On its surface, the transition from an offense run by Todd Sturdy to an offense run by Mike Leach looked like a home run. Todd Sturdy asked the Cougar offense to throw the ball a lot in 2011, and the Cougs proved they could do it. WSU attempted 41 passes a game last season, yielding the 9th best passing attack in the nation. Mike Leach likes to throw too. His 2009 Texas Tech team averaged 55 pass attempts for 419 yards a game.
Asking the 9th best passing offense to throw more seems like a good idea, so what has made the transition more difficult than Cougar fans had hoped? The answer is likely complex and multifaceted, as most answers are. The most telling observations will come from examining both offenses at a macro -- philosophy, game management -- and micro -- nuance at the quarterback and receiver positions -- scale.
Former offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy was methodical in his offensive philosophy and play calling. Under his direction, the Cougar offense sought to have some form of balance with the running game ... although everyone seems more balanced when compared to Leach. One play call would set up future play calls; runs set up play action, run-pass option reads were used to keep defenses honest despite a limited rushing attack, rollouts were used to overload a defense, a deep passing attack created running space underneath. For Sturdy, time of possession and field position were both included in the offensive in-game strategy.
These are less important to Leach, who is hyper aggressive with an almost nonchalant consideration toward the field position battle. For Leach, being that aggressive is a strategy with a basis in probabilistic scoring. Maximize offensive possessions to maximize scoring opportunities and force an opponent to score at the same clip. The problems arise when you don't score, which we have been unfortunate enough to witness in the first half of the season.
Along with maximizing scoring opportunities, the Air Raid maximizes the space it attacks on the field. This forces an opponent to defend sideline to sideline, increasing space on the field a receiver can run in after the catch. This is also why you don't see roll outs. Aside from the fact wide offensive line splits will place a rolling quarterback directly in the path of a defensive end, you limit the horizontal space on the field you can effectively target. This is counterintuitive to the Air Raid philosophy.
Leach's playbook is famous for its simplicity and is amazingly small in comparison to Sturdy's. Sturdy would design an entire offensive package specifically for the opponent that week. One full practice day of game week was devoted entirely to the install of that week's playbook. Leach shortens his playbook each week too, choosing a set number of plays which he believes will be most effective. They fit on a note card sized piece of paper you can see him pondering over on the sideline.
Leach is rather unique in the football world in that he doesn't use an offensive coordinator and prefers to make his play calls from the sideline.* Being on the sideline allows him to have a "feel" for the game. Calling plays from up in the box removes you from the emotion of the sideline, which Leach believes is relevant to his play calling. His man up in the box serves to confirm his suspicions of defensive alignment and space on the field to open to attack. This season, that man in the box is Eric Morris -- perhaps a sign that the inside receivers coach is being groomed by Leach.
*He has, in the past, used an offensive coordinator, with Dana Holgorsen being, perhaps, the most famous example.
Leach uses an ad hoc feeling out process to determine what can be successful during the first few series of each game. When a play works, he's not afraid to go to it repeatedly until the defense proves it can stop it. This is in stark contrast from Sturdy, who would script the first 15 plays, if not more.
"Some of these articles that I've read on scripting are just crazy," Leach said last month. "These guys act like 'Oh, number three is this so you have to run...' I mean it's just crazy. Bill Walsh got the most famous for it but it had been going on for quite some time."
With the disadvantages, there are a couple advantages to scripting plays. First, the offense isn't surprised by what it is asked to do. They've ran the plays, in that order all week. They know exactly what they're going to do come game time. Second, Sturdy would structure the script to examine how a defense would respond to certain offensive alignments and route combinations. This would allow him to forecast what could work in certain situations later in the game. This is exactly what Leach does during his feeling out process, only without a rigid structure.
After Leach makes his play call, total control of the offense is given to the quarterback. It is up to the quarterback to change the play if the defensive coverage is not optimal for the call, or if he is able to see a space that could be attacked. Sturdy operated very differently.
"I've gotten way more comfortable with it. I was talking to Coach Leach and .. BYU, I didn't hardly check out of anything. It was my first game with Coach Leach. We learn each other too, and I learned Coach Leach," Tuel said. "Throughout the season I've learned that he's giving me the keys to the car. You've gotta check out of things and get us into a better play. Just cuz I call it doesn't mean you should run it. If you see something that you like better that's gonna work for us, then check out of it. That's what I've started to do. I did it at Oregon State and I did it a bunch at Cal, and it worked out okay for us."
Under Sturdy, the Cougs ran a faux hurry-up, no huddle offense. Following the previous play, the team would often immediately get into formation and simulate a snap. Sturdy would watch the defensive reaction. All skill players (non lineman) would look to the sideline for the incoming play, chosen specifically for the defense set in front of them. The quarterback would then be responsible assigning the offensive line blocking scheme and calling for hot routes if a blitz or uncovered wide receiver were apparent. They struggled with assigning protection initially, as we witnessed countless sacks and numerous injuries. Sturdy even opted to run a max protect style offense with dual tight ends and multiple running backs in his first two seasons to limit disasters in the backfield.
The wide splits in Leach's Air Raid make offensive line protection schemes much simpler. They are essentially man blocking on nearly every pass play with only small sliding adjustments (left or right) and blitz pick- ups needing to be occasionally assigned. Whereas in Sturdy's offense, the quarterback would need to define the Mike linebacker, determine defensive tackle shading and assess blitz threats to be able to best apply line protection. This is a very complicated task.
Sturdy also had a complex playbook. After his amazing performance against ASU, Connor Halliday rather famously claimed he had no idea what was going on and just made plays. This is the type of "streetballing" that cannot be successful in the Air Raid.
"I thought Oregon State's defense was more physical than our offense, we had too many guys getting slung around and when that happened rather than rely on our technique it became a series of streetball," Leach said after the team's loss to Oregon State. "I thought we spent most of the day playing streetball on offense. Our effort was good. There were guys grinding away, running hard, trying hard and all that type of thing. Overtrying if anything. I thought we resorted to street ball rather than do the things you practice all the time ... Really I think both defenses got both offenses out of their rhythm and Oregon State did a better job of that than we did."
Plays would change under Sturdy week to week. The same play may have different priorities assigned to the routes than in weeks previous. This was all determined by an opponent's defensive tactics. Rarely would the quarterback have to venture further down his progression than the number two target. Routes were ran in combination, usually on the same side of the field to pressure a defender into making a coverage choice. This often meant the WSU quarterback could find his number one or two target by only reading one, maybe two defensive players. The pre-snap coverage read was the most critical determination made by the quarterback under Sturdy and the WSU quarterbacks, Halliday moreso than Tuel, appear to have continued heavily relying on it under Leach.
Leach is less concerned with what the defense does specifically and more concerned with offensive consistency. Any one given play in the Air Raid offense attacks multiple vertical and horizontal spaces on the field. No particular defense can guard every space a single Air Raid play attacks, so someone will be open regardless of the coverage. Identifying the open space becomes the challenge.
Rather than the precise timing routes associated with Sturdy's offense, the Air Raid has windows. Leach drills the location of these windows with thousands of reps. Heavy bags are positioned in defensive alignments and the quarterbacks repeatedly throw into the open windows associated with each defense. The routes under Leach will not change, the route priority will not change, the exact open throwing window is what will adapt to the defense.
Because of this, wide receivers play the same spot on the field. His formation always reads left to right X, H, Y, Z (unless in a trips, in which case the H and Y are both on the same side). If a receiver only needs to learn a route from one side, and reps the daylights out of it, they have an accelerated opportunity to perfect the route running. In Sturdy's offense, receivers were required to be ambidextrous, that is run the same route from the right and left sides of the ball.
For quarterbacks and receivers, the Sturdy playbook was much more complicated but the game day decision making was actually simpler, with regards to target identification. Sturdy took a lot of the burden off their shoulders with his opponent specific offensive play book and intricate designation of route priorities. Wide receivers needed only to memorize route timing. Quarterbacks needed to memorize read progression. During the game, the quarterback would be asked to make a basic read. He could get away with throwing his number one target open, because the formation and play call was optimized by Sturdy for the specific defense they were facing on that particular down. Leach will run a play that should have a high probability of an open target, but the quarterback and receivers need to assess the open throwing window during the play, something that was done for them under Sturdy.
To date, this has been a process in the making and the struggles with this adjustment have been the most apparent on game day. Halliday will often stay with his number one target, for better or worse, still trying to throw them open rather than locate the window provided by the defense. Tuel was initially hesitant, second guessing his open window read but has begun to really show signs of progress despite the losses.
While the transition from Sturdy's pass-heavy spread attack to Leach's Air Raid seemed simple, we now know there was more to it than meets the eye. The nuances and subtle differences between the two offenses are significant, resulting in some early hiccups. While there's little doubt Leach's system will take hold -- he and other Air Raid disciples manage to find success at every stop -- it's taking time.
And until the offense clicks and the team picks up on those subtle differences, there will continue to be a start-and-stop element to the offense.
Brian Floyd contributed to this article. This has been a Brian2 production.