When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes 10th overall in the 2017 draft, scouts lauded his work ethic and impressive arm strength — but they still had doubts about Mahomes’s NFL future. It wasn’t personal; it had to do with the high-flying college offense Mahomes played in at Texas Tech and old misgivings about how quarterbacks from pass-happy systems would translate to the pros.
All of that seems silly now, of course. In truth, Mahomes came along at just the right moment: the moment when NFL teams are finally embracing offensive elements they used to consider mere collegiate gimmicks. Now Mahomes and his MVP-caliber performance through eight games have the potential to forever eradicate questions about air-it-out college passers.
The history of college QBs with video-game statistics traces its way back decades before Mahomes lit up Big 12 defenses for 5,052 yards as a junior for the Red Raiders in 2016. According to Sports-Reference.com’s data, the first modern1 major-college quarterback to break 4,000 yards in a season was BYU’s Jim McMahon in 1980 — one of multiple passers to crack the milestone in Provo under the guidance of innovative coach LaVell Edwards. (Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer — three times! — and Steve Sarkisian would also break that barrier over the next decade-and-a-half, while future Hall of Famer Steve Young barely missed it in 1983.)
Around the same time, other similarly pass-centric offenses were piling up big numbers, too. As the 1980s came to a close, Houston run-and-shoot passers Andre Ware and David Klingler racked up stats that still defy the imagination. That same offensive scheme would migrate to the NFL in the 1990s and find new life in the 2000s with Hawaii coach June Jones, who turned Warriors QBs Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan into ultra-prolific passers. Elsewhere in the spread, Utah’s Scott Mitchell had a field day in Jim Fassel’s wide-open system in 1988, while Drew Brees, Chris Redman and Tim Rattay thrived in the ’90s while running various versions of the single-back scheme championed by coaches such as Purdue’s Joe Tiller.
And we haven’t even gotten to the quarterbacks who played in the air raid system of Hal Mumme and his many proteges. The air raid borrowed elements from both the run-and-shoot and Edwards’s BYU offense, forging a passing playbook that has obliterated opposing defenses. Playing for Mumme at Kentucky, Tim Couch threw for 4,275 yards and 36 TDs in 1998, while Kliff Kingsbury joined the 5,000-yard club directing Mike Leach’s Texas Tech offense in 2002. Leach was just getting started: From 2002 to 2008, five different Red Raider QBs broke 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, with Graham Harrell tossing for 48 TDs and 5,705 yards (second-most in the FBS modern era) in 2007 and fifth-year senior B.J. Symons, Kingsbury’s former backup, going for a ridiculous 52 scores and 5,833 yards (first in the modern era) in 2003.
Leach was no longer in Lubbock by the time Mahomes arrived on campus — the coach had moved to Washington State, where he’s been rewriting the Pac-12 record books — but the young QB learned from the next-best thing: Kingsbury himself, now Texas Tech’s head coach. Kingsbury is part of a whole generation of quarterbacks-turned-coaches who came up in the air raid and spread it like wildfire across the college and high school ranks. Coaching the Red Raiders, he helped Mahomes become one of the most prolific passers in Big 12 history.
As the author S.C. Gwynne wrote about in his excellent book “The Perfect Pass,” these similar (yet distinct) strains of aggressive passing all came together to change the sport forever, dragging it out of an antiquated era of primarily run-based football and making it into the aerial showcase we see today. Nowadays, the college game is a passing game, one in which 86 percent of snaps come in the shotgun, and even Alabama — long religiously balanced on offense — is averaging nearly 350 yards per game in the air.
Just how much have extreme pass-first philosophies taken over college football in recent years? Kingsbury became only the third modern member of the 5,000-yard club (joining Detmer and Klingler) when he broke that barrier in 2002. Sixteen years later, the group has expanded its membership fivefold (including Mahomes), with current Leach QB Gardner Minshew on pace to join this season as well.2
But for all the collegiate success these prolific passers enjoyed, pro front offices became fearful of handing them the keys to an NFL offense. And not without cause: In the 1980s and ’90s, a number of the wide-open college passing game’s early adopters were picked highly in the draft, at least partly on the basis of their big NCAA numbers — and few were especially successful in the NFL. BYU’s Marc Wilson and McMahon, Houston’s Ware and Klingler, plus Trent Dilfer (who played at Fresno State under Tiller’s mentor, Jim Sweeney), Ryan Leaf (who starred at Washington State under spread-passing guru Mike Price), Kentucky’s Couch and Marshall’s Chad Pennington were all taken among the draft’s top picks. Pennington and McMahon had the best careers of the bunch with more than 60 points of Approximate Value (AV) apiece — the mark of a solid, if not Hall of Fame-worthy, career — while the rest went varying levels of journeyman or bust in the NFL.3
(Young, it bears mentioning, is a special case. Because he went to the USFL out of BYU, he was selected in the NFL’s supplemental draft, so he doesn’t get lumped in with the group above. Young easily had the best career of any pass-happy college product since the 1980s.)
|Best College Season||NFL Draft|
|Tim Couch||Kentucky||Air raid||1998||4275||36||1999||1||32|
|Tim Rattay||La. Tech||Spread||1998||4943||46||2000||212||13|
|Ryan Leaf||Wash. St.||Spread||1997||3968||34||1998||2||1|
|Danny Wuerffel||Florida||Fun ‘n’ gun||1996||3625||39||1997||99||6|
|Trent Dilfer||Fresno State||Spread||1993||3799||30||1994||6||60|
|Jimmy Klingler||Houston||Run and Shoot||1992||3818||32||—||—||0|
|David Klingler||Houston||Run and Shoot||1990||5140||54||1992||6||11|
|Andre Ware||Houston||Run and Shoot||1989||4699||46||1990||7||5|
|Anthony Dilweg||Duke||Fun ‘n’ gun||1988||3824||24||1989||74||4|
Over time, the prevailing notion became that a quarterback’s college statistics were as much a liability as an asset, a sign that some coach’s gimmicky scheme had propped up a mediocre talent, giving him numbers he had no real business producing — ones that almost seemed like they were specifically designed to deceive scouts. And in fact, Mumme did base the air raid in part around the notion of making an elite quarterback talent unnecessary for passing success. “If he could design a system that featured passing and could be run by average or sub-average football players who could not throw like Dan Fouts or Jim McMahon,” Gwynne wrote of Mumme’s philosophy, “he could truly change the game of football.”
Eventually, NFL teams all but gave up on drafting air raid or run-and-shoot products. When Kingsbury broke the 5,000-yard barrier, all it got him was a lousy sixth-round draft slot. (Unlike that other Patriots sixth-round pick, Kingsbury’s career transitioned to coaching not long thereafter.) Chang and Brennan combined to throw 248 college touchdowns at Hawaii … and neither threw a pass in the NFL. Likewise, Symons and Harrell both nearly cracked 6,000 yards in a season … and Symons wasn’t taken until the eighth-to-last pick of the 2004 draft, while Harrell wasn’t drafted at all. The system was unstoppable, but the players in it were easily brushed off.
|Best college Season||NFL Draft|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||Air raid||2007||5705||48||—||—||0|
|Chase Holbrook||NM State||Air raid||2006||4619||34||—||—||0|
|Colt Brennan||Hawaii||Run and shoot||2006||5549||58||2008||186||0|
|Cody Hodges||Texas Tech||Air raid||2005||4197||31||—||—||0|
|Sonny Cumbie||Texas Tech||Air raid||2004||4742||32||—||—||0|
|B.J. Symons||Texas Tech||Air raid||2003||5833||52||2004||248||0|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||Air raid||2002||5017||45||2003||201||0|
|Nick Rolovich||Hawaii||Run and shoot||2001||3361||34||—||—||0|
Here’s how Gwynne summarized the attitude surrounding air raid passers by 2008, the season in which Leach and Harrell’s Red Raiders pulled off a monumental upset over No. 1-ranked Texas: “The proof that this was a ‘system,’ commentators all agreed, was that hardly any of Leach’s players, and none of his quarterbacks, ever made it in the NFL,” he wrote. “They were merely products of a scheme that magically spun dross into gold, mediocre quarterbacks into NCAA record-holders.”
Because of that perception, the early to mid-2000s were a wasteland for QBs from wide-open college offenses. Some more traditional spread passers got more traction — Byron Leftwich and Rex Grossman were both first-round picks out of vertical passing systems in college, though neither ultimately lived up to early expectations. A feedback loop was established in which the shortcomings of past system passers were used as an excuse to discount current ones, whose lack of NFL success was in turn held up as further evidence that the model simply couldn’t work in the pros.
But more recently, the tide has begun to turn in favor of the college spread passer. First, Sam Bradford of the Oklahoma Sooners — where Leach worked as offensive coordinator in 19994 — was picked No. 1 in the 2010 draft. Bradford wasn’t highly regarded out of high school, either, but he passed for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns while leading the Sooners to the 2008 BCS title game. More importantly, he had the size and other attributes to quell concerns about the system he came out of. While Bradford’s NFL career hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations of the No. 1 overall pick, his acceptance by the scouts — and his subsequently decent NFL career — began to usher in the era of collegiate system passers as legitimate NFL prospects.
Around the same time, the NFL itself began to change. In a shocking upset in 2008, the Dolphins famously used the Wildcat — a literal college scheme — to run roughshod over the New England Patriots. Spread formations featuring the shotgun and/or the so-called 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — started being used on the majority of NFL plays. The lines between “pro-style” and college offenses began to blur even further with the quick success of mobile, read-option QB prospects such as Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, each of whom thrived with plays that borrowed heavily from university playbooks. While defenses ended up adapting to some of these innovations — and Griffin and Kaepernick’s careers have fizzled due to, respectively, injuries and politics — the Philadelphia Eagles used college-style run-pass option tactics to win the Super Bowl with a backup QB in February.
As Kevin Clark recently wrote for The Ringer, the NFL’s scheme wars are over, and the spread — with its influences ranging from Edwards at BYU to Tiller at Purdue, Jones at Hawaii and Mumme at Kentucky — won the day. Against this backdrop, former big-number college passers have begun to thrive at the game’s highest level. Case Keenum, whose resume in Houston’s air raid system included a 5,631-yard, 48-TD season in 2011, went from an undrafted backup to one of the NFL’s best passers last season.5 Jared Goff, who starred in Cal’s “Bear raid” offense under coach Sonny Dykes (a Leach disciple), has a 104.6 passer rating and a 19-4 record over the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. Oklahoma product Baker Mayfield parlayed his college performance in Lincoln Riley’s system into the No. 1 overall pick in the draft; he’s currently holding his own as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns.
All of this might culminate in the success of Mahomes, whose 22-AV pace this year would place him second only to Steve Young (peak AV: 23) among the best NFL quarterbacking seasons by pass-heavy college-system products. Between Mahomes’s own considerable skill set, the amazing amount of talent around him in Kansas City and the coaching genius of Andy Reid — himself drawing on many tricks and ruses from the college game — the Chiefs’ young passer is off to maybe the best career start of any quarterback ever, establishing himself as the MVP front-runner in the season’s first half. In the process, he may be driving the final stake into the heart of the myth that crazy college passing stats are the harbinger of NFL failure, or that playing QB in a wide-open scheme makes you unfit to run an offense in the pros.
If so, it would be the crowning moment of a trend decades in the making. We can trace the rise, fall and return of the spread-system quarterback prospect if we map out the career-high AV and draft value invested in FBS (or Div. I-A) passers who averaged at least 150 more adjusted passing yards than the NCAA average in a season and played in an air-it-out college scheme — whether it be the air raid, run-and-shoot, spread option, single-back, Fun ’n’ Gun, pistol or BYU vertical offense:
After the stellar success of Young and some decent seasons by Mitchell and McMahon, the failures of Klingler and Ware set off a long drought for prolific college system passers. But the recent rehabilitation of the archetype is evident on the right side of the timeline, with Mahomes currently soaring highest.
Fewer than 10 starts into his pro career, it may yet be premature to anoint Mahomes as the college-style passing attack’s permanent NFL savior. But as systems such as the air raid spread further throughout the college ranks, and as NFL teams show more and more willingness to embrace those same offensive concepts, it seems likely that traditional concerns about spread-system quarterback prospects will fade into oblivion. All it took was four decades of ups and downs, changing schemes and adapted attitudes — and miles and miles worth of college passing stats.