Is the Air Raid About to the Take The NFL By Storm?
Offensive masterminds are all the rage in NFL coaching circles. During the offseason, coaching searches largely focused almost exclusively on finding the “next Sean McVay”; so much so that the standard joke became that anyone who’d met the Rams Head Coach was automatically added to every team’s shortlist.
The most extreme outcome of this approach seemed to take place in Arizona where the team dumped Steve Wilks after only one season and went about a complete 180-degree turnaround in organisational direction. The Cardinals search ended with the appointment of former Texas Tech Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury, a move, that on the surface, looks like a significant risk.
Kingsbury passed the McVay test, although whether being “friends” with the youngest Head Coach in the league is a qualification is highly debatable. Perhaps even more concerning for Cardinals fans is that the 39-year old comes to the job after seven seasons at Texas Tech where he only had two winning seasons and an overall record of 35-40.
With a losing record and a sparse resume, what on earth possessed the Cardinals, who are only 4 years removed from a trip to the NFC Championship Game, to appoint Kingsbury at all. The rationale that he was able to have moderate success in Lubbock with limited resources doesn’t really wash – the previous two Head Coaches, Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville both had better records.
The biggest calling card for Kingsbury appears to be a reputation as something of Quarterback whisperer. He had great success with Case Keenum in Houston, was Johnny Manziel’s coach at Texas A&M and seen both Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes come through his Texas Tech program – although to differing degrees, Mayfield spent just one injury hit season in North West Texas. It seems that over and above the tenuous connection to McVay it’s the success of Kansas City man Mahomes that is most responsible for Kingsbury’s hiring.
During his time with Kingsbury Mahomes threw 1349 passes in 33 games, an average of 41 passes a game. With such volume a 63.5% completion rate was sufficiently impressive and coupled with 93 touchdowns was critical in building a reputation that would lead to the Chiefs trading up to get their guy.
The debate of why Kingsbury is, however, now mute. The question now turns to what his hiring means, and can he translate his highly productive offence to the NFL.
Kingsbury is a devotee of the “Air Raid”. The system is largely credited as the creation Hal Mumme and Mike Leech, with Leach being probably it’s most famous advocate although. At its heart it’s a heavily passed based offence that deploys four wide-receivers, two outside and two inside and a single running back, it’s run exclusively out of shotgun and most runs are audibles called at the line.
Many elements of the “Air Raid” will have become more and more familiar to NFL fans in recent years as many of the concepts have been increasingly incorporated in the pro-game. As well as Mayfield and Mahomes, Rams QB Jared Goff ran an almost exclusively “Air Raid” system at UCLA. At some point in the past decade smarter NFL coaches have stopped asking “can this guy make really tough throws” to “why don’t we try to make the throws as easy as possible”.
While some of the concepts have transitioned nobody has yet run an offence as committed to the concept as Kingsbury seems likely to be. Mike Leach is on record as saying that the scheme is all about simplicity and execution. A handful of plays that you know and execute so well that no matter how prepared the defence are they simply can’t stop them.
There are obvious, inherent, negatives to this as witnessed when another college innovator, Chip Kelly preached a very similar philosophy during his stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. Early in his tenure the offence contained explosive difference makers who made the simplicity come to life – once those players had gone the concepts became predictable and barely a week would pass without opposing defences saying, “we knew what was coming”. NFL defensive co-ordinators don’t get their jobs by accident and have shown time and time again that they can and will adapt to every wrinkle and change that their offensive counterparts come up with. Kingsbury’s success may ultimately come down, not to how he implements his system, but to how he adapts, counters and changes when it doesn’t work.
That said the team’s commitment to his philosophy has been made abundantly clear. Whereas Kelly wrestled through his NFL career with a catalogue of unsuitable Quarterbacks like Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford; the first move of the Kingsbury era was to draft Kyler Murray, a near perfect fit for the Air Raid.
On top of Murray they invested heavily at wide receiver adding Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler through the draft to add to second year man Christian Kirk and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Throw in Pro-Bowl runner David Johnson and Kingsbury has the component parts he needs to establish the requisite 4 receiver sets. Even free agent long shot Kevin White made his name with Dana Holgorsen, another Air Raid devotee, at West Virginia.
If Kelly’s early success is anything to go by Kingsbury may surprise a lot of people early in his tenure. The team will likely run a lot of plays, they will produce lots of yardage and they’ll likely move at a breakneck pace – although probably not quite the insane tempo of the Chip Kelly Eagles. The team will have some major fantasy assets almost immediately. Kyler Murray still feels underrated in redraft (he’s my QB10) but in dynasty I’ve never seen him make it past pick 8 of a rookie draft. I think that’s likely to be justified as his legs and massive passing volume make him fantasy relevant from day 1.
David Johnson looks set to bounce back after two disappointing seasons. He’ll be heavily involved in the passing game and will dominate the teams rushing attempts. The potential threat of Murray running as well only enhances Johnson’s outlook.
The receivers are attractive targets as well. Kirk had a promising rookie season and can expect a healthy increase on the 68 targets he received last year. Larry Fitzgerald figures to continue to get a good share of the offence and rookies Isabella and Butler will see the field early. If the snap count runs as high as many believe then White, Chad Williams or Keesean Johnson may carried late round value as well.
Tight-ends aren’t essential in an air-raid offence but both Kingsbury and Murray have had success with them in the past. Kingsbury turned Jace Amaro into a Consensus All American and Lincoln Riley’s offence in Oklahoma makes heavy substantial use of tight-ends. Where they are used in the air raid they are predominantly used as big receivers so former Wide Receiver Ricky Seals-Jones or draft pick Caleb Wilson could both flourish.
Kingsbury’s arrival certainly represents and experiment and a high risk one at that for the Cardinals. It’s a move that fits with the way the league is moving but might be too great a leap, too soon. Even though NFL success may not be easy to come by, the offence he will run is likely to create substantial production for fantasy, it will likely burn out quickly but catch it at the right time and you’ll benefit from it burning bright.