What is the 'air raid' offense and how will Wisconsin football potentially look different?

The reported hire of Phil Longo as the University of Wisconsin’s new offensive coordinator represents a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy.

UW, a team for decades defined by its running game, would be shifting to an attack far more reliant on the pass (though not necessarily exclusively) in the “Air Raid” system Longo gleaned in the late 1990s from current Mississippi State coach Mike Leach. According to Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, Longo developed a relationship with new Badgers coach Luke Fickell when Longo interviewed for the Cincinnati offensive coordinator job before taking the job at Ole Miss in late 2016.

So what's meant by "Air Raid" offense?

First 'air raid' dates back to 1980s in Texas

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach confers with quarterback Will Rogers during a game against Mississippi on Nov. 24.
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach confers with quarterback Will Rogers during a game against Mississippi on Nov. 24.

In the traditional sense, the origins of 'Air Raid' date back to the 1980s with East Texas high school coach Hal Mumme, who eventually became head coach at Kentucky and passed on his concepts to assistant Mike Leach, today the Mississippi State head coach and the offense's modern champion.

Though there are some passing concepts that get associated with Air Raid — mesh and four verts, for example — Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press pointed out earlier this year that aspects of it can be, and have been, implemented on a somewhat a la carte basis.

"The Air Raid is more a process than a playbook these days," Russo wrote. "Keeping things simple, stressing execution over matchups and seemingly endless repetition of a relatively small number of plays in practice are what links the Air Raid’s past and present."

Head coach Hal Mumme of the Kentucky Wildcats in 1998.
Head coach Hal Mumme of the Kentucky Wildcats in 1998.

Plays are run out of the shotgun with four receivers on the field, and quarterbacks often have the freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage based on what the defense is showing. Teams often go no-huddle to keep defenses from substituting personnel.

With offensive linemen spread out at the line of scrimmage, it's incumbent that the quarterback get the ball out quickly (or decide to run) to offset blitzers that might try to take advantage of the wider openings up front. So, despite the name, it doesn't mean quarterbacks will be throwing deep passes regularly, but they'll need to throw the ball to all parts of the field.

Longo has cited Leach as his greatest coaching influence, but he also uses a running game to supplement what's happening through the air.

“I’m just a very firm believer that the best odds in the house are taking what the defense gives you,” he said in 2016 before he started as Ole Miss offensive coordinator. “There are games we run the ball 70 times to win it and games where we throw 70 times to win it. I’m perfectly willing to do either but that’s never decided going into the game. That’s going to be decided by what the defense is taking away.

“The offense is designed to be simpler,” Longo added. “It’s designed to be more flexible so that regardless of our talent base we have the flexibility in the offense to promote the more talented players.”

What types of players will teams recruit in this offense?

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell meets with offensive coordinator Phil Longo after Howell ran for a touchdown during a game in 2021.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell meets with offensive coordinator Phil Longo after Howell ran for a touchdown during a game in 2021.

Yes, it's often far more passing than running, and traditional Air Raid calls for a deep collection of speedy receivers and offensive linemen who are quick and nimble (and not necessarily behemoths), which would theoretically require a recruiting shift at Wisconsin. Mismatches are often generated from talented third and fourth receivers matching up with a defense's third and fourth cornerbacks.

It also puts a lot on the quarterback, as you might imagine, both in terms of decision-making and accuracy. Air Raid quarterbacks were once stigmatized as system players who couldn't hack it in the NFL, but today, the league is full of Air Raid quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, though there are counterexamples of quarterbacks who haven't translated to the NFL game.

“It allows athletes to go be athletes," Longo said in 2019. "They’re not confined by the drawing of a post route in a playbook, they’re given the opportunity to – I always use this example: If you’re running a post route, which is just an in-cut, and the safety bails and gives up a lot of grass underneath, you may run the post route exactly the way somebody might draw it up in a playbook. If that safety comes down into the box, that post may be more vertical and he may chase the grass behind the safety.

“The angle of that post is going to change, it’s a decision made by the receiver and he’s doing it athletically and he’s doing it on the fly. And he’s really doing it without having to think, it’s instinctively reacting to where the grass is.

“And the quarterback is always throwing to the guy that’s in space. We don’t have as many contested catches for throws in this offense because of the nature that we allow receivers to run routes.

“The philosophy is to stay simple, spread teams out, horizontally pre-snap, vertically post-snap, and it really displace 11 defenders throughout the field as much as we possibly can.”

If there are drawbacks, it's that teams with elite corners can defend a "run to where the grass is" concept and the lack of structured route-running might pose a challenge for certain types of receivers. Plus, the running game doesn't receive the benefit of blocking from its wideouts, which theoretically inhibits the potential for long runs. Thirdly, that stigma against air raid athletes could discourage top-end quarterback talent in recruiting.

So why hasn't air raid become more popular as an overall offense in the NFL? There's more than one reason, but strangely enough, the hash marks — which are much closer together in the NFL than in college — might have a decent amount to do with it. With the college hashes so much closer to the sideline, it creates a more lopsided field and more space on one side for offenses to operate and receivers to win 1-on-1 battles.

What kind of success has Phil Longo had?

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) looks to pass in the first half during the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Clemson on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) looks to pass in the first half during the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Clemson on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Drake Maye, the quarterback this year at North Carolina and one of the top quarterback prospects in college football, threw for 4,115 yards and 35 touchdowns with seven interceptions and also ran for a team-leading 653 yards and seven scores.

Before that, Sam Howell (who became a 2022 fifth-round pick for the Washington Commanders) threw for 3,056 in 2021 and 3,586 in 2020, with a combined 54 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The quarterback also ran for 828 yards last year, and Longo's offense led the league in yards per carry in 2020 and was second in 2021.

In 2019, Howell passed for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns with seven picks.

At Ole Miss the two previous years, Jordan Ta'amu passed for 3,918 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2018, and he split time with eventual Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson in 2017, with the pair racking up a combined 3,941 yards and 28 touchdowns with 13 picks.

At Sam Houston State, Longo oversaw one of the nation's most prolific offenses, leading all FCS teams with 531.7 yards per game in 2016.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What does 'Air Raid' offense mean if it's indeed coming to Wisconsin?