As spring practices got underway a couple of weeks ago, some people expressed surprise at the idea of Mike Leach installing his version of the Air Raid offense in just three days. Isn't football supposed to be super complex? Especially an offense that's as prolific as Leach's?
We've touched on various aspects of how this is happening in a handful of different posts, but I figured it might be worthwhile to pull it all together in one place for you so that you can see how the magic is made. I'm sure this is going to be elementary for some of you.
There's a school of thought among some football coaches that complexity is important for complexity's sake -- the more variations and permutations available to the coach, the better equipped they will be to outmaneuver their opponent with whatever package or play is called for by the situation. You see this a lot at the pro level. Remember all the hand wringing during the NFL lockout about how rookies and players who changed teams and teams that changed coaches would struggle to adapt without all that offseason practice time? How will they learn all the intricacies? This is the monster they've created*, and there's been a trickle-down effect to the college level.
*You'll note that it was much ado about nothing, with the grand example being Cam Newton passing for 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. The pro coaches were forced into what we're about to talk about, and oddly enough, it worked!
But there's another school of thought among a handful of pass-first coaches -- mostly in Leach's coaching tree -- that's been making a comeback.
Simplicity -- even in a pass-heavy offense.
This isn't a revolutionary concept. The wing T, the wishbone, the flex-bone etc. ... these run-first-second-and-third offenses are predicated on having a few core plays with lots of small variations. The emphasis is on executing those plays flawlessly, a tradition made famous by Vince Lombardi, even if he didn't start it.
Most have assumed that today's passing attacks are too complex for this sort of approach. Receivers have to know all sorts of routes from all sorts of different spots on the field, right?
Leach, the guru of the most prolific passing offense in college football*, has flipped that idea on its head. And it's this philosophy that allows him to install the Air Raid in just a few days.
*Leach himself might defer to his own mentor, Hal Mumme, as the "guru." But I think there's little doubt at this point that Leach took Mumme's concepts to a new level at Texas Tech, creating a stunning number of disciples that have their tentacles all over college football.
Let's start with Leach's playbook. As befitting a guy who strives for simplicity, it's small. How small? How about zero pages! Leach hasn't printed and distributed a playbook since he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. But if he did print a playbook, it would be similar to that Oklahoma playbook that was only 43 pages, containing 25 passing plays and 10 running plays. Compare that to the 2004 New England Patriots playbook, which is more than three times as many pages and has more base formations than Leach has plays.
Want to know why pro coaches want all those offseason minicamps? Good luck getting players to quickly pick up "1 Out Slot 67 Seam Illinois Flare" or "Gun Trips Left Zig - 65 Uncle Q H-Close." Each part of the play name tells each player where to line up and what routes to run. Conversely, Leach's play names -- "Blue Right 94," "Ace Rip 6 Shallow," etc. -- describe just the formation and an entire set of routes. You'll see in a second why that works so well for him.
From "Swing Your Sword":
All a playbook does is document what you do. We, as coaches, know what we’re running and how to teach it. ... I think playbooks are outdated. Now everything is on video, and your playbook is your cut-ups. ... The DVD image is more compelling, and easier to learn from anyway. I don’t think a playbook is the best way to teach your offense.
We'll get back to the DVDs in a second. Really, it's the lack of volume of plays that makes it possible to install Leach's offense in three days. Does it seem all that crazy to teach 10-12 plays a day? With so few core plays in the Air Raid, that's what it really comes down to.
There are other factors that make it possible.
Specialization. This speaks mostly to the receivers, although it can go for the running backs, too. You won't see a guy such as Marquess Wilson lining up all over the field in an attempt to create a mismatch with the defense -- in Leach's eyes, the scheme is the mismatch, and if a guy is talented enough, the ball is going to find him plenty.
Receivers are designated as either inside or outside receivers, and they typically are going to only work at one of the two inside or two outside spots. No longer is a guy a wide receiver -- he's now an X, H, Y or Z. This allows him to know his routes and the technique they require better than he possibly could if he had to learn how to run routes from two or three different spots on the field.
For the purposes of installation, it means he only has to learn one route per play -- or 10 to 12 routes a day.
Those video cut-ups. No longer are players staring at these for hours:
Instead, they're studying something like this:
I would assume that Leach's cut-ups are much more sophisticated than this one, probably using the all-22 camera angle and possibly isolated on each receiver, but you get the general idea. If you're Wilson and you're the Z, you watch the receiver on the far right of the formation every time.
Rather than reading words that tell you where to line up and where to break on a corresponding diagram, the players get use their specialization to see what they should be doing -- repeatedly.
Spring practice pacing. I imagine it would be a little overwhelming to learn even 35 plays or so in three days, but that's really not what the players are being asked to do here -- they're being asked to learn it in three practices, which really span about a week. This is helpful, as players get some time in between practice to study the cutups of the next practice's plays while also being afforded the opportunity to get together on their own for some reps if they so choose.
Then it's just a matter of choosing which plays to do on which days. Chris Brown at SmartFootball.com put together a table of a sample Air Raid installation so you can see how it might go together; for spring this year, I think Leach started with plays based around vertical routes, then moved to short crossing routes and finished up with the other stuff.
After that? Repeat, repeat, repeat -- usually in the order it was installed -- until the routes become second nature, creating the kind of precision and execution required for Leach's offense to thrive.