How Mike Leach helped the NFL to reinvent itself

Mike Leach was an originator and an original thinker, and he wanted you to know it. He was also utterly unafraid to deliver smoke to those in football whom he deemed behind the schematic times.

Leach, a college head coach for 22 years with Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State from 2000-2022, died Monday night from complications related to a heart condition. He was 61.

During his time as a head coach and offensive philosopher, Leach was perhaps the game’s most celebrated purveyor of the Air-Raid offenses that terrorized his opponents. He turned around all three programs he took over, and went to 17 bowl games in his career. And he was using that Air-Raid system, with unconventional concepts and dynamic results, all the way.

Leach brought his own iterations of things you see in the NFL now all the time — quick tempo, five-receiver packages out of empty formations, heavy shotgun usage, and the requirement that receivers learn their positions all along the formation. But it was not always so, and some of the same coaches who are now using those concepts derided his offenses as gimmick-laden, and unusable in the NFL back in the day.

Leach was never afraid to counter with his own views on that. In 2016, he railed against those NFL traditionalists who insisted that pro-style quarterbacks were the ones taking the ball from under center.

“Every youth league coach that I’ve ever met has mustered the ability to teach sixth graders to take snaps under center,” Leach told ESPN’s John Clayton. “So if you’re a scout and if your guys at your whatever NFL team are a fraction of the coaches that you hope they’re going to be, I should think that they’re able to teach somebody to take a snap from under center. I mean, obviously, the guy already knows how. A chimpanzee can take the snap from under center.

“Like there is something magical about teaching somebody to do that because whichever caveman invented football, they were taking snaps under the center, And I’m not talking just one scout or one person has asked me this. But somehow the insecurity that exists with some of these people and their ability to teach a quarterback to take a quarterback snap from under center I think is a disturbing commentary.”

Leach also said in that interview that the Air Raid concepts he learned from Hal Mumme and perfected on his own had infiltrated just about every corner of the NFL. And he was exactly right.

“You’re hard-pressed to find an offense in the NFL that the Air Raid hasn’t influenced. And I happen to think (the NFL) was the best football as far as coaching, as far as scheme and all that. I don’t think that’s been the case for about 15 years. I think as some of these older guys retired that it’s diminished.”

Well, the new blood brought it in. Kliff Kingsbury with the things he worked at Texas Tech. Andy Reid with the things he learned to help Patrick Mahomes after Mahomes excelled in Kingsbury’s offense. When I watched tape with Mahomes in 2017, he bristled at the common notion (at the time) that he would struggle at the NFL level because he was raised on the Air Raid.

“The things I did that were easily transferable—the coaches would call the play into me,” Mahomes said a couple of weeks before the Chiefs selected him with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft. “I had to signal to the receivers, and tell the linemen and running backs what the protection was. So, I had a lot on me to do that stuff, plus I had the freedom to change the game. So, those two things are things that NFL quarterbacks already do; to see if this play works against this coverage. Is it the coverage we wanted, and what does it look like pre-snap?”

It had already become this in the NFL, even if some weren’t aware. When the Eagles were killing the Patriots with mesh (crossing receivers on short routes over the middle) in Super Bowl LII at the end of that same 2017 season, it was another concept that Leach had been running for years — with the NFL taking notice.

In today’s NFL, when you see an offense running four verts out of an empty formation (and you see it a lot), you can assume that it wouldn’t happen as often as it has without Leach’s influence at the NCAA level, and how the best ideas trickle up over time.

Mike Leach did what every coach dreams of doing, and what most coaches aren’t courageous, creative and curious enough to do — he took what he believed to be true about his side of the ball, he perfected it as much as he possibly could , and in that perfection, he changed the game he loved at every possible level, forever. The staid power-based concepts that preceded him were ripe for the picking, and he was the one who picked them apart.

Yes, he was a great quote. Yes, he could be an irascible guy. But more than anything, Mike Leach was a constant and far-reaching innovator as much as any coach has been.

That will be his legacy.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire

Leave a Comment