When Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes made his first career start in Week 17 of the 2017 season, he became the first Texas Tech quarterback to start an NFL game since Billy Joe Tolliver made a start for the New Orleans Saints in Week 15 of the 1999 season.
The 18-year drought came as quarterbacks from Texas Tech like Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell and myriad others put up passing statistics that were routinely at the top of college football leaderboards after the turn of the century. But between Tolliver’s selection in the second round of the 1989 draft and Mahomes going No. 10 overall in 2017, only Kingsbury and B.J. Symons were drafted and neither was picked inside the top 200.
The common refrain was that Tech quarterbacks under Mike Leach and other quarterbacks in similar offenses were products of the system. That the Air Raid offense Leach brought with him to Tech from Kentucky wouldn’t work in the NFL.
But that was then. This is the beginning of 2019, a now that includes Mahomes putting up 50 touchdowns in his MVP-level first season as a starter after spending three years under Kingsbury’s tutelage in an Air Raid-based system.
And now that includes 2018 No. 1 NFL draft pick Baker Mayfield completing nearly 64 percent of his passes and throwing 28 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns a year after being drafted first overall despite standing just north of 6 feet tall and hailing from an offense run by a Leach disciple in Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley.
Mayfield and Mahomes have succeeded in their brief times as NFL quarterbacks because of their ability to make quick decisions and accurate throws, two characteristics needed to succeed in an Air Raid system.
It also helps that Mayfield (in the second half of the season) and Mahomes have been coached in the NFL by play-callers willing to use the plays they’ve been running in high school and college.
Mahomes told Sports Illustrated in November that Andy Reid has put in two of Mahomes’ favorite plays from his time at Texas Tech playing under Kingsbury.
“As far as the Air Raid goes, the biggest thing for me is the NFL’s started to do it now,” Samford coach Chris Hatcher said. “And it’s amazing to me. To me you can look at that and it’s taken them a while to make that adjustment but that’s what the high schools are doing, that’s what the colleges are doing, that’s what the players are more suited to doing now and that’s why you see a guy like [Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff] and Mahomes becoming so successful. Andy Reid, he was [a grad assistant] at BYU under LaVell Edwards and that’s who [Hal] Mumme learned the base scheme from.”
Now that coaches like Reid and the Rams’ Sean McVay were brave enough to try once-exotic college concepts in the NFL, Mumme, who Leach coached under at Kentucky and Valdosta State, believes the copycat league will do what it does best.
“Maybe a fourth of the NFL’s kind of come on board, and they’ll all copy each other,” Mumme said. “You watch. Next year, it will be twice. It will be half of the NFL.”
Mahomes and Mayfield are two of six starting quarterbacks in the NFL who hail from Texas. The football-crazed state has become a hotbed for the offensive explosion in college football in part due to Leach’s arrival at Texas Tech and the dozens of high schools that wanted to implement a pass-based offense.
But it’s largely because of an idea that Baytown Lee High School coach Dick Olin had in the mid-1990s. If Leach and Mumme’s offensive ideas were the flour and water, Olin’s brainchild was the yeast that got the bread to rise.
Olin was running a one-back spread offense that Dennis Erickson used to win nine games at Washington State in 1988 before taking over Miami and winning the national title in 1989.
“When Washington State beat the University of Houston in [the 1988 Aloha Bowl] I really liked what they did, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s go,’” Olin said.
Erickson’s offense at Washington State, now where Leach coaches, was still based around the run game. The Cougars had two 1,000-yard rushers in 1988 but also had a 3,000-yard passer in Timm Rosenbach who completed nearly 65 percent of his passes.
After Olin installed the offense at Baytown Lee, the school had winning seasons from 1994-2003, turning out quarterbacks like Arkansas’ Clint Stoerner, Kansas State’s Ell Roberson and Iowa’s Drew Tate, Olin’s stepson.
“There were very few people who were doing what we did offensively in the state of Texas,” Olin said.
And he wanted a way to refine that offense. A 7-on-7 football tournament, Olin thought, would be a good way to help his players stay sharp in the offseason.
“Because you can throw and catch — skill can be done all summer long,” Olin said. “You run your offense, and kids learn how to run routes. Quarterbacks learn how to throw.”
He had heard about 7-on-7 football from Bill Snyder, who was an assistant on Hayden Fry’s staff in the 1980s when Olin was coaching in Iowa. Olin’s first tournament was a four-team exhibition. After it was played, the goal quickly became a 32-team tournament. Rules were finalized, sites and insurance were procured and teams throughout the greater Houston area started signing up.
“I think that 7-on-7 leagues have helped a tremendous amount,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said of the growth of offenses stretching the field. “They were allowed to do it in California for a long time. As a matter of fact, California started them. And then, and Texas was actually quite stubborn about accepting them, and then when Texas did — another huge football state — then it exploded even more.”
Explosion is a good word for it. Just two years after Olin’s first tournament in 1996, a 7-on-7 Texas state championship tournament was created. In 2007, the state tournament split into two divisions. A third division was added in 2018 and teams throughout all three divisions have to win their state qualifying tournaments just to make the main 64-team bracket.
Seven-on-seven football is played with no offensive or defensive lines. Games are 21 minutes long. Players wear helmets, but no pads. Defenses can score by forcing turnovers. Quarterbacks have four seconds to throw and receivers are down when touched by a defender. The game’s rules mean receivers’ quickness and ability to make plays in space are at a premium, as is quick-decision making by quarterbacks.
Mumme was hired at Kentucky on Dec. 2, 1996, the same year of Olin’s first 7-on-7 tournament in Texas. Mumme, a former Texas high school football coach, came to Kentucky from Valdosta State, where his team set Division II passing records. His offense, dubbed the Air Raid by Leach, Mumme’s offensive coordinator, relied on quarterbacks making quick decisions and flinging accurate passes all over the field. Hatcher was his quarterback in 1994. He completed 72 percent of his passes and threw for over 4,000 yards and 55 touchdowns.
“It’s always been about using the whole field, and it’s really about the rhythm and the timing of the quarterback’s feet and his eyes,” Mumme said.
Hatcher looks for similar traits.
“To me, a QB, he’s just got to have good pocket feet,” Hatcher said. His offense is based on the principles he learned from Leach and Mumme. “And the biggest thing that I look for — the two things I look for in a QB is completion percentage and does he take a lot of sacks. That’s what I look for in high school.”
Kentucky was 5-6 in 1997, one game better than in Bill Curry’s final season. But the Wildcats scored 28 points against No. 1 Florida in the fourth game of the season and beat then-No. 20 Alabama 40-34 a week later.
Future No. 1 pick Tim Couch hit receiver Craig Yeast for the game-winning TD in overtime. It was the first win for Kentucky over Alabama in 75 years. And the 40 points the Wildcats scored were the most the Tide gave up all season. Mumme’s offense with its relatively simple play calls completed passes to nine different receivers in that game.
“After that, I think everybody started taking us serious,” Mumme said. “All of a sudden, we were getting phone calls from people wanting to share ideas and have a visit. We had a tremendous amount of high school coaches come through.”
Kentucky went to bowl games after the 1998 and 1999 seasons. As coaches wanted to learn the concepts that Mumme himself learned from teams like Edwards’ BYU offense, his own coaching tree expanded. Leach was hired at Texas Tech at the end of 1999.
In the Texas 7-on-7 tournament’s infancy, quarterbacks were allowed to run once per set of downs. Teams who were running more traditional football offenses signed up and ran their regular sets.
“We had a guy named Jim Phillips, who was the head coach, at that time, at Waller,” Olin said. “Hell, they were running wishbone. He came and they would work their offense and run wishbone and throw the ball.”
The quarterback run rule didn’t last very long. A couple years after the tournament started, runs were banned altogether. Seven-on-seven in Texas became a strictly passing form of football.
Texas 7-on-7 teams aren’t officially coached by their high school coaches and are made up of teammates from the same high school. But since it’s a form of unofficial team activity, 7-on-7 teams run many of the same concepts they do in the fall under the guidance of their school’s coaching staff.
As high school coaches realized the value of the reps their quarterbacks and receivers were getting in 7-on-7, they needed quick-hitting pass plays that could stretch defenses both vertically and horizontally. Naturally, coaches turned their eyes to Leach in Lubbock after seeing how he had changed Texas Tech’s offense.
The Red Raiders went 7-6 in 2000 under Leach, one win better than in 1999 when Tech ran the ball 42 times a game and threw it 24 times a game. In 2000, Leach’s team passed twice as much as it ran with a guy named Kliff Kingsbury at quarterback.
By 2003, Leach’s Tech team was averaging 42 points per game, 19 more than the Red Raiders did in 1999. It was an offense that was working against Big 12 defenses and was easily transferrable between 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 football.
“That’s hard for me to gauge, but I think it definitely had an impact,” Leach said of his offense’s role in the growth of 7-on-7.
It’s not a one-sided relationship, however. As high school coaches across Texas and elsewhere were copying the basic concepts they were seeing from Leach and other spread coaches like Urban Meyer, they were adding their own twists to the things that Leach and Meyer’s teams did so well. Just like what Leach and Meyer and other coaches had done with the offenses they had studied.
Heck, one of the first people Leach hired at Texas Tech was a Texas high school football coach. Former Houston and Baylor coach Art Briles was Leach’s running backs coach from 2000-02. While at Stephenville High School from 1988-1999, Briles had taken a moribund football program and won four state championships in the 1990s as his offenses set scoring and yardage records.
Seven-on-seven in Texas was another place where coaches could experiment with new tricks and twists. If players could get open and find space quickly in a touch-football format, they could probably do it in a regular football game. And if they couldn’t, well, that’s what practice is for.
After all, offense has always been about math and geometry. It’s a numbers game. Offenses want to get their skill players in favorable positions against defenders and have as many or more blockers for defenders in the same space. Teams spreading the field and throwing quick passes are finding new solutions to decades-old problems.
Much of that problem-solving has been done at the high school level, especially in the lab that is Texas high school football. Just two of the 10 Texas 11-man football state champions in 2018 scored fewer than 30 points in their title games. Five teams scored 40 or more points. As high school offenses have become more influenced by 7-on-7 football, colleges are adapting too.
“And that’s something that makes it exciting, is that you never know what you’re going to see because we are witnesses here, in Texas, of the laboratory,” Greg Tepper, managing editor of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football said.
The offensive influence of 7-on-7 isn’t just limited to play design. Another reason teams are moving the ball and scoring at ever-increasing rates is because quarterback play has gotten better thanks to the increased opportunity for players to practice.
Mumme, who started the 2018 season as the offensive coordinator at Jackson State before resigning in October, told the story of asking one of his quarterbacks how often he had run one of the primary Air Raid plays.
“And I said, ‘How many times have you run 95 in your life,’ which is wide cross, one of the base plays, and he said, ‘Well, let me think. We started in the seventh grade,’” Mumme said. “He’s done it over and over again. He can do it in his sleep.”
In addition to frequently throwing the ball all over the field in 7-on-7 games, high school quarterbacks travel across the country to camps to be coached by former professional and college QBs and other famous coaches.
“It’s big. First of all in the summer with camps. And the 7-on-7 passing leagues and you saw quarterbacks develop because of those 7-on-7 tournament teams where they’re very athletic both defensively and on the offensive side of the football,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil said. “But you saw quarterbacks able to develop because they threw year-round. And the offense is even involved and now you find those great quarterbacks a lot during the summer. Especially in Texas.”
As NFL and college defenses have been forced to become more versatile to combat offenses spreading the field with the ability to throw the ball in any direction, defensive coordinators in Texas are fighting an even bigger battle to be adaptable.
“We had a team in the state championship game running the slot T,” Tepper said. “We had a team in the state championship game running a modified wing T. You see everything in this state, from full-house backfields to wide-open spread to pro-style to power spread to everything in between. And as a defensive coordinator, you gotta be ready for all of it. And I really, truly think that being a defensive coordinator in the state of Texas is one of the hardest jobs in football.”
Maybe it’s the football equivalent of trying to use your fingers to stop leaks from springing in a leaky dam. And those leaks are springing further apart than they were 30 years ago as offenses stretch defenses from sideline to sideline.
Tepper said he noticed more offenses realizing there are plenty of yards to be gained on the ground as defenses shift to stop passing games borne out of 7-on-7 tournaments.
“I think that you’re seeing more teams running the ball out of the spread,” Tepper said. “I think that that’s becoming a lot tougher to defend because what do they always say? That the defenses are always playing catch-up. Well, defenses have gotten — the secondaries in the state have gotten so good as a result of them moving some of their best athletes outside, you’re seeing more and more 2,000, 3,000-yard backs out of the spread now.”
The running game is never going to disappear. But it’s hard to see the proliferation of the passing game slowing down in the foreseeable future either. And not just because quarterbacks are getting better and there are more opportunities. It’s also enjoyable to throw the football around.
“Whenever I spoke at clinics, I would say, “Drive around your community and see what transpires in the summer, and you’ll see kids out playing catch with a baseball,” Olin said. “They’ll kick soccer balls. They’ll shoot basketballs, but if you run the wishbone or the wing-T, no one is working on that. But if you throw the football, you’ll have kids outside playing catch, working 7-on-7, doing things like that at a very early age because it’s fun.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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