September 9, 2016



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.

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.

The Air Raid is the focus of the book we're giving away in the NFL pool this week.  It's interesting to me how much the story resembles the one in Brilliant Orange, about the other football.

Spread Awakening : Most NFL coaches are still predisposed to resist the spread offense. The problem? They're increasingly drafting players used to nothing but, forcing them into an era of hybrid attacks that embrace both spread and pro-style techniques. (Kevin Clark, 8/24/16, The Ringer)

Before you can understand why marrying spread and pro-style schemes is so challenging, you must first understand the differences.

While each iteration varies slightly depending on coach or program, the pillars of the spread offense usually stay the same: Teams operate from the shotgun formation; stretch out four or five receivers; run hurry-up plays to tire out defenders; primarily keep offensive linemen in crouching positions instead of placing their hands in the dirt; and usually feature a mobile quarterback.

In pro-style systems, things are very different. Teams typically huddle so that quarterbacks can bark out complicated play calls; bunch blockers to protect the passer instead of placing them wide; and keep the QB under center to facilitate the run game (since this formation enhances the angles for a handoff out of the backfield and positions the back to receive the handoff closer to the line of scrimmage, helping the play develop faster after the snap).

How, then, to introduce key spread elements into the pro game without also introducing new concerns? "Nobody here is going to expose their quarterbacks to that kind of mentality because the quarterback is the value of the franchise," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of a pure spread concept, where there are few blockers around the passer.

There have always been some ideas shared between the college and pro games. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for example, picked Chip Kelly's brain when Kelly was still at Oregon, and Belichick remains close friends with Ohio State boss Urban Meyer. That hasn't aided the spread's mass-scale absorption in the NFL, however, because innovative coaches like Belichick and Kelly aren't the ones who need to be convinced that the things happening at the college level are worth adopting in the big leagues.

The first and most pressing part of the NFL's ability to grapple with spread athletes, then, is figuring out exactly who can play in the pros. This was always tough, but it's now even harder because the NFL demands techniques that spread athletes aren't trained to perform.

Posted by at September 9, 2016 8:39 AM