Edwards at the college level.

It was not Mike Leach who sparked the pass game revolution, or even Hal Mumme. But they were really the guys that popularized it in the 21st century, particularly Mike Leach, because Hal Mumme was out as the head coach of Kentucky by 2000 and hasn’t really done much at the FBS level since.

The real testament to Mike Leach’s system is: how many FBS programs were running it before he got to Texas Tech, and how many programs were running it after? Baylor under Art Briles, any Dana Holgorsen team, any Kevin Sumlin team–all air raid guys. Oklahoma under Bob Stoops maintained the air raid style offense long after Leach had left, and Lincoln Riley, who came up at Oklahoma over the past decade, runs his own version of the air raid. TCU under Sonny Dykes runs a version of the air raid.

While most of the big time programs do not run a pure air raid style offense, they have incorporated air raid concepts to the point where they’re no longer even considered air raid concepts–they’re just standard offensive concepts that most everybody runs nowadays at both the college and pro level, like four and five receiver sets, the hurry-up, spaced out offensive linemen, mesh, Y-cross (the Chiefs in particular love Y-cross), four verticals and to a large extent the idea of a “quick game.” It’s all about creating space for your playmakers.

Ralph Russo recently summarized the impact of the air raid on the modern game:

“Finding a team at the highest levels of the sport running Air Raid in a way that resembles what Mumme unleashed on the Southeastern Conference as Kentucky’s coach in 1997 is nearly impossible — outside of Leach’s teams.

“It’s everywhere and nowhere,” said Nate Tice, a former quarterback at Wisconsin who is now a football analyst for The Athletic. “Everyone in college runs Y cross. If you watch Ohio State, they run it 100 times a game, but you don’t think of Ohio State as an Air Raid team. But they’re running Air Raid concepts.”

The Air Raid is more a process than a playbook these days. Keeping things simple, stressing execution over matchups and seemingly endless repetition of a relatively small number of plays in practice are what links the Air Raid’s past and present.

“That really to me is the genius of Hal (Mumme) and Mike Leach and what they’ve done is they have a system of teaching and practicing that allows the players to improve at a high level,” said Colorado State coach Jay Norvell, whose quarterbacks coach is Matt Mumme, Hal’s son.

We went over earlier how lopsided towards running the ball offensive gameplans were in the 1970s at the highest levels of college football and even in the NFL. Alabama in 1973 averaged 8.5 pass attempts per game and 60 rushing attempts. This year, Alabama averaged 34.7 pass attempts per game and 35.4 rushing attempts per game.

Even as recently as 2012, Bama was averaging 23.8 passes a game against 41 runs.

Mike Leach’s fingerprints are all over the modern game of football, at both the pro level and the college level. Even in offenses that don’t run straight air raid, the concepts are ubiquitous.

I always talk about “the Big 12-ificiation” of football. What I’m really talking about is the Air Raid-ification of football.

The whole idea is based on a simple concept, and probably something you’ve often wondered yourself. When you see teams frantically moving the ball down the field at the end of a half, or the end of a game, and you see them completing pass after pass, first down after first down, and you ask, “Why don’t they just do that for the whole game?”

Well, that’s how the air raid offensive system was born.

It incorporated elements of the no-huddle, as well as the simplicity and passing-centric nature of the BYU system (the simplicity of the playbook and the calls is actually what enables the no-huddle element). It was also heavily influenced by the West Coast offense with its short, quick passing plays. Basically the idea is to throw the ball 65-70% of the time.

Patrick Mahomes played at Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury, who himself played quarterback for Leach in the 2000s. Kingsbury runs the air raid with Arizona today, and ran it with Mahomes at Texas Tech. When the Chiefs drafted Mahomes in 2017, Andy Reid added air raid concepts to their playbook and really helped popularize the air raid in the NFL. (In fairness, it also helps that Andy Reid both played for LaVell Edwards at BYU and got his coaching start as a GA there in 1982.)

In 2018, Mahomes’ rookie season, ESPN’s Adam Teicher wrote about how the air raid was already commonplace in the NFL:

Washington State head coach Mike Leach watches as much pro football as he can. And Leach can’t remember the last time he failed to see a team using concepts and sometimes exact plays from the Air Raid offensive system he became famous for first at Texas Tech and then at Washington State, a system he has used even before that when he was an offensive coordinator. “I’m watching a game and all of a sudden I see something we ran just the other day,” Leach said. “It’s every team and every game now.”

Mike Leach may not have invented the air raid system by himself, but he was the one who took it mainstream. He was the one who showed it could be run successfully in major college football.

You can consider LaVell Edwards, Bill Walsh and Hal Mumme the grandfathers, but Mike Leach is truly the father of modern offensive football.

His legacy transcends wins and losses; he has reshaped the game. Virtually every game you watch outside of Army vs. Navy has his fingerprints on it.

I really hope that from now on, NFL and college color commentators make it a point of emphasis to make audiences aware of all the Leach/Air Raid concepts being used in every game. Let the average fan know just how big an impact Mike Leach has made on the modern game.

Rest in peace to Coach Mike Leach, one of the great characters to ever cross the stage of this amazing game, but also one of the most brilliant football minds in the whole history of the sport. He deserves to have his place alongside the great innovators who catalyzed the evolution of the game itself.


If you are looking for more explanation on the different offensive philosophies throughout the history of football, this video does a great job of explaining them all in ways that anyone can understand:

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