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Column: Could the air raid be a viable SEC offense?

But first, some thoughts on Washington vs. Cleveland. 

Mississippi State v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Before we jump in for the week, I just wanted to pay a moment of homage to the Cleveland Browns vs. Washington Football Team game this weekend. There was a lot to celebrate as an Ohio State fan, with three of Washington’s top players — Dwayne Haskins Jr., Terry McLaurin and Chase Young — all recent products from Columbus. Also how great is it to see McLaurin, who we all knew was good at Ohio State, achieve the status he deserves as the No. 1 target in Washington? While it was a bummer to see Young sidelined so early, as a Browns fan, it was nice that I didn’t have to face the inevitable ambivalence when he would make a solid play on defense.

On the Browns, Denzel Ward is the undisputed top corner on defense. Then in the booth, we had one of our perennial favorite Buckeyes, Chris Spielman, who constantly provides the best analysis.

Beyond this heartwarming reunion, this game was historic for other reasons - namely that it was the first to feature a female coach on both sidelines AND a female referee. Callie Brownson, who started her NFL career with Sean McDermott in Buffalo, joined Cleveland this year as chief of staff. Jennifer King followed Washington head coach Ron Rivera from Carolina after making history as the first black woman to coach in the league in 2018. Finally, Sarah Thomas has been widely recognized for her role as the first female on-field official in NFL history (2015) and first woman to officiate a playoff game (2019). Thanks to these three women and their allies who gave them these opportunities.

When I was a youth, I didn’t have many women in sports to look up to. It was hard to imagine having a career (or side hustle) in sports, even though I’d wanted so badly to be a sportswriter. I’m so grateful for these women and the numerous others who have shown that girls can do anything.

To quote the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” We must recognize that sometimes those decisions happen on a football field.

Back to the topic for today. In a decade in the Big 12 at Texas Tech, and short of a decade in the Pac-12 with Washington State, Mike Leach introduced what’s become colloquially known as the “air raid offense.”

I’ve always loved watching Mike Leach-coached football teams. They’re exciting and high flying, and Leach himself is liable to say something ridiculous every fourth game or so which keeps things fresh and entertaining.

Of course, watching Mike Leach-coached football teams has meant a certain level of dedication in the past decade. Even living in Central time, the Pac-12 is on wayyyyyyyyyyyy too late. On a related note, that tends to be why I forget about Pac-12 teams when it comes to the College Football Playoff — it’s hard to consistently watch teams and get a feel for the conference when I’m usually in my jam jams and fast asleep by their kickoff.

Also there was that one time when, in a desperate attempt to keep my husband out of sight while his friends gathered to surprise him for his 30th birthday, I forced him to watch a Washington State vs. Houston game on a Friday night. When Dave got frustrated that we weren’t leaving the bar, I finally said “I’m just a big fan of Mike Leach’s offense.”

More on that offense. The history of the “air raid” offense isn’t super extensive but is highly distinctive. LaVell Edwards, who coached BYU from 1972-2000 (tenure, eh?) is widely credited as the originator of the offense during his time with the Cougars while coaching players like Steve Young and Mike Leach.

Then along came Leach, rebirthed as a coach, who refined the no-huddle, passing-forward offense during his time as an assistant at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, Kentucky and Oklahoma before his big break as head coach at Texas Tech in 2000.

Real quick on the tenets of the air raid: The concept begins with a shotgun formation, a highly-independent quarterback, three or four-wide receiver sets and, as you probably guessed, lots and lots and lots of passing.

Some might say the air raid has been in the NFL for years. It’s prolific and pass-forward, and for a sport that’s favored the forward pass since its inception, it’s natural that elements thereof would come out from time to time with talented downfield passers with the receiver resources available to toss to.

In the NFL, the air raid offense has gotten some extra attention in the last couple seasons, especially with Gardner Minshew, who played under Leach at Washington State, currently culling a cult following with a similarly entertaining personality in his starting role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Heading into Sunday, Minshew is tops in the NFL in passing yards (787) and second in passing touchdowns (six) in 2020. Of course, given his three picks through three games, he’s very much middle of the road when it comes to overall QBR.

But then there’s Kliff Kingsbury, formerly a player for Leach at Texas Tech, who followed in his former head coach’s footsteps as head coach himself the Red Raiders and who, now, finds himself as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals with a prolific passer in Kyler Murray.

And of course, there’s Patrick Mahomes.

While there are certainly sparks of success for elements of the air raid, it hasn’t been widely adopted outright for reasons I’ll spoil here: the defenses in the NFL are generally competent (even the Browns’).

Back to the college ranks. Now that Leach has moved to Mississippi State, I will admit I expected his coaching career and offensive philosophy, so intertwined over the years, to stall. I didn’t think the air raid could work against any level of competent defense — hence why it’s worked in the past in the Big 12 and Pac-12, and why it’s never been used by name in the NFL until, realistically, right now. The SEC has simply valued defense too much over the years to allow a high-flying offense to take over.

Additionally, there’s little proof in the pudding that the air raid leads to actual success at the college level. Sure, air raid quarterbacks and receivers have monster numbers that garner a lot of attention, but those numbers haven’t necessarily translated to wins or, more importantly, championships.

So what is Leach’s record in winning national championships, conference championships or even finishing atop his division? Answer: He captured co-division titles in the Pac-12 North in 2018 and the Big 12 South in 2008, failing to make the conference title game in both cases due to tiebreakers. These decades-apart achievements might indicate that an entirely new offensive scheme might not generate the success to warrant the massive changes in recruiting and playbooks such a shift would require (i.e., when a coach running such an offense moves to a new role). The fact the average tenure for FBS coaches is less than four years would be another reason to avoid such a seismic shift.

At his two previous head coaching roles, Leach has bucked the trend of the short-tenured coaches we’ve seen so often at bottom-half programs in the Power Five. It would have seemed that both Texas Tech and Washington State gave him the rope he needed to build the program he believed would lead to success. Whether that panned out is up to interpretation, but by most measures, it did not. It’ll be left to be seen if Leach will be given that bandwidth at Mississippi State.

However, enough speculation. We have a single data point of Leach’s success with the air raid in the SEC. And that data point is shocking. The Bulldogs defeated LSU (yes, that LSU) 44-34. Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 623 yards, five touchdowns and two picks. At first blush, it would seem the air raid can overcome a stout defense, and simply needs to outscore SEC offenses (keeping in mind 34 points isn’t insignificant).

However, while Saturday’s antics against LSU were shocking, we must keep in mind that LSU has lost so much from its national championship team. While we can recognize Joe Burrow’s absence for the Tigers, less apparent are the losses from the defense due to early (and on time) departures for the NFL and opt-outs due to COVID-19. In all, just five total starters returned to the LSU lineup this season after their championship last year.

So what does the air raid mean in the long run? Maybe it’ll mean the SEC will begin to recruit more for big arms at quarterback and speed at receiver to emulate the Big 12. LOL. No. The top teams in the SEC tend to have balanced offensive attacks that allow them to put up the points they need. They have defenses which can actually defend the pass. These tenets are shared by the Big Ten, which also tends to have strong defenses and multi-dimensional offenses, and whose champions are not the teams with the most pass-happy offenses.

And for evidence of how one-dimensional offenses and lack of defenses work out, look at how Oklahoma has fared in the College Football Playoff. In a sport - college football - which relies on coaching perhaps more than pure talent, devising strategy on both sides of the ball has proven more successful than isolating focus to a single tactic on one side of the ball. So while I wish Mississippi State the best of luck, the evidence is against them when it comes to facing talented and well-coached defenses who can effectively limit the air raid.