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The evolution of the Air Raid Quarterback: The Johnny Football effect

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Johnny Manziel's wild success at Texas A&M may have changed how Air Raid teams evaluate quarterbacks in recruiting, and the result could be offenses that are more flexible than ever before.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When the Air Raid offense really took off under Mike Leach at Texas Tech much of the wonder and interest in the offense came from the fact that Leach's Raiders were torching people with recruits that the other Big 12 schools weren't falling over themselves to get.

The parade of 4k yard Raider passers under Leach included walk-on Sonny Cumbie (now a co-OC at TCU) and two-star recruit Cody Hodges along with a cast of under-recruited receivers and linemen. High schools and colleges around the country were soon finding their way to Lubbock to learn what they could from the Air Raid system that was demolishing passing records and blueblood defenses at Texas and Oklahoma.

Now the system is ubiquitous and defines the common approach across the region with Texas A&M, TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa State, and of course Texas Tech all featuring offensive coaches from the Mike Leach coaching tree.

Affects of the proliferation of Leach's tactics include lots of variety within its offshoots as well as some interesting discoveries made by coaches who have either greater resources or inclination for recruiting than did Leach. Kliff Kingsbury discovered that big, receiving tight ends like Jace Amaro could wreak havoc in the system as flexed out receivers, Dana Holgorsen found that using fullbacks and packaged plays could make the offense more explosive, while Kingsbury and Kevin Sumlin discovered at A&M the possibilities for the offense when utilizing an athlete at quarterback.

What happens if that guy is an athlete?

In some ways, the Kansas Jayhawks Todd Reesing was an early harbinger of the Johnny Football era. The plucky, small Texan used his quick feet and accurate but not over-powered arm to lead Kansas to a BCS game in 2007 as a true sophomore and demonstrated what was possible for an undersized but athletic QB in the spread system.

Reesing was about 5'10, under 200 pounds, and not terribly quick in the 40 yard dash (4.92) but he could run the shuttle in 4.27 seconds and made great use of that lateral quickness to buy time and find targets downfield.

Manziel took this to another level when he took over the A&M offense as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and shocked the nation by running for 1410 yards as a 5'11" 200 pound 19 year old in the rough and tumble Southeastern Conference.

Johnny also matched Reesing's achievements as a passer that season and then in 2013 threw the ball 429 times for 4114 yards at 9.6 yards per pass along with 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

While the Air Raid had traditionally been led by quick-thinking, accurate, but often statuesque quarterbacks, Manziel's brilliant success begged the question...what if the quarterback was also a great athlete?

TCU asked that question in 2014 when former walk-on Sonny Cumbie taught the system to struggling Trevone Boykin, a great athlete that was facing the prospect of being moved to slot receiver. Instead, Boykin mastered the Air Raid and threw for 3901 yards and 33 touchdowns while adding another 707 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

Now Kingsbury has another possible addition to this new tradition with sophomore Pat Mahomes, who in three full games as a starter in 2014 threw 141 passes for 1319 yards at 9.4 yards per pass with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Air Raid teams are now looking for quick-thinking passers who are also athletes that can bring another dimension to the offense as the system evolves in its 2nd decade of existence.

Why is this so effective?

It's simple enough to understand how an athlete might present more options to an offense than a statue but the fit of the scrambling QB to the Air Raid has been far more natural than might have been assumed for a few reasons.

One is that the mobile QB is often a gun-slinger in temperament who thrives in the controlled chaos of the spread. It's not at all difficult to imagine Brett Favre unleashing unspeakable damage in the Air Raid, nor his successor Aaron Rodgers. Guys who like to move around and find targets on the run typically find that the space and multiple targets offered by this system create many more possibilities for them than pro-style schemes that draw in defenders.

Another is that a QB who can use the scramble to either run loose or buy time to find targets is kryptonite to some of the favored anti-spread defenses of the modern era which heavily rely on either pure-man coverage or pattern-matching that can create the same effect: yards and yards of open grass in front of the QB.

As Alabama's DL who faced Manziel can attest, being unable to pin their ears back and rush out of a need to maintain rushing lanes can allow the QB eons of time to find receivers. If he's comfortable doing so in the pocket and not just on the run, the defense has serious problems.

Do they have as many DBs to rotate in as the offense does WRs that they trust to get open in such circumstances? Does the defense have enough pass-rushers to maintain a disciplined pass-rush that keeps the QB in the pocket?

Finally, there's the added dimension to the running game that a mobile QB can bring, which is no small potato for an Air Raid offense.

Because Air Raid teams place such an emphasis on the passing game with practice time and personnel decisions shaped around fielding fast receivers and getting good protection from the OL, having a cheat code that yields automatic rushing offense is invaluable.

RPOs have helped Air Raid teams a good deal in this regard by allowing the QB to punish defenses on the option by throwing rather than running, but nothing beats a mobile QB for gaining numbers advantages in the box. A&M got considerable mileage out of pairing quick passing game concepts with QB draws for Manziel and TCU built much of their running game around using Boykin in the zone read or speed option.

The real or improvised QB draw (the scramble) can both bring a serious boost to an offense's production on the ground and shore up the Air Raid's classic weakness.

Commissioning field generals

The Air Raid was not designed to feature athletic quarterbacks, and indeed has a large variety of concepts and strategies designed to allow an accurate, intelligent, but slow quarterback to control the game.

One of the greatest successes of the offense has been the way it can give the QB options at the line or after the snap to make adjustments and dissect the defense based on teaching provided by the coach rather than constant direction during the game.

Military theorist Col. John Boyd had a concept to describe strategic agility called "the OODA loop" which details the necessary steps in order for leaders to adjust in a competitive (warlike or otherwise) situation. "Observe, orient, decide, and act" describes the process of understanding what's happening on the ground and adjusting.

Too often coaches want to be the ones in charge of this process, but a staff that can teach the players to do this for themselves on the field will always have the advantage as they will inevitably be completing the OODA loop before their opponents do.

Many Air Raid offenses have been very good at flying through the OODA loop by emphasizing spacing, tempo, simplicity, and pre and post-snap options for the quarterback on the field. The spacing and tempo forces the defense to simplify, making it easier for the QB to observe what is happening. If he has checks and options available he can quickly orient the offense and then a well-trained, quick-thinking QB will decide and act long before the defensive coordinator has necessarily even observed what has happened.

The dual-threat QB takes this to another level as he is always able to improvise and create new possibilities by using his legs. If the play breaks down he may still have the chance to complete a 2nd cycle through the OODA loop on a play before the defensive coordinator has completed one.

Early on in Peyton Manning's career there were many pundits suggesting that having your quarterback try to outsmart a defensive coordinator was a horrible idea and the same could be said for asking that task of a collegiate athlete. But those who are flexible and able to quickly adjust will generally beat those who are overly rigid and married to a strict process.

It was only a matter of time before the Air Raid reached new programs that would have the resources to plug fantastic athletes into the system. Thanks to Johnny Football, it's now clear that dual threat QBs can be as devastating in the Air Raid as in any other system. Don't expect the troubled Texan Heisman to be the final word on athletic Air Raid QBs.