TEMPE, Ariz. — Hal Mumme heard the same thing whenever he talked to someone in the NFL.
His offense, the Air Raid, couldn’t — or wouldn’t — work. Ever. It was too pass-happy. It was too simple. His quarterbacks weren’t NFL caliber. They didn’t take snaps under center. They didn’t know how to drop back. Too many Air Raid quarterbacks didn’t pan out.
“They just had all these stereotypes that you heard,” Mumme said. “It wasn’t the quarterbacks. It was the offense. Why not do what your players can do, rather than try to force a square peg into a round hole?”
Mumme and Washington State coach Mike Leach are the “mad scientists” behind the Air Raid offense — which they developed and implemented while at NAIA school Iowa Wesleyan beginning in 1989. The offense has spread across the college football landscape, winning Oklahoma a national championship in 2000 and producing four No. 1 overall picks since 1999. This year, 11 first- or second-generation Mumme disciples will walk college sidelines as head coaches.
Every NFL team runs some form of the Air Raid these days, and some — like the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots — use it more than others. But no NFL team has put on the full Air Raid press.
The Arizona Cardinals hired former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, a Leach disciple, in January to revamp their offense. Arizona had the league’s worst offense in 2018, while the Rams, an NFC West rival, played in the Super Bowl thanks to an offense heavy on Air Raid concepts.
“We’re thrilled with it,” Mumme told ESPN of Kingsbury’s hiring. “Everybody’s pulling for him. It’s great. We like watching it. It’s always fun to feel validated over the whole thing after all these years. And there’s been guys like Mike Leach, and Dana Holgorsen, Bob Stoops, that have been doing it for years, and had great teams with it, but to get it to the pro level is, I think, something special. So everybody’s in Kliff’s corner, that’s for sure, in our little fraternity.”
There’s a belief within the fraternity of Air Raid coaches that the NFL makes — and keeps — things harder simply because it’s the highest level of football. That’s one reason why so many Air Raid coaches feel NFL playcalls are absurdly long compared to the five words of an Air Raid play. However, Kingsbury’s playcalls are a mix of the Air Raid style and NFL style with some hand signals thrown in.
SMU coach Sonny Dykes says the NFL keeps recycling the same coaches, preventing younger, more innovative coaches from getting jobs.
“What the NFL always did was say, ‘This is what we do,'” said Tony Franklin, who was Mumme’s running backs coach and offensive coordinator at Kentucky. “The NFL was a group of guys with humongous egos who wanted to blame young men coming in and saying ‘Well, they couldn’t do what we do. Because we’re too smart. It’s too complicated.'”
It’s “highfalutin snobbery,” Leach said.
“I get tired of everybody saying, ‘Well it works at this level but it won’t work at that level,'” Leach said. “What are you talking about? Why won’t it?”
We’re about to find out.
Kingsbury brings his own version of the Air Raid to the NFL — it’s not necessarily the offense Mumme designed in the 1980s. Kingsbury is writing the next chapter, carrying a torch for Air Raid coaches that’ll either ignite a trend or be doused after a season or two.
“Whatever will work at one league will work in any league,” Leach said. “I really believe that. And I thought that since the day I got in and I feel more certain of it now after having been at it for 30 years.”
‘I was thinking we’d call ours Air Raid’
When Mumme was hired at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989, bringing his new offense along, no one else wanted the job. Iowa Wesleyan was coming off an 0-10 season. Then Mumme had a hard time finding an offensive line coach who would run his offense. Nobody, he said, was interested in coaching a line that was going to be in a two-point stance three feet off the ball with big splits, throwing the ball 50 times a game. So Mumme pivoted. He looked for the smartest person he could hire.
That was Leach.
The two met at a BYU spring game in the late 1980s, said Leach, who was already familiar with Mumme from his UTEP days.
“You don’t have to talk to him very long before you realize he’s a really smart guy,” Leach said.
Together, they spent days and nights developing the Air Raid, staying in the office sometimes until 2 a.m. talking concepts, ideas, football, developing the scheme on chalkboards and napkins — usually cloth, Leach said — and setting up furniture to resemble a formation and getting into a technique by pretending to be linemen.
The two were “mad scientists,” as Matt Mumme, Hal’s son and former assistant who’s now the offensive coordinator at Nevada, put it. The chalkboard was their laboratory.
The more they worked on the Air Raid, the more Leach fell for it.
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “Not only was it everything I thought it would be, it was actually even a little more. And it was a little more from the standpoint that it kept growing. And there were so many great ideas around the country to take a peek at.”
He and Leach had made a second job out of traveling across the country to watch practices and study tape from anyone and everyone who’d let them, implementing concepts they liked along the way.
But a road trip to Orlando, Florida, led to the most defining trait of the Air Raid. While watching the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football practice, Mumme and Leach were told by Don Matthews, who’d win five Grey Cups in the CFL, to stick around for the last drill of practice — the “Bandit Drill.” It was the Thunder’s two-minute offense but presented in a more organized manner than Mumme had ever seen.
“They were just amazing,” Mumme said. “I said, ‘Mike, that’s our edge right there. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take our offense and do that right there but we’re not going to do it for two minutes. We’re going to do it all the time.'”
At last, Mumme’s offense was set.
But Leach needed a name for it.
Leach doubled — or tripled, if you count all the other duties he had at the small NAIA program — as the football team’s sports information director. His goal that season was to get Iowa Wesleyan in the state’s biggest paper, the Des Moines Register.
“If you’re in the state of Iowa and you’re not in the Des Moines Register, you’re not anybody,” Mumme said.
Leach thought they needed a clever name for the offense to attract editors’ eyes. Leach explained to a skeptical Mumme that Steve Spurrier, then at Duke, had called his downfield passing game “Air Ball” and the student section loved chanting it.
“He says, ‘I was thinking we’d call ours “Air Raid.” That sounds cool,'” Mumme said. “I said, ‘Yeah, it does sound cool. Go for it.'”
Armed with a name, tempo and a full scheme, the Air Raid worked that last season at Iowa Wesleyan, which went 10-2 and made the NAIA playoffs for the first and only time in school history.
“I’m not kidding, it was probably the best era in the history of America to start an offense that throws the ball,” Leach said. “We all felt like we were doing something special, something other people weren’t doing that was kind of groundbreaking.”
Mumme went from Iowa Wesleyan to Valdosta State and finally to the SEC and the University of Kentucky. In 1997, Mumme’s first season with Kentucky, his Wildcats upset No. 20 Alabama and football started changing. Alabama high school coaches flocked to Lexington to learn the Air Raid and implement it throughout the state.
“When you beat Alabama, they hate you but they want to figure out what you did,” Mumme said.
So started the widespread dissemination of the Air Raid. When Leach was hired by Texas Tech in 2000, coaches made a beeline for Lubbock to learn the Air Raid. Now, Mumme estimated, 75 percent of Texas high schools run a version of it. In 1991, Mumme had to teach his quarterbacks how to play out of the shotgun. In 2001, he found it hard to find a quarterback who had taken a snap under center.
“It started out as dozens,” Mumme said, “and now it’s probably up to thousands.”
‘He wasn’t afraid to fail’
There were passing offenses before Mumme’s and there’ll be passing offenses after.
Bill Walsh ran the West Coast offense. Glenn “Tiger” Ellison created the run ‘n’ shoot. Jack Elway coached the three-step passing game. Don Reed had his version of a passing attack.
Before all that there was Don Coryell’s Air Coryell.
Before that there was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, coached by Dutch Meyer.
And now there’s Mumme.
“They changed the idea, the perspective, the way the game’s played to a certain extent,” said Central Florida coach Josh Heupel, the former Oklahoma quarterback who won a national championship behind Leach’s playcalling. “There’s bits and pieces of it littered throughout football at every level.
“You look at the way football’s played today versus the way it was played 20 years ago, there’s a dramatic difference. They have a big piece of that ownership.”
One of the Air Raid’s pillars and a major reason it took off throughout high schools and colleges is its simplicity.
That was Mumme’s goal all along. He designed the Air Raid to be installed in three workouts, he said. A traditional Air Raid offense has between 10 and 15 base plays, Mumme said, but those all have tags and all those tags have adjustments, which could balloon a play sheet to about 350 plays.
That simplicity allows quarterbacks to have plenty of freedom within the offense, Kingsbury said. But what has also contributed to the Air Raid’s popularity is that coaches can tailor it to their liking.
“When those offenses have been really good, guys have put their own spin on it or they adjust routes on their own and the quarterback has the ability anywhere on the field to check into any play he sees, which, at that level, was kind of unheard of until they started doing it,” Kingsbury said.
“They always say, if you see a better play, I want you to get into it. That’s part of your job.”
Mumme likes to say he didn’t invent anything. He just tWISted it and changed football in the process.
“I always tell everybody we’re like Nabisco,” Mumme said. “They didn’t invent cookies. They just packaged them up. I stole everything I do from [former BYU coach] LaVell Edwards, Mouse Davis and Bill Walsh. Those three guys are probably 90% of what we do.”
The simplicity of the Air Raid probably cost it an earlier shot at the NFL, but Mumme wasn’t ever worried about that.
“He’s become legendary because he wasn’t afraid to fail,” Franklin said.
That, Leach believes, will help cement Mumme’s place in football history.
“I really do think this,” Leach said. “Us and that group at Iowa Wesleyan changed football in the same fashion that Emory Bellard did when he invented the WIShbone.”