"The air raid" most frequently describes the efficient, up-tempo, pass-heavy spread offense made famous by Mike Leach and further developed in various ways by Leach proteges-turned-head coaches like Cal's Sonny Dykes, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, who's evolved all the way into using a run-first spread.
Air raid teams pretty much always put up tons of points and passing yards, but have few banners to show for them, whether due to exposed defenses, poor running games, weaknesses in the trenches, or happenstance. However, parts of the offense have bled into all sorts of offenses, and vice versa, so even saying "the air raid" in 2016 opens up a host of arguments. Let's stick to the Leach tree, more or less.
This is relevant to the 2016 NFL Draft because the No. 1 pick to the Los Angeles Rams, Jared Goff, played all three of his years at Cal for Dykes and OC Tony Franklin, both former Leach assistants.
(Here's the big ole deep-dive, multi-part explainer on how it works, and here are quick notes on how Dykes' teams do it.)
Three years ago, when WVU's Geno Smith was a first-round prospect, I looked at the history of air raid QBs in the NFL.
It was bad. We can now add the young careers of Smith and Johnny Manziel to the list, which makes things no brighter.
|Here are noteworthy NFL QBs from college air raid offenses. Some might argue for adding Oklahoma's Sam Bradford or Baylor's Robert Griffin III to this list, but many offenses use pieces of the air raid without being truly air raid. Ommmmmmmm.|
|Pick number||Career NFL starts||Career NFL passer rating*|
|Brandon Weeden**||Oklahoma State||22||25||76|
|Johnny Manziel**||Texas A&M||22||15||74.4|
|Geno Smith**||West Virginia||39||29||72.3|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||201||0||79.2|
|B.J. Symons||Texas Tech||248||0||N/A|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||UFA||0||64.6|
|Sonny Cumbie||Texas Tech||UFA||0||N/A|
|Taylor Potts||Texas Tech||UFA||0||N/A|
* The average passer rating of all 40 active NFL QBs with 1,000-plus career attempts: 85.5. So almost all of these air raid QBs have been below-average NFL QBs. As has often been the case, Foles is the glimmer of hope in a well of discouragement.
** Ongoing NFL career, more or less.
What's gone wrong?
Maybe air raid QBs have been overrated due to their big stats? It's typically an underdog offense, for teams that can't just overpower or out-speed opponents, which means its quarterbacks are rarely considered top prospects in high school or until late in their college careers.
Some would argue its progression-based system makes things a little too easy for college QBs and prevents them from developing pro skills.
Cal fits the stereotypical profile of an air raid team.
The Golden Bears ranked in the top eight in pass attempts in all three of Goff's starting seasons, and the only teams to rank ahead of Cal in all three years were Leach's Washington State and Texas Tech (where the air raid has become a cultural identity). Goff put up a gaudy 4,719 passing yards in 2015 while slightly disappointing many Cal fans.
They've ranked no higher than No. 97 in rushing attempts, despite the Bear Raid being meant to have more of a run/pass balance than Leach's offenses.
In 2015, Cal's offense ranked No. 13 in S&P+, while its defense ranked No. 84. Cal went 14-23 in the Goff/Dykes era, improving annually but showing few signs of significantly exceeding 2015's 8-5 record any time soon.
But how does Goff measure up against his air raid predecessors?
It's hard to account for opponent quality with raw stats, but his 2015 passer rating of 161.2 would've ranked No. 5 on this list of 66 seasons by air raid QBs, behind the best years of Keenum, Beck, Smith, and Kolb. You could easily argue he faced better competition in the Pac-12 than others did, but there are other Pac-12 and SEC quarterbacks on that list who aren't far behind.
NFL folks often say completion percentage and games started are the most telling college QB stats. Goff ranked No. 22, No. 36 and No. 62 in completion percentage in his three years. Smith's best season ranked No. 2, Manziel's No. 3, and various other air raid QBs cracked a season's top 10. Goff has started many games, though.
But the NFL isn't supposed to draft based on college stats, and scouts are apparently much higher on Goff than they were on any of those previous guys. Here's Dan Kadar, who's certainly smarter at this than I am:
Goff was an elite high school recruit [2013's No. 15 pro-style QB] who has followed up on his promise.
Anyone who has watched Cal and its porous offensive lines has witnessed a tough player in the pocket who knows how to handle pressure. There is no better signal caller in this year's draft at reading and manipulating a defense and working progressions. Some of the stick throws Goff made, especially in his junior season, were pure NFL throws that connected in tight windows and zipped through coverage.
If you can overlook a slender frame and those nine-inch hands, you have a complete quarterback. The arm strength and athleticism may not be off the charts, but they're more than good enough.
Joe Montana comparisons are pretty ridiculous -- and mostly lazy due to geographical and size similarities -- but projecting him as a Matt Ryan-type quarterback is appropriate.
History shows it's really hard to translate crazy productivity in this offense into NFL success.
If Goff is the exception, well, that's pretty cool. Maybe there will be more.