Offensive System: Air Raid

21 Mar

air raid - line splits

The Air Raid is a no-huddle, spread attack that turns all five of its eligible receivers into “go-to” guys. The objective is to get “the ball to the person who can score [the fastest].”1

The no-huddle approach dictates tempo. Defenses are forced out of their normal routine and can barely catch their breath, let alone substitute personnel to fit the situation.

Meanwhile, the various spread formations it uses stretch defenses horizontally, creating space in which the receivers can operate and, at the same time, isolating defenders – most especially the weak ones.

Like the old Split-T offense, the Air Raid uses exaggerated line splits of 3-6 feet between its offensive linemen so that, on average, a front is stretched 10-12 yards wide. The result is gaping holes into which to run the ball and spacious throwing lanes for the Quarterback.

The added benefit is that the defense’s most ferocious rushers – the Defensive Ends – are pushed out farther from the Quarterback, giving him more time to read the coverage and make a play.

What really distinguishes the Air Raid system though is:

  • its creative use of line splits,
  • its philosophy for distributing the ball,
  • the thinking behind so few plays,
  • its use of screen plays,
  • and its game-day execution.

Ball distribution is at the heart of the system’s success as it creates match-up problems for opponents, who are lucky if they have enough playmakers on defense to cover the Air Raid’s five “go-to” receivers.

The problem with running a spread system, though, is that if you’re not spreading the ball around to the different receivers, you’re not forcing the defense to cover the entire field. The Air Raid does that by insuring all five receivers get touches.  Balance is defined by all of them having a 1,000 yard season.2

For example, in 2008, Texas Tech threw for 5,008 yards. Their top six receivers averaged 94.6, 72.4, 56.8, 44.0, 40.8, and 36.8 yards per game but, altogether, they had ten who averaged double figures.

The eye-opening stat, however, is that the top six receivers averaged over 10 yards per catch.  Who, then, does the defense focus on?  They can stop one, two, maybe three, but not all five or six.

By getting the ball into everyone’s hands, “[we] make the whole offense harder to [defend],” explains Mike Leach, the coach most responsible for the system’s notoriety.2

hal mumme (

Hal Mumme

The coach responsible for its creation, though, is Hal Mumme. He modeled it after the BYU schemes of the 80’s, and mixed in some West Coast Offense and Run and Shoot principles.

What he and Leach saw in other offensive systems was thick and complex playbooks that simply had too many plays. The problem with too many plays is too little time to practice them. As Leach explains it, there are two ways to make an offense hard to defend. One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but then the offense becomes too complex.2

Another is to have a few plays, but run them out of different formations. “That way, “Leach says, “you don’t have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him a new place to stand.”2

 So, in the Air Raid system, there is generally no more than 25 pass plays, but each can be run from five different formations. And, at Washington State at least, where Leach coaches, there is no playbook.


As impressive as this playbook looks, it cannot translate to the field and, in the end, may cost the Head Coach his job. The moral of the story is that when you only have 20 hours per week to meet with your players, less is often more.

 Teaching a guy a new thing to do takes up a lot of practice time. Teaching him a new place to stand doesn’t, so there’s more time spent practicing and perfecting the plays to be used on game day.

Game-day, though, is when the Air Raid truly shines.  It can throw long and will if the situation warrants, but the system favors high-percentage, short passes that turn into long gains after the catch.  The idea is to control the ball but they also know that one missed tackle can turn into a touchdown.

Versus man coverage, receivers are taught to keep running; to outrun their defender to an open area.  Versus zone, though, they’re taught to settle down in the open spaces between defenders.

Integral to the game-day attack is the screen game as they’re a perfect for creating mismatches and forcing defenders to tackle in the open field. They also punish aggressive defenses and slow down the pass rush.

More than most offenses, the Air Raid will throw between 12-15 screens a game.And, like most Air Raid pass plays, they are simply long hand-offs to a skilled player operating in space.

mike leach  - signaling in play

Mike Leach signaling in  play call.

The plays are signaled in from the sideline, but the Quarterbacks routinely check off to another play. Leach, himself, will often simply signal in the formation and let the Quarterback call the play at the line. Such calls are based on the number of defenders in the front or the position – what coaches call the “leverage” – of the defensive backs.

While it will run the ball, it’s a pass first offense whose philosophy goes against conventional thinking. That may explain why it’s not used in the pros. It’s not conventional, but it sure is fun to watch.

The key to an Air Raid Offense, though, is ball distribution and tempo.

Ball distribution translates into getting the ball into the hands of playmakers in space, while tempo pressures the defense.


1Mumme, Hal and Miller, Mason.  “Air Raid Offense: Running Back Routes in the Air Raid Offense.”  American Football Monthly.  December 2004. ……………………………………………………………………….
2Lewis, Michael.  “Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep.”  New York Times.  December 4, 2005.

3Davie, Bob. “Leach and Tech Flying High.” Special to ESPN.  April 29, 2004.  http://www.espn. com


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