When the 2012 Heisman trophy was presented to Texas A&M's freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, it marked a major shift in the world of college football. Although he was maybe 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds and running the notoriously pass-heavy Air Raid offense at A&M, Manziel led the SEC in rushing yards with 1410 and added another 3706 yards through the air. He really was that good.
More than that, though, Manziel was significant. That he was able to enjoy that level of success as a first-year starter, at his size, in the SEC West—the roughest division in all of the sport—established quite firmly that smaller, quicker quarterbacks were the wave of the future.
One of Manziel's unique skills was the ability to throw the ball down the field while on the run. That skill took something like a year off Alabama coach Nick Saban's life as Johnny dropped a combined 907 yards and seven touchdowns on the vaunted Crimson Tide defense over two years.
What has gone largely unexplored from Manziel's run of success—and yes, after all these years of Manziel Overload, there are some things about him that are under-discussed—was his background as a baseball player. He excelled at the sport in high school and was even drafted by the San Diego Padres, in the 28th round of the 2014 draft, although he never signed a contract. In addition to his absurd quickness, baseball's impact on Manziel's game is most evident in his comfort throwing the ball accurately, on the move and without his feet set:
That's the kind of throw an infielder has to make to beat a runner to first. Football has always regularly put quarterbacks in situations where they needed to be able to make a throw without everything else on the field stopping to provide them the space and time they need to set their feet and deliver the perfect toss. This is particularly true for drop-back passing teams and spread teams that can't always create a perfect pocket for their quarterbacks. Baseball, too, requires that young athletes develop a skill for throwing off balance and accurately. When Manziel was Manziel, it was easy to see how that skill translates to the gridiron.
Four years later, Manziel's original coach, Kliff Kingsbury, is developing another young phenomenon who grew up playing baseball. Now the head coach at Texas Tech, Kingsbury has tabbed Patrick Mahomes to run the Air Raid. Patrick is the son of Pat Mahomes, who spent 11 seasons as a pitcher in the Major Leagues. Up until this past year, Mahomes was spending his offseasons playing baseball, but he gave up that pursuit to focus on the 2016 football season. All of which means that this year the Big 12 will have to reckon with another Air Raid quarterback with a background in baseball, and another offense that could put unique stress on opposing defenses.
Kingsbury's New Ballplayer Quarterback
As a ballplayer, Patrick Mahomes was a promising pitching prospect with a fastball in the low 90 mile per hour range. That arm strength, which is still evident on the gridiron when Mahomes is operating without a firm base, is probably the most lethal part of his game. It's also a major boon to Kingsbury's efforts to wear out defenses with his spread system.
Here's an example from Texas Tech's shootout with Oklahoma State from 2015, in which Mahomes hits a throw from the boundary hash to a receiver on the opposite numbers while backpedaling in the face of an oncoming pass rush:
Mahomes can not only fire fastballs without setting his feet, but can also do so across his body, on the move:
Since defenders are taught to converge when a quarterback rolls out of the pocket, throws back across the body are generally a very "high risk, high reward" venture. There's the chance that a defender coming from the other end of the field, out of the thrower's vision, will crash the party and pick off the pass. There's also often a good chance that a receiver can be left open if the quarterback can throw with enough velocity to hit the narrowing window. It's a gamble, and a bet that quarterbacks and coordinators need a lot of confidence to place. Mahomes regularly navigated these throws over the course of the 2015 season, throwing for 4653 yards at 8.1 yards per throw, 36 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 573 attempts.
Mahomes' penchant for taking chances has an obvious downside—he was just fifth in the Big 12 in interception rate—but also helped Tech convert third downs better than any other team in the league by a three percentage point margin; the Raiders were better than the league average of 41.68 by ten percentage points. Texas Tech ranked second in the nation in third-down conversion rate, behind only Houston, and were one of only two power five conference programs in the top five (Stanford finished fifth).
It also helps that Mahomes is a great athlete, and seems effortlessly comfortable dodging defenders and using his legs to either buy time or even scramble for yardage. That he has a cannon of an arm and can throw from multiple angles only enhances what his natural athleticism allows:
Bombs like this 54-yarder thrown on the move are a nightmare to stop. Defenses simply aren't designed to defend that much of the field, especially when a QB has already been forced out of the pocket.
A player with Mahomes' abilities, in Kingsbury's Air Raid system, puts an exceptional amount of stress on a defense in two key areas. The first is spatial; Mahomes can force defenses to defend large amounts of open grass, which are then flooded with Red Raider athletes that can do a lot of damage if they aren't contained.
Nearly all of the Big 12 plays a of defense known as quarters, which is designed to deny access to the middle of the field and force the ball outside the hash marks, particularly to the wider side of the field. Receivers in the slot or on the boundary (the short side of the field when the ball is snapped on the hash marks) can be double-teamed in this defense, while the receiver furthest from the quarterback is handled with a single cornerback. When it works, this can make it much easier for the defense to contain even a spread offense, simply by forcing the offense to play in limited amounts of space.
But that's only when it works. If the quarterback can force the defense to cover for extra seconds by scrambling for time, or if the quarterback has enough arm strength to regularly hit throws to the isolated receiver, well:
Mahomes' ability to scramble around and hit targets all over the field effectively thwarts any attempt by defensive coordinators to limit the amount of space that the Red Raiders have to work in. Mahomes makes his own space, and then makes serious trouble within it.
Which leads us to the second type of stress that the Mahomes/Air Raid pairing puts on a defense: the mental kind. It's hard enough for defenses to line up and get set in sound schemes against Tech's blistering tempo—they played at the 19th fastest pace in 2015—before factoring in what happens when Mahomes starts to improvise. A defense can properly cover up the Red Raider receivers only to see Mahomes roll away from pressure and fire an improbable strike across his body to convert a first down. For defensive coordinators there's no good answer for that other than to add quarterback containment to their defenders' already impossibly long list of concerns on a given down when facing Tech.
Military theorist Colonel John Boyd described the process at work here with his "OODA loop" theory. Boyd noted that in a competitive situation, each side is cycling through a process of Observing a situation, Orienting to it, Deciding on a plan, and Acting on it.
Coaches charged with winning games based on the behaviors of college-aged males generally like to control as much of the process as possible in terms of exact play calls and responses; you don't have to spend much time around college-aged males to understand why. Players like Mahomes make that impossible by regularly improvising after the snap and cycling through the OODA loop on their own before the coaches can even orient to what's going on. When the decision-making is right, the advantages of this are staggering.
Spread Quarterbacks Of The Future
A mobile quarterback who can think and throw on the run, in a spread offense built to take advantage of those skills, is becoming the most dangerous type of player in college football. The nature of the game is such that players who can be trusted to improvise and play "backyard football" are a wildcard or equalizer that can thwart entire defensive systems.
There's an irony in the much more structured game of baseball offering such a huge assist in developing the types of skills that can lead to a quarterback dominating amid post-snap chaos. Mahomes' arm strength, his comfort with multiple arm angles and throwing positions, and natural athleticism amplify the possibilities, but there are other young quarterbacks even within the Big 12 that bring similar backgrounds and skill sets to play. Oklahoma hopes to replace Baker Mayfield, another improv master, with sophomore Kyler Murray, who considered going pro in baseball as an infielder rather than playing college football. Texas may turn to true freshman Shane Buechele to take over in 2016, the son of former Texas Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele.
Spread teams are starting to look for players defined more by what they can do with their arms and legs on the move than how they look standing tall in the pocket; height and vision are helpful, but the less-tangible, impossible-to-miss elements that Mahomes brings deserve to be valued more highly than they traditionally have been. The Air Raid spread offense has always been a great equalizer, but it may have even more untapped upside as its practitioners continue to evolve the system to suit the talents of versatile, multi-sport stars like Patrick Mahomes.
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