When I first picked up “The Perfect Pass: American genius and the reinvention of football,” I was pumped. From the jacket: “In the tradition of Michael Lewis’s ‘Moneyball,’ award-winning historian S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of how two unknown coaches revolutionized American football at every level, from high school to the NFL.”
Those two (no longer, of course) unknown coaches? Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.
As an educator, I absolutely adore reading about divergent thinkers who disrupt established wisdom. And even though I’m fully abreast, in broad-stroke terms, of the birth and development of the Air Raid, this WSU football fan remains thirsty for new nuggets and details about his head coach and the development of the devastating passing attack I see deployed every Saturday in the fall.
“The Perfect Pass” is simultaneously so much more than that ... and just a little bit less.
If you’re at all interested in how the Air Raid came to be and how and why it works — particularly for fans at WSU, which still runs a pure version of the Air Raid, and fans of Texas Tech, Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, and Texas A&M, each of whom run a derivative of the Air Raid — you will really enjoy this book.
Gwynne is an incredibly talented writer who does a masterful job of weaving together a multi-decade narrative (of the ups and downs of the people integral to the offense’s evolution) with the football nuts and bolts (of how the offense actually works on the field and why it has been so disruptive to the sport’s establishment).
As a non-“football guy,” Gwynne is excellent at stripping out jargon where possible and explaining things in terms most anyone familiar with football can understand. There are enough X’s and O’s to satisfy football nerds, but not so much as to be overwhelming for the casual fan who just likes a good story.
When it comes to the football portion, it helps a lot that the hallmark of his subject matter, the Air Raid, is its devastating simplicity. Why does the Air Raid work? In a nutshell, it uses surprisingly few plays — most of which have a nearly limitless amount of variations based on both offensive formation and the post-snap reactions to the defense deployed on any given down — to force opposing teams to attempt to defend nearly 2,000 square yards of real estate with just 11 guys.
Gwynne describes it using a play on Einstein’s theory of relativity; for a time, it was as if Mumme and Leach were playing a completely different game with completely different rules. Throwing the ball 60 or 70 times? Using the pass to set up the run? Playing at a breakneck pace? Throwing the ball horizontally? Yard-wide splits for the offensive linemen? There was quite literally nobody else doing this.
There’s a particular chapter devoted to “Mesh” — an Air Raid staple you’ll see deployed multiple times a game from WSU — that perfectly illustrates why the Air Raid itself was such a revolutionary idea. It’s actually my favorite chapter, in no small part because it has the best name: “The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Pass.”
After deconstructing the mechanics of Mesh and describing its attendant devastation, Gwynne concludes the chapter thusly (emphasis mine):
“Mesh drove defensive coordinators crazy. ... For one thing, it was almost impossible to figure out what the play actually looked like on paper. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that Hal could run it five times in a row and it would never look like the same play. This was because it was constantly shifting, adapting to the defense. In a man defense, for example, the X and Y ran routes that climbed toward the post, receiving the ball at 15 yards instead of 6 yards for long gains. ...
“Second, Hal could change the formations from which the play was run, doing things like moving his slot receivers to the outside and then motioning them back to their original positions. Again, which was the real mesh? How was a defensive coach to teach his players to recognize it? ...
“This was Hal’s system: Simple for his players, brutally hard for yours. ... The defensive coordinator might think he was being beaten by a receiver running a clever crossing route. He was actually being beaten by a unified system of field-decoding.”
All of which helps you understand how Mumme and Leach could score 39 points per game in 1996 at Voldosta State on their way to a No. 1 ranking in Division II, then Leach could use basically the exact same system 20 years later at WSU to drop 50-plus points and score 38 points per game on the way to a 7-2 conference record in the Pac-12.
And this is where the book gets just a little disappointing for a Coug, and probably for Texas Tech fans, too.
I really was hoping to read a lot about Leach in this book. The opening chapter is devoted to Texas Tech’s seminal win over top-ranked Texas in 2008 — so far, so good! It’s a wonderfully narrated anecdote that uses a couple of questions to set up the story of revolution he’s about to unfold: 1) How could Tech possibly run the same play (Four Verts) four times in six plays on a game-winning drive against the best team in the country and not be stopped? and 2) How was it possible that Leach could run the same offense for a decade in the Big 12 and still regularly drop ghastly totals on opponents? (Both of those questions are finally fully fleshed out on a conceptual level in the aforementioned chapter on Mesh.)
From there, though, the current WSU head coach largely fades into the background, as the real hero of the book — Mumme, Leach’s mentor and inventor of the Air Raid — steps to the fore.
That’s not to say the remainder of the tale is devoid of Leach; he certainly is woven throughout the narrative. However, he’s largely presented as a quirky sidekick to the true innovator in the room — Mumme. That’s a little bit counter to the way I understood the dynamic in the past, in which the evolution of the Air Raid was presented as the product of a symbiotic relationship.
Perhaps that was just because I was viewing it from the perspective of the Leach mythology. Given Gwynne’s reputation and the degree to which he immersed himself in this topic, I have no reason to doubt this version of the story; this is just the first time I remember seeing Mumme presented as the guy who came up with just about all the innovative ideas, from the passing concepts to the line splits to the short practices to the “five balls in the air at all times” in practice to the breakneck pace at which the early Air Raid teams played. It leaves you wondering, at times, what Leach’s actual contribution to all of this was beyond being a real fun guy to take along on road trips.
Additionally, if you’ve read “Swing Your Sword” or any number of other Leach-centric pieces of writing, the vast majority of the anecdotes relating to him cover well-worn ground. Did you know Mike Leach likes pirates? Did you know his first job paid $3,000 a year and he lived in a dumpy trailer? Yes? Then you probably already know a lot of what you’ll read about Leach in this book. That’s not really a criticism; it’s just that I was hoping for more.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some love for Ol’ Wazzu ... you’re not going to find it. Washington State is mentioned just three times in the book — and one of those is in reference to Dennis Erickson’s two-year stop over on the way to Miami. Although Leach had been at WSU for four seasons when the book was published, his current tenure isn’t mentioned until the epilogue, when there’s an extended paragraph about his unceremonious ouster from Tech, followed by some nice words about Luke Falk and the 2015 Cougs. Earlier in the epilogue, Connor Halliday’s bonkers game against Cal, in which he threw for more than 700 yards, is given a single sentence.
I kept waiting for the moment when Leach steps forward and takes center stage — if not during the Iowa Wesleyan/Valdosta State/Kentucky years, then certainly in the 15 years after Leach struck out on his own, carrying the torch for the Air Raid from Oklahoma to Texas Tech and finally WSU as Mumme faded from national consciousness. I did not anticipate that Leach’s time in the sun would more or less end after the first 15 pages.
Regardless, the book is still great, and it was a highly entertaining way to kick off my summer reading. The positives far, far outweigh any shortcomings that are mostly limited to WSU and Texas Tech fans, especially if your partisan expectations for the book are realistic.
Interested in learning even more about the Air Raid? Check out Brian Anderson’s series, The Air Raid Playbook.