The process of finding a franchise quarterback in the NFL draft is only getting harder thanks to the explosion of up-tempo, spread offenses in college football. Many quarterbacks reach the NFL with little experience under center, diagnosing coverages, or reading through multiple receivers before delivering a pass, the things teams look for in a prospect.
No system has confused the process more than the Air Raid offense.
Used by dozens of major college programs, the Air Raid asks even less of its passers, eliminating the challenges quarterbacks face by design. Instead, it seeks to use as much of the field as possible by spreading out a defense and “throwing it short to people who can score," in the words of Washington State coach Mike Leach.
Even four verticals — a play seemingly primed for deep passing — is a staple of Leach’s offense. Several receivers are given options to break off their routes and catch the ball in open space when it becomes available.
As a consequence, the Air Raid offense has been responsible for rewriting NCAA record books, but has produced little NFL talent at quarterback.
The most successful NFL quarterback to come from an Air Raid offense at this point is Nick Foles. He’s never recreated the Pro Bowl season he had in 2013 under then-head coach Chip Kelly, and after bouncing around the league, he’s back in Philadelphia competing for a backup job.
The lack of success stories so far hasn’t stopped teams from pulling the trigger on Air Raid quarterbacks early in the draft, though. A year ago, the Los Angeles Rams sent a significant package to the Tennessee Titans for rights to the No. 1 pick and a chance to select Jared Goff — a 6’4, 215-pound quarterback who racked up stats and accolades in the Air Raid offense brought to Cal by Sonny Dykes.
It doesn’t look likely to dissuade teams from going after Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes or Cal’s Davis Webb in 2017, either. Both quarterbacks are products of an offensive system that has yet to develop a competent NFL starter, but it’s bound to happen eventually, right? Right?
Why hasn’t the Air Raid offense produced a star?
When Mike Leach first brought the Air Raid to the Big 12, it was an attempt to compensate for the lack of talent at Texas Tech compared with conference rivals like Texas and Oklahoma. In other words, it was, “An underdog offense, for teams that can't just overpower or out-speed opponents,” as SB Nation’s Jason Kirk wrote.
Prior to arriving in Lubbock, Leach did similar wonders as the offensive coordinator at Kentucky. Under Leach, Tim Couch racked up 8,159 passing yards and 73 touchdowns in two seasons en route to being the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
Case Keenum became the NCAA all-time leader in passing yards in Houston’s Air Raid offense. Kevin Kolb produced big numbers for the Cougars too.
Like Keenum and Couch, there’s no question that Mahomes has NFL arm strength and ability. At his pro day, he finished his workout for scouts by launching a ball about 80 yards into the end zone.
For prospects with the physical qualities of an NFL passer, the challenges of the transition from an Air Raid offense are much more difficult to evaluate until they’re on the field.
Being under center isn’t just about handling a snap
Most of the top prospects in the 2017 NFL draft spent the majority of their time in shotgun. While Mahomes and Webb will bear the label of Air Raid quarterbacks, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, and DeShone Kizer were all rarely under center. Most of the top passers in the draft will face some of the same problems as Mahomes and Webb.
“I think if we had to do a percentage of no-huddle offenses in college, I’m sure it’d be pretty high,” Webb said. “So that’s an issue for everybody and you just have to get used to it.”
Teams can look to Marcus Mariota as a success story of a player making that transition.
Mariota was in a shotgun, up-tempo offense at Oregon and then had to take snaps under center with the Tennessee Titans. To make things easier for the Heisman Trophy winner, the Titans have made more than 50 percent of Mariota’s snaps from shotgun over the last two years.
“In the shotgun, their eyes are never off the defense, there’s very little play action pass, they almost have a pre-snap, pre-determined read with where to go with the ball and then all of a sudden they’re in a pro system,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said in January of quarterbacks forced to make the shift.
“They’re having to actually call plays in the huddle, go under center, turn their back to the line, play action fake, now the coverage has moved and on top of that, the guys on the other side are pretty good too. ... Same sport, two different games.”
Being under center can also present mechanical issues. Taking a three-step or five-step drop is often new to quarterbacks who were asked to do little more than turn their shoulders and fire in shotgun.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has struggled with accuracy early in his NFL career, and much of that has been attributed to his poor footwork after playing often in the shotgun at UCF.
"Every day, we try to hone it down to a couple of things, whether it's footwork or understanding a situation or situationally," Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told the Florida Times-Union in 2015, when he was a quarterbacks coach. "Sometimes, I think we have to all sit back and go, 'Wow, he's still very young.'"
Bortles is just one of many quarterbacks who has been inconsistent while moving to an offense that asks for an increased amount of time under center.
An NFL playbook is basically a phonebook
Davis Webb got a taste of the transition to an NFL offense when he participated in the Senior Bowl in January. After the first day of practice with Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, Webb said the biggest challenge had little to do with what was happening on the field.
“I’ve done a pretty good job of going read to read and understanding the concepts, understanding the protections,” Webb said. “I think it’s just the verbiage and the length of the play and saying it in the huddle, actually huddling up, controlling the snap count. But those are all things that can be done, though. It’s the nuances of an NFL offense.”
An Air Raid play card could have as few as 50 plays, relying on the spread-out formations to present as many options as possible and create an open target without necessarily asking a receiver to beat a defensive back.
That means tighter windows and a whole lot more information to process, diagnose, memorize, and relay to teammates.
“Some guys can handle that; some guys can't,” Jackson said in March. “Some guys can handle it early, and some guys can't. I think those are the things we have to find out. Some guys might be really able to process football but can't play as well. Some guys play as well and can't process football.”
When the Rams selected Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick a year ago, they intended to give him an entire year on the sideline to adjust to the NFL. But then the team tanked with Case Keenum at quarterback, and Goff replaced him late in the year. Goff threw just five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
New Rams quarterbacks coach Greg Olson believes that had plenty to do with the verbiage of an NFL offense.
“A lot of things he was doing at Cal, he did it at the line of scrimmage with one-word codes,” Olson told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a little bit more to that in the NFL.”
Goff’s difficulty with the NFL playbook looks like a hurdle for most of the 2017 class, as well. And many passers, like Goff, won’t get much time to figure things out.
NFL teams want fast results from draft picks
Tajh Boyd didn’t play in an Air Raid offense at Clemson, but he admitted to Sports Illustrated that the spread concepts the team used made it tough for him in the NFL. As a Day 3 pick, Boyd didn’t believe NFL teams had much patience for him to figure things out.
“What we did [offensively at Clemson], some of it does translate to the NFL, some of it doesn’t, to be completely honest,” Boyd said. “And that’s the only, to be honest, downside of some of the spread offense. Obviously you can put up some gaudy numbers, there’s some highly talented, high-level players playing in spread offenses, but the reality of it is there are a handful of teams in the NFL that are only, completely spread.
“And the problem with going to the NFL is that the way of thinking has changed. Quarterbacks now are expected to come in right away and play. It didn’t used to be like that. Teams obviously thought I was going to be a project, one that was going to take too long compared to the other guys.”
Boyd was taken in the sixth round in 2014, but at just 6’0, 225 pounds, the Jets determined he wasn’t worth grooming. They released him after the preseason.
But even first-round picks rarely get the luxury of a year or more on the sideline to adjust to life in the NFL. Many teams hope to slowly bring along a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Jimmy Garoppolo, but rosters in need of a quarterback rarely have a Brett Favre or Tom Brady to lean on in the meantime.
About half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks — including Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott — were starters on Week 1 of their rookie seasons, and several more took over later in the year like Goff.
There’s an urgency to win and it’s understandable that a team would want to see what a young quarterback can do when things are going south. But there are ways to help a passer once he gets to the NFL.
Has the NFL changed because of the spread offense?
In the past, most blue chip high school prospects would opt for a college system that would prepare them for a career in the NFL. That is changing though. If elite talent continues to opt for a system that forces a longer transition to the professional level, NFL teams will have to be more flexible with their offenses.
The Titans showed that kind of flexibility with Mariota. A dangerous dual threat at Oregon, more than 70 percent of his passes with the Titans in 2016 came in shotgun. That seems like a lot, but it wasn’t far from the league average.
According to the Associated Press, 60 percent of offensive snaps in the NFL in 2016 were out of shotgun. That’s a sharp increase over the last decade, as fewer than 20 percent of snaps in 2006 were in shotgun.
If a team hopes to find success with a young quarterback from a spread offense as a starter early in his career, there has to be a comfort level afforded to the young passer. And the NFL is becoming increasingly accommodating.
There’s also no shortage of athletic skill position players who would be wasted in an offense that doesn’t give them the ball in space.
Wes Welker was a product of the Air Raid system at Texas Tech and became one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history, despite measuring in at 5’9. By having the flexibility to operate out of shotgun and use spread concepts in a pro-style offense, the Patriots and Broncos were able to get Welker open at will.
A play like “Y-stick” would tell the Y receiver — often Welker for the Patriots — to run a quick route for 5-7 yards, while a running back attacks the flat, forcing linebackers to cover both.
No NFL team has approached the 50 passes per game stylings of Mike Leach, and likely never will. However, the concepts of the Air Raid offense have trickled up and left an indelible imprint on the way NFL offenses operate.
How will the 2017 class fare?
Mahomes and Webb have both made a point to battle against many of the preconceived notions of Air Raid quarterbacks. They were teammates at Texas Tech before Webb transferred to Cal, but both insist that they aren’t starting from scratch.
"Every time I'm in a private interview with teams, I have an opportunity to get on the board, and every team's been impressed with my football IQ,” Webb told Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar. “I've had great coaches in multiple systems and different ways of getting it done, so when I'm on the board talking defenses and personnel and coverages, they've been blown away, because there are different types of Air Raid offenses and spread offenses.
“I was asked to do a lot at both schools when it came to checking off at the line of scrimmage, getting us into the right play and being a good leader.”
Mahomes has also emphasized that he was allowed to audible at the line of scrimmage and he didn’t work with predetermined reads.
This was really cool. Patrick Mahomes drew up and explained his favorite 3rd & long play at Texas Tech pic.twitter.com/3iz84MVw1m— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) February 8, 2017
The additional responsibilities Mahomes and Webb shouldered in college should ease the difficulty of the shift from the Air Raid to the NFL.
Still, the products of Texas Tech and Cal will carry the “system quarterback” stigma.
“You look back at the system quarterback, a lot of guys didn’t work out,” Mahomes said at the NFL Combine. “So for me, it’s just going to be about proving those guys wrong, going out there and really showing my knowledge of the game and just competing. It’ll all show up when you get to the field.”
The Air Raid offense hasn’t produced a success story yet, but Mahomes is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the draft. One team will give him a chance to change the narrative.