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How Tampa Bay created an elite offense

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How do Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks fit the offense this year?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sep 24, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) stands in the pocket during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense will face their toughest challenge yet this Sunday vs the Chicago Bears’ defense. But now that we’ve gone through three games, I think it’s probably safe to say this offense is legit. They rank as the fifth-best offense in the NFL right now, but with the second-best passing game behind the Kansas City Chiefs.

In order to understand how the Bucs managed to suddenly develop an elite offense despite having the worst running game in the league, or even how such a thing could be possible, we need to look to the past.

Roots and Evolution

If you’re a fan of football, Sid Gillman is a name you should be familiar with. Gillman, over a 50-year coaching career spanning the 1930s to the 1980s, pioneered the downfield passing attack. His passing concepts have filtered down through the decades and are the foundation of every passing system in football today, at every level. As Chris Brown of Smart Football writes, Gillman’s ideas of what a passing game should be were based on routes that could beat man coverage, but deployed in a way that would make zone coverage impossible. It had profound influences on many coaching legends, including Bill Walsh, who used it create his West Coast offense that utilizes vertical stretches on defenders by layering horizontal routes at different depths of the field.

But there are two other coaching legends in particular Bucs fans should know about - Hal Mumme and Don Coryell. Both took Gillman’s concepts and tinkered, tweaked, and adjusted to fit what they wanted to do, which was what Walsh did, just sideways - using horizontal stretches to go vertical. And so the Air Raid and the Air Coryell schemes were born.

Coryell’s “Air Coryell” found success with the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s with tight end Kellen Winslow Sr. and quarterback Dan Fouts. It was also the scheme responsible for “The Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, coordinated by Mike Martz and quarterbacked by Kurt Warner. Dirk Koetter hails from this tree.

Mumme’s Air Raid was largely confined to college, but would gain an innovative disciple in Mike Leach. They went to BYU to visit LaVell Edwards, who had built his offense from Gillman’s teachings. Leach and Mumme copied the BYU playbook and then played with it, adjusting here and experimenting there, in the process creating something new altogether. With the Air Raid Leach found success at Texas Tech, regularly putting up 50+ points against more talented opponents. Leach is now coaching at Washington State. Another disciple of the Air Raid is Dana Holgorsen, who played and coached for Mumme. Holgorsen installed the Air Raid offense at Oklahoma State, and it found such immediate success Holgorsen left after one year to take over West Virginia’s program, which routinely puts out elite offenses. Who did Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy hire to replace Holgorsen? None other than Todd Monken, who had never coached or coordinated an Air Raid system before, but his offenses were just as successful as Holgorsen’s anyway. Monken eventually left, taking over an 0-12 Southern Mississippi program and resurrecting them with the Air Raid, leading them to a 9-5 record in his third season before leaving to be Koetter’s offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.

How They Work

The Air Coryell system is a deep vertical passing game that heavily utilizes timing routes and is predicated on creating horizontal stretches against defenders, especially safeties. This is usually coupled with a power run game. Therefore, this system requires a very good offensive line to function, as it needs to be able to pass protect for slow-developing plays, and be physical in the run game. It also by necessity asks running backs or receivers in the slot to help the offensive line with chip blocks. It requires a quarterback who is both capable of and willing to throw on time to a spot down the field, not just to an open receiver. One of its staple plays is the famous Four Verticals concept. In juxtaposition to the West Coast, the Air Coryell system trades consistency or efficiency - short easy quick completions for small amounts of yards - for more difficult, lower-percentage plays that yield chunk yardage. And the math backs it up as the correct approach. But if not all parts are working correctly and in sync, the offense can quickly look awful.

The two schemes share many concepts, as all offenses do, but the Air Raid perhaps puts an emphasis on finding open grass, as Leach once put it. The Air Raid has been criticized as simple, and even gimmicky, or at least once was. It is often easier and quicker to install, but that’s a feature and not a bug. Once installed, it is repped over and over to maximize execution. Still, it has grown more complex over the years. It often places as many receivers on the field as possible to stress defenses. It also makes more use of bunch formations, short quick routes, and heavy use of rub routes or “picks”, including in one of its staple concepts, the “Mesh” play. Another of the Air Read staples is the Y-Cross and...the Four Verticals concept. The Air Raid also builds in options for receivers based on the coverage, meaning you could run the same concept over and over again and get a different result based on the defense, and receivers can adjust their routes when they find open holes or space in the defense. The Air Raid has taken the NFL by storm in the last ten years or so and has dominated recently, led by Andy Reid and the Chiefs, though it was resisted by NFL coaches for decades as it continued to evolve in the college game. That time is over. Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, and Jared Goff all ran the Air Raid in college.

What Can the ‘Raid Do For You?

Rodger Sherman of The Ringer, in this article that got Leach’s attention on Twitter, wrote this particularly poignant observation of the Air Raid that offers a criticism of those in the NFL that were slow to change and adapt:

When it comes to the Air Raid, I believe those in the NFL are asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be trying to figure out whether players like Mayfield can make every tough throw. 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?

I believe this helps to at least partially explain the 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember Brandon Weeden, the former first round pick from Oklahoma State? How about Johnny Manziel, from Texas A&M? They ran the Air Raid.

How the Quarterbacks Fit

That’s not to say Jameis Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick are bad quarterbacks. They aren’t. But the Air Raid is a more quarterback-friendly offense, and the Bucs have done a great job of seamlessly incorporating Air Raid concepts into their Air Coryell playbook. That has allowed them to help their quarterback without sacrificing being aggressive or explosive. And on top of that, the Bucs have an offensive coordinator and play-caller who has experience running successful Air Raid offenses. This modified offense schemes players open in a way it didn’t before, offers up quicker and simpler reads, and makes better use of Tampa Bay’s tremendous skill position talent. In short, the offense is even more explosive. And instead of sacrificing even more efficiency than they already were in order to be explosive, they are actually even more efficient.

I think these reasons are at least partially responsible for Fitzpatrick’s resurgence, if not mostly responsible. Not to take anything away from him, on the contrary. Put another way, I think Fitzpatrick is a great fit for this 2018 offense. It allows him to do a lot of what he does well, namely showcase his deep ball accuracy and his preference for getting the ball out quickly. Tampa Bay’s insane group of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries does the rest. Hence the resurrection of “Fitzmagic”.

Fitzpatrick likes to hit his first read if he can, and Air Raid concepts are good at getting its first read open, and these receivers, except Evans, are great at using space in the open field to gain huge yards after the catch. That’s not to say Fitzpatrick can’t read a defense or go through his progressions, or is risk averse or not aggressive. Whether it’s throwing short, launching it deep, or taking off and running, Fitzpatrick wants to make the decision quickly. There are good and bad sides to that. You can read a defender wrong and throw an interception, or throwing quickly usually means shorter, which may yield more punts. But the good side is it can make the offense very difficult to stop, and at the end of the day if you’re quickly getting the ball out to your playmakers in space...well, isn’t that the whole point?

But Fitzpatrick is also close to 36, and likely in his last year in the NFL. The velocity on his passes isn’t great and is only going to get worse, and he threw some passes in the dirt on Monday night vs the Steelers. He’s still prone to pressing or forcing passes, especially when trying to come back from behind in the fourth quarter. He is currently playing at a high level, but it is uncertain how long he can keep that level of play up when it’s so far above his career baseline, and there is no potential for Fitzpatrick to get better, this season or long-term.

Winston, on the other hand, was never a great fit in Koetter’s Air Coryell system. Because of the consistently difficult nature of the throws, and Winston’s inconsistent accuracy and penchant for making throws he knows he shouldn’t make, it’s fair to argue that Winston didn’t (or perhaps still doesn’t) possess the high floor required of Koetter’s offense. It’s also fair to note that Fitzpatrick never looked great in it either. Winston is advanced in the mental aspects of quarterbacking that are difficult to be advanced in, and often puts the offense in position to succeed, or “wins”, pre-snap. It’s a level most quarterbacks never achieve, and the guys that do usually end up in the Hall of Fame. But unlike those quarterbacks he’s also a rhythm, streaky thrower and needs plays that allow him to get into the rhythm and flow of a game, especially early. When he’s on, his highs are as high as any quarterback in the game and he will carve up even elite defenses, if only for a drive. When he’s cold, he can look awful, missing receivers and committing multiple turnovers. In other words, how a Coryell offense will look when things aren’t going well. And Winston has fallen into bad habits of pressing thin those situations as well.

But perhaps the biggest issue is his deep accuracy. Until he plays for several games it is impossible to gauge what, if any, progress has been made. There’s really not much to say other than it’s been awful and is another reason he wasn’t a great fit for Koetter’s scheme, which did not do enough to help Winston or hide his weaknesses.

But this isn’t really Koetter’s old offense anymore, in scheme or personnel. Tampa Bay’s skill position talent has matured, and the offensive line has largely been fixed but just needs to work on their communication and cohesiveness as a unit. They even found a capable running back who can pass block. The only holes on the offense right now are the right guard spot and athleticism from the running back position. It’s pretty close to perfect, and the biggest concern going forward is staying healthy.

Fitzpatrick barely attempted any deep passes vs. the Eagles but still threw for over 400 yards because of explosive yards after the catch. I think Winston can be a good or great fit in this modified offense under Monken’s leadership and playcalling. A lot of the issues that Monken’s adjustments appear to have fixed in the offensive scheme and have elevated Fitzpatrick would also largely benefit Winston. Passing on early downs early in the game, receivers open on almost every play with room to run, more short quick passes mixed in that make easy throws and help set up big plays, and not forcing big plays but helping design them with one on one coverage in the open field; these are all things that would elevate Winston too.

I’m not advocating for Winston here, or arguing that he should start. I just want to highlight what differences you might see if Winston plays this season. I think it’s safe to say Winston still wouldn’t hit as many deep balls as Fitzpatrick has. But I also think Winston will keep some drives alive that Fitzpatrick won’t because Winston is more willing to let the play develop and is better at extending plays. Winston will throw interceptions too, and maybe more of them than Fitzpatrick might, even if only because Winston will probably have more attempts, despite Fitzpatrick having the higher career interception percentage. If he does play again this season I also think Winston could do a better job of getting the ball out quickly like Fitzpatrick does. Regardless of who plays this season, this is the best talent and offense either has ever played with and if the Bucs can stay healthy their elite offense should make them competitive in every game.