In 1962 philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn published a history of science titled “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In this work, now viewed seminal in the area, Kuhn challenged the then-widely held theories of scientific evolution. At the time, people in scientific fields believed that change was made through a series of small steps, a “development-by-accumulation” model where scientists would change and alter their theories based upon gaining small bits of new information or data. Kuhn shattered that model, positing that scientific evolution — or revolution as he termed it — was due to larger scale shifts. Those periods of “revolutionary science” would shatter the old models and create new “paradigms.”
Part of the lasting genius of Kuhn’s work was how it translated to schools of thought outside the natural sciences. His model was later applied to political thought, economics, sociology and even in Kuhn’s original field of work, philosophy.
Now we can apply it to football.
In his book Kuhn wrote that there is often resistance from the older scientists, the old guard, to the idea of new ideas and the eventual paradigm shift.
Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself. The source of resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shove into the box that the paradigm provides. Inevitability, at times of revolution, that assurance seems stubborn and pigheaded, as it sometimes becomes.” Thomas S. Kuhn “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” pp 151-152
When Patrick Mahomes was facing his pre-draft evaluation process, a lot of the skepticism surrounding him as a quarterback was the stigma surrounding quarterbacks coming from Air Raid offenses. This piece from Jason Kirk of SB Nation got at the issue. Titled “Air Raid QBs Haven’t Succeeded in the NFL: WIll Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb,” it outlined some of the reasons that quarterbacks from these systems went on to failure in the league. Whether it was because the offense is overly simplified, or the fact it was an “underdog strategy,” or whether it was due to the fact Air Raid offenses typically operate in conferences that do not play a lot of defense, the history of Air Raid QBs in the NFL is a flawed one.
Or so it was.
In a piece for The Ringer this summer, Rodger Sherman argued the “Case for the NFL’s Air Raid Revolution.” As Sherman points out, Jared Goff, he of the Air Raid background, had a very successful 2017 season . Nick Foles also operated an Air Raid offense in college, and he was named Super Bowl MVP. Despite the criticisms levied at the feet of Baker Mayfield, he was drafted first overall. Those criticisms centered on his offensive system and the fact that he was throwing to so many open receivers, in the wide open Big 12. When he got to the NFL, it was thought, he wouldn’t see so many wide open receivers.
Or will he?
The success of Mahomes in the early going of 2018 might just be the episodic anomaly that Kuhn was envisioning. The cataclysmic event that challenges the old guard, the formerly-accepted norms, and forces a rethinking among those in a given field. Sherman asks in his piece the following questions: We should be wondering why NFL coaches are so steadfast in forcing quarterbacks to make tough throws in the first place. Why do teams keep looking for great quarterbacks, instead of running the system that consistently makes bad quarterbacks look great?
Mahomes’ first touchdown throw to Travis Kelce last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers comes on four verticals, a staple of many college and NFL offenses rooted in the Air Raid. Mahomes (#15) lines up in the shotgun with a slot formation to his left and a tight pro alignment on his right. Kelce (#87) is an in-line tight end — with the dangerous Tyreek Hill (#10) aligned outside of him. Kareem Hunt (#27) is in the backfield next to Mahomes, giving the Chiefs three potential receivers to that side of the formation. Here is the play drawn up:
Kansas City catches the Steelers in a Cover 2-based coverage, and that puts both the play-side safety and the middle linebacker in difficult spots. The linebacker has to try and run with Kelce’s vertical route, while the safety gets bracketed by the vertical routes from Kelce and Hill. The result? Two open receivers and a fairly easy touchdown throw.
This is not an overly complicated offensive design, but you can see that it leaves the defense struggling to find an answer. Here is a similar play, on Kelce’s second touchdown reception of the game. This time the Chiefs completely spread the field, emptying the backfield with Mahomes in the shotgun. They put three receivers to the left, with Hill, Chris Conley (#17) and Kelce on that side from boundary working inside.:
The route concept in here is another vertical design, again rooted in the Air Raid. Hill runs a straight vertical route, but Conley and Kelce run double posts, or DINO, a concept that you can see in almost any Air Raid playbook, from Lincoln Riley to Mike Leach and Larry Fedora:
Once more the Steelers are in a Cover 2 type of formation, but with Hill on the boundary the safety over the trips formation widens, worried about Hill’s speed on the boundary ... and for another reason, as we will see in a moment. But because of the width between the safeties, Kelce is able to split them for another fairly easy throw for a TD:
Now look at the end zone angle. Watch the eyes of Mahomes. Upon the snap he flashes his eyes toward the boundary, and Hill, putting the safety into peril. At the last moment he turns back toward the middle of the field and finds Kelce for the score:
This isn’t against a Big 12 defense, but Mahomes makes it look like one. The conventional rules go out the window when the quarterback is making no-look passes on a Sunday afternoon against the teeth of the Steelers’ defense.
How do you defend this as a defensive coordinator?
One can understand why Cover 2 would be a scheme to deploy against Kansas City, giving you dedicated safety help over players like Hill and Sammy Watkins, another vertical threat, but as we can see it creates some easy throwing lanes that Mahomes and Andy Reid can attack. But if you go Cover 1 or another single-high variant:
Then you get Hill winning one-on-one matchups on the outside, away from potential safety help.
Every draft season we hear that the league has a quarterback problem. That players are not entering the league with the ability to run NFL offenses, to succeed on Sundays, to make the kinds of progression reads and tight window throws with anticipation that are necessary. One of the most fitting lines from Kuhn’s work is the following: “Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis. When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often the most effective one possible ... Claims of this sort are particularly likely to succeed if the new paradigm displays a quantitative precision strikingly better than its older competitor.” Id. at 153-154.
If the NFL truly has a quarterback crisis, the ways of the past might not be the answer. But rather, the ways of the future are. Looking at Mahomes’ start, this offensive style certainly does display a “precision strikingly better than its older competitor.” Why force your quarterback to make tight window throws when, as we can see here, you do not have to? This is the point Sherman argued in his piece, which we can extend here. Why make the game hard for your quarterback, and then require quarterbacks to make more precision throws, when you can do the opposite and solve the manufactured crisis?
Let’s close this out with a look at one of Mahomes’ four touchdown passes from Week 1, against the Los Angeles Chargers. This play comes on another college-type design, a mesh fake between Mahomes and his running back in the backfield and a quick slant from Hill. Two things to watch on this play: The throw Mahomes makes with a defensive lineman in his lap, and the window he delivers this pass into:
Even when things break down a bit, and there is pressure up front, the designs and execution make the throwing window an easier mark, raising the odds of success. Mahomes’ ability to make throws from any platform and from any arm angle, while not sacrificing velocity or placement, make him incredibly difficult to defend. Yes there is a run/pass element here, with the potential run action and sliding blockers in front of the running back, yet this play at its core is a slant/flat concept, a West Coast staple for years. But the added element of the run look in the backfield, coupled with a quarterback well versed at making quick decisions and off-platform throws that are prevalent in spread and Air Raid systems, make it that much harder to defend. A "precision strikingly better than its older competitor," to use Kuhn’s words again.
The NFL is a copycat league, after all, but one of the things it has been most resistant to is the Air Raid influence. But we are seeing more and more anomalies, from Goff and Foles last year to every team seemingly having the mesh concept in their playbook this year, and actually running it early and often. Yet the league might need one more episodic event to truly shift the paradigm, and Mahomes might be it. It is hard to argue with his success to this point, and while there will be defensive adjustments and, yes, likely some regression, even if Mahomes regresses to a big extent his numbers will still be more in line with video games than actual NFL games. Face it, the paradigm shift is upon us, and Mahomes is the final push the league needed.