London, UK – Are college offenses more creative than NFL offenses? That’s the question that sparked this exploration into the evolution of the modern football passing game.
Back in the 1950s the running game was the offense, you’d be lucky to see the quarterback throw the ball more than ten times. That was until Sid Gillman came along. Gillman, was and still is considered the ‘Father’ of the modern passing game. Gillman worked and influenced many great NFL coaches such as Bill Walsh, Chuck Knoll, Al Davis and Dick Vermeil amongst others. Gillman simply loved to throw the ball deep.
Football is now dominated by creative passing schemes and high octane offenses. The rule changes of recent years have only assisted the game in taking this particular path. The true pioneers of this new breed of innovative offense were coaches such as, Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Bill Walsh who in turn have helped spawn the new generation of great offensive minds in the likes of Sean McVay and Lincoln Riley.
When did offenses really start to take flight?
In 1990 Ty Detmer, whilst playing at Bringham Young University (BYU) set the single-season college passing record, racking up 5188 yards. This record now ranks fifth on that list. There are currently fifteen names (some names appear more than once) on the list that have passed for over 5000 yards in a single season, compare this to the NFL that only has ten names (again some names appear on more than once). Dan Marino broke the 5000 barrier in the NFL way back in 1984 but was not joined on the list by another NFL quarterback until 2008.
Every player in the top twenty-five single-season college passing records played after 1990, aside from three. Apart from Marino, every player in the top twenty-five on the NFL single-season passing list played after 2011. Therefore on paper at least, it would appear that the college passing game was twenty years ahead of the NFL. Is that still the case or has the NFL caught up?
The (untitled) scheme that Detmer thrived in during that record breaking season at BYU was the brainchild of Head Coach Lavell Edwards who simply created a much more pass orientated offense during a time when the running game still dominated. Edwards scheme used splits, (spreading out the offensive line) screens and play action.
Under Edwards, the BYU offense would attempt, on average 30/35 passes per game at a time when anything over around 25 was deemed a little outlandish by the majority of coaches. The concepts created by Edwards back in the late 1980s and early ’90s still appear in several different offensive schemes in both the college game and the NFL.
It wasn’t long before this new passing attack was revolutionized by Iwoa Wesleyan head coach Hal Mumme and his offensive line coach Mike Leach. Edwards started something that was about to become a ‘whole other ballgame’.
The ‘Air Raid’ Offense.
“Well it’s pretty much been effective everywhere. The last several Super Bowls have been played by Air Raid concepts on both sides for the most part,” Leach said. “I think it does a good job of attacking space and utilizing personnel. Whether it’s Air Raid or something else, I think that’s what all good offenses do.
Mike Leach (August 2019).
Mike Leach was a former BYU student who later became the offensive coordinator under Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan Community College. Leach has continued to use and adapt the scheme at his various coaching stops, including Texas Tech who have five quarterbacks in the top twenty on the all-time single-season passing list. One of those players, Kliff Kingsbury has brought the Air Raid concept to the NFL as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the current NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes is another. Leach of course, still uses it today as the head coach at Washington State. Instead of using four wide receivers, Leach now largely uses five.
Hal Mumme’s quote best sums up the philosophy of this offense.
“The Air Raid is an attitude, not a playbook”
In short Mumme and Leach’s creation of the Air Raid offense is Lavell Edwards passing scheme on steroids. It uses the pass to set up the pass. The playbooks are less extensive and it requires some improvising, often after the ball is snapped.
Using mostly no-huddle and operating out of the shotgun using three or four wide receiver sets the offense hurry to the line where the quarterback reads the defense and calls the play. Because the offense doesn’t huddle 90% of the run plays called over the course of a season are chosen by audible at the line of scrimmage.
A key component of the Air Raid concept is the personnel grouping. The scheme required four wide receivers and one running back, whilst the offensive line was split by half a yard to a yard to allow clearer passing lanes for quicker passes. Although this scheme has evolved since its birth during the late 1980s the basic concept remains very much the same, get the ball to your playmakers in space.
The ‘Run and Shoot’ Offense
Best portrayed by June Jones while Head Coach at the University of Hawaii in 2006/7, Jones also ran the scheme in the NFL whilst head coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 1994/95. Falcons quarterback Jeff George had huge success during this period, racking up nearly 8000 yards and 47 touchdowns over two seasons. Another version of this offense was known as the ‘Run and Gun’ and was used by the Houston Oilers in the early 1990s.
The ‘Run and Shoot’ scheme uses four basic patterns but is created around motions that give different looks for a defense. The main staple of this offense uses a selection of ‘option’ and ‘choice’ routes and although the formations and number of plays used are actually quite limited, it does get bogged down with ‘what if’s’ and it’s those ‘what ifs’ that bring those ‘choice routes into play.
The ‘choice’ concept is based on two different motions used by the offense. These motions show the coverage, everything then depends on the wide receivers reading their individual coverage’s and adjusting their route accordingly.
When the offense is using three receivers (trips) to one side, which it often does, it should either have a numerical advantage on that side or a one on one match up on the weak side.
Going back to that magical 2006 season-season for June Jones in Hawaii, quarterback Colt Brennan threw for 5549 yards which puts him fifth on the previously mentioned all-time college single-season list. In 2007 Brennan broke Ty Detmer’s college record for most career touchdowns responsible for, with 136. In 2010, using a variation of the same offense (Jones was no longer there) quarterback Bryant Moniz threw for 5040 yards putting him 13th on that list.
The ‘Run and Shoot’ offense was viewed as a very heavy offense to learn which is probably why it didn’t take off like its Air Raid counterpart.
If Colt Brennan were to walk in here right now, he’d know what we’re doing. I always ask the quarterback in key situations, “What do you want to do in key situations?” Because if he wants to run what he’s comfortable doing more than what I’m comfortable doing, he’s going to run that better and he’ll make it right even if it’s the “wrong” thing because it’s a belief and it’s confidence.
June Jones (2013)
The Spread Offense and The Read Option
The original spread offense was created in the early 1950s by Texas Christian University head coach Dutch Meyer. In 1970 a high school coach named Jack Neumeier evolved the scheme into something closer to what it looks like today. Using mostly the shotgun formation, the ‘Spread’ is designed to do just that, spread the defense out. It does this by using three, four or even five wide receiver sets. It can also use wide splits on the offense line to create clear passing lanes. Despite its pass heavy sets the ‘Spread’ does still use the running game to good effect. Spreading out the defense can create big running lanes. Some ofenses have a run first mentality using the ‘Spread’ formation.
In some cases, the modern day version of this offense also uses the ‘Read Option’ or ‘Zone Option’, especially at the college level that has so many athletic quarterbacks, one of today’s current fads. The best present example of the ‘Read Option’ at the pro level is Cam Newton in Carolina. At Auburn, Newton won a National Championship and the Heisman trophy whilst running this scheme.
Both Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez claim that the ‘Read Option’ (RPO) was created in error during practice. The design is simple for the quarterback to either hand the ball to the running back or pull it back at the last second and run himself or pitch the ball dependent on what the defense is doing after the ball is snapped.
“To us, it’s truly making the defense defend the entire field”
Bob Stitt, Montana HC (May, 2017)
There are many variations of the spread offense and that makes it arguably the most used offensive scheme across all levels of football, that said it is used much more sporadically in the NFL than in the college game. In 2008 using the spread offense, Case Keenum (Houston) became the NCAA all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completions.
Lots of coaches have adapted the spread concept to suit their own needs but nobody has done this to the level of former Florida and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. Back in 2000, Meyer studied the spread offense that was being used by Scott Linehan in Louisville. Meyer then meshed together parts of other offenses that he liked to create his own version. This version, in turn, would be studied and copied by many including Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels in New England.
The West Coast Offense
The offense made famous in the late 1980s by Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers was first used by Walsh while he was the offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh’s pass first concept was run exclusively with the quarterback under center. The philosophy was a ball control offense using a short passing game that relied on yards after the catch. It was viewed as a very conservative style of offense.
We like the dropback pass. We use a three-step drop pattern, but more often we will use a five-step drop pattern of timed patterns down the field. From there we go to a seven-step drop. When our quarterback takes a seven-step drop, he’s allowing the receivers time to maneuver down the field. Therefore, we will use a three-step drop pattern when we are throwing a quickout or hitch or slant which, by and large, the defense is allowing you to complete by their alignment or by their coverage.
Bill Walsh (1979)
Today’s versions mainly include the quarterback operating out of the shotgun formation and is seen as a much more aggressive scheme. The ‘West Coast Offense’ had a resurgent boom in the NFL back in the late 1990s and the early 2000s but Bill Walsh’s dink and dunk version have all but vanished. In fact, modern day offensive minds don’t seem to want to be compared to its original conservative nature.
Take current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan who uses a contemporary version of the scheme that perhaps needs to be renamed. When asked by a reporter about using Walsh’s scheme Shanahan simply and angrily replied, “I don’t run the f*****g west coast offense”.
In 2016 while OC with the Atlanta Falcons Shanahan’s scheme that uses lots of motion, play-action and also gets the running backs involved in the passing game was pivotal in getting the Atlanta Falcons to the Superbowl. The Falcons 2016 offense ranks fifth overall in NFL history. The size and complexity of the playbook is one of the main reasons that the ‘West Coast Offense’ does not translate particularly well to the college game.
So who could be the next great offensive mind?
There are currently a number of leading candidates vying to have their name mentioned in the same breath as legends such as Leach, Walsh or Meyer.
Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals)
Whilst studying the Cardinals offense one NFL defensive co-coordinator claimed that other NFL coaches had been stealing plays from the Air Raid style offense Kingsbury ran at Texas Tech. Kingsbury himself admits that he borrowed the concept from Messrs Mumme and Leach and placed his own take on it. Kingsbury’s job now is to adapt a college based scheme to the NFL and obviously for it to be successful. Let’s see if he can pull it off.
Sean McVay (L.A Rams)
It’s McVay’s creative play-calling rather than scheme itself that currently sets him apart from others. The 33 year-old head coach has put his spin on several core passing plays, some that have been covered in this piece. Take the shallow cross for example or at least a play that starts out looking like it and that alone is enough to fool most defences. The play shown below gives the illusion to the defense of a shallow cross which keeps the three linebackers short and infield but this particular play ends with the receiver turning up-field for a seventy-yard touchdown.
Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma Sooners)
Let’s start by looking at the numbers on the Sooners offense since Riley took over.
Riley’s scheme is so unique that it’s hard to label it. Although the offense only has a select few core plays, Riley has created several different route combinations and motions and runs the counter scheme with and without the RPO. For example, in 2017/18 Oklahoma ran over one hundred different variations of their own counter scheme. How do you begin to defend an offense that you can barely explain?
So do we have an answer ?
Back in 2008 our very own Zennie Abraham posed some questions to then NFL analyst (now Oakland Raiders GM) Mike Mayock at an NFL pre-draft Luncheon at Chelsea Piers, New York.
The main point Mayock makes here is that college offenses schematically do not come close to being as complexed as they are in the NFL for the simple reason of time. NFL teams have approximately a third more time to prepare and therefore will have a higher number of different plays in their playbook. Another reason is perhaps NFL rosters are almost half the size of their college peers.
The large majority of college offenses have a shorter number of plays but create multiple looks due to different motions and formations,in essence, the playbooks are smaller. With all that said a scheme, no matter how simple or complicated it appears to be, either work for the offense that’s using it or it doesn’t.
The ‘Air Raid’, the ‘Spread’ and the ‘Read Option’ were all created at the college level but in the case of the Air Raid and arguably the Spread they have been advanced in the NFL. The Air Raid was the blueprint that many offenses at all levels now use in some form. The fact remains, and always will that the NFL has the best players and better players are expected to do more.
Is it a case of college offenses being more innovative but the NFL being more expansive?
Let the debate rage on.
By Dave Squires
I’m a sports writer specialising in feature articles although will write shorter pieces. I write mainly about the NFL and the Premier League.
Diploma in Freelance Journalism
Follow me on Twitter @davefalconUK