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Is Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach's Air Raid Really a Good Idea?

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Is Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach's Air Raid Really a Good Idea?
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Leach

Washington State head coach Mike Leach is probably one of the quirkiest coaches I have ever talked to but then again, most geniuses are quirky. I don't know what Mike Leach's IQ is—I'm betting it's way up there—and I'm not a coach, but this question begs to be asked.

Will the Air Raid offense win a BCS championship?

So far, it hasn't sniffed a victory in a BCS Championship game. In fact, the BCS era has seen only two true spread offenses win that crystal ball in a BCS Championship game, and both offenses were with the Urban Meyer-coached Florida Gators.

True, the 2000 Oklahoma Sooners ran a prolific Air Raid-like spread offense in their BCS Championship season, but in the actual BCS Championship game against Florida State, the Sooners had a more balanced offense rushing 36 times and passing 39 times—that's not a true Air Raid offense. 

So the spread can win a BCS, but can an extreme version of the spread, like Mike Leach's Air Raid, win a championship?

Probably not.

Football purists will chant, "three things can happen when you throw the ball and two are bad" but can't we say the same thing about running the ball?

Sure a completed pass, an incomplete pass or an interception can occur when you throw the ball, but what about running the ball? Loss of yardage, no gain of yardage, gain of yardage or fumble—doesn't that show four things can happen when you run the ball and three are you know, kinda bad? 

So what's the advantage of an Air Raid offense, one in which four or sometimes even five receivers are in formation?

In theory, the receivers flood the field and let the quarterback go through his progressions until he finds his open target. This video and diagram shows the effectiveness of this extreme spread attack:

The offensive line is also spread out—while that certainly gives a blitzing end or safety a clearer shot at the quarterback, that defender also has to travel longer distances or at harder angles to sack the quarterback.

In the 2008 Sugar Bowl, Hawaii was beaten 41-10 by Georgia—prior to this bowl, Hawaii was undefeated. Operating under head coach June Jones' run-and-shoot offense, Heisman finalist Colt Brennan was sacked eight times by Georgia. How did this happen when in theory, the spread is supposed to give the quarterback more time to throw the ball?

Physical domination in the trenches.


An Air Raid offense typically runs a no-huddle tempo—it's fast and designed to tire the opposing defenses. But if the offensive linemen are getting beat up in the trenches, they won't be able to stop the pass rush, and that gives the defense the advantage in getting easy shots at the quarterback.

Mike Leach had success running this Air Raid while he was head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-09, but if you take a closer look, was it really that successful?

Leach's teams never won a BCS bowl—in fact, the last major bowl the Red Raiders played in was the 2009 Cotton Bowl where they lost to Ole Miss, 47-34. Ole Miss had previously beaten the eventual 2008 BCS Champion Florida Gators so they had some experience against stopping the spread before facing Texas Tech. The Rebels rushed for 223 yards and two touchdowns, but the biggest factor in the game was time of possession: Mississippi's 35:14 vs Texas Tech's 24:46. 

Still, that 2008 team was Leach's most successful, going 11-1 in the regular season before losing to Ole Miss.

But how good was the Big 12's pass defense that year?

The highest-ranked pass defense Texas Tech faced in the Big 12 was Colorado's, which gave up an average of 215 passing yards per game—the Buffaloes were nationally ranked No. 73 in pass defense but No. 1 in the Big 12.

Leach's genius withstanding, the Big 12 didn't offer up a lot of resistance to a thrown ball that year. But Leach is now at Washington State, and things could change. Or not.

Known as a "pass happy" conference by its most ardent critics, the Pac-12 really doesn't deserve that moniker.  Its two top teams in 2012, Stanford and Oregon, had pass offenses nationally ranked at No. 96 and No. 73 respectively. That's not exactly pass happy. 

Only one Pac-12 team finished in the FBS' Top 10 pass offense rankings: No. 9 Washington State. The Cougars also went 2-10 last year, beating FCS' Eastern Washington 24-20 and in-state rival Washington 31-28 in overtime. 

Can we blame the record all on the Air Raid? When you consider the fact that Washington State only averaged 29.08 yards per game, well...yes.

Of the seven teams that failed to average 100 or more yards per game last year, three finished with 1-11 records (New Mexico State, Massachusetts and Idaho) and two finished with 2-10 records (Boston College and Tulane)—all seven teams finished with a sub-.500 record.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Alabama head coach Nick Saban

It's fairly clear that a strong running game and good defense win championships; Alabama has both and has won an incredible three of the last four BCS Championships.

Washington State can have a strong passing game but for it to succeed in the Pac-12 and beyond, it's going to have to run the ball, something the Air Raid offense doesn't usually incorporate.

Cal's new head coach Sonny Dykes, also an Air Raid aficionado, already has his new Bear Raid offense in place, but he's still looking to run the ball, according to Stewart Mandel's Sports Illustrated report. More:

Contrary to perception, Dykes and Franklin would gladly run the ball if it's a viable option. Louisiana Tech averaged 227 yards on the ground last season.

"Air Raid, Bear Raid -- when we got here a label was thrown out there because of the [coaching] tree. We don't identify it that way," Franklin said. "Run it, throw it, it doesn't matter, whereas the true Air Raid is, we're going to throw it no matter what. We're going to play fast and find a way to put points on the board."

Right now, only Texas A&M is doing well with a tempered Air Raid offense, and even then, the Aggies still managed to rush the ball very well thanks to Johnny "Football" Manziel.

But when your team's entire offense is dependent on the arm (or legs) of one player, what happens if he gets hurt? Or gets suspended? Or exhausts his eligibility?

All teams face the problem of losing a star player, but when you have a strong running game, at least you can keep your opponent's offense off the field while moving the chains. You might even tire them out.

Alabama's passing attack was ranked No. 76 last year while its rushing attack was ranked No. 16, and its total defense was ranked No. 1.

It's hard to argue with success, isn't it? 

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