In American football the air raid offense refers to an offensive scheme popularized by such coaches as Mike Leach, Hal Mumme, Sonny Dykes, and Tony Franklin during their tenures at Iowa Wesleyan University, Valdosta State, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Louisiana Tech, and Washington State.
The system is designed out of a shotgun formation with four wide receivers and one running back. The formations are a variation of the run and shoot offense with two outside receivers and two inside slot receivers. The offense also uses trips formations featuring three wide receivers on one side of the field and a lone single receiver on the other side.
The offense owes much to the influence of BYU head coach LaVell Edwards, who used the splits and several key passing concepts during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s while coaching players such as Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, and Ty Detmer. Mike Leach has made reference that he and Hal Mumme largely incorporated much of the BYU passing attack into what is now known as the air raid offense. Some of the concepts such as the shallow cross route were incorporated into such offenses as the West Coast offense during the early 1990s as well, prominently under Mike Shanahan while he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos.
The offense first made its appearance when Mumme and Leach took over at Iowa Wesleyan College and Valdosta State University and had success there during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first exposure into NCAA Division I-A (now FBS) was at the University of Kentucky starting in 1997. There, Mumme and Leach helped turn highly touted QB Tim Couch into a star and later a first overall NFL draft pick. Leach then served as offensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma in 1999 before landing the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Shortly into the early 2000s, assistant coaches started landing head coaching jobs such as Chris Hatcher at Valdosta State, Art Briles (first at Houston then Baylor), Sonny Dykes (first at Louisiana Tech, then at California), Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina, Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, and Kevin Sumlin (first at Houston, then Texas A&M). Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury (Mike Leach's first quarterback at Texas Tech) runs the offense as well.
The scheme is notable for its focus on passing. As many as 65–75% of the calls during a season result in a passing play. The quarterback has the freedom to audible to any play based on what the defense is showing him at the line of scrimmage. In at least one instance, as a result of the quarterback's ability to audible, as many as 90% of the run plays called in a season were chosen by audible at the line of scrimmage.
An important element in this offense is the use of no huddle. The quarterback and the offense race up to the line of scrimmage, diagnose what the defense is showing, and then snap the ball based on the quarterback's play call. This not only allows a team to come back if they are many points down as seen in the 2006 Insight Bowl, but it also allows them to tire out the defense, allowing for bigger runs and longer pass completions. The fast pace limits the defense's ability to substitute players and adjust their scheme. The hurried pace can cause defensive mental mistakes such as missed assignments, being out of position or too many men on the field.
Another important aspect of the air raid offense is the split of the offensive linemen. In a conventional offense, the linemen are bunched together fairly tightly but in an air raid offense, linemen are often split apart about a half to a full yard from another. While in theory this allows easier blitz lanes, it forces the defensive ends and defensive tackles to run further to reach the quarterback for a sack. The quick, short passes offset any blitz that may come. Another advantage is that by forcing the defensive line to widen, it opens up wide passing lanes for the quarterback to throw the ball through with less chance of having his pass knocked down or intercepted.
Fundamental air raid play concepts include Mesh, Stick and Corner, All Curls, 4 Verts, and Fast Screens. These plays are designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly, stretch the defense horizontally and vertically, and allow the quarterback to key on one defensive player who will be forced to make a decision on which receiver to cover in his assigned area. While air raid plays are commonly designed to beat zone coverages, they also work well against man-to-man schemes since air raid offenses often employ receivers with more than average speed, thus giving them an advantage in man-to-man coverage.
The mesh concept is the bread and butter of the air raid offense and stretches the defense vertically with an outside receiver running a deep route, typically a post route, the running back sliding out into the flat after checking for blocking assignments, and the two remaining receivers running shallow crossing routes that setup a natural pick, or coverage rub.