Jan 08

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How Kevin Sumlin Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love the Air Raid Offense


Those who know me personally know that I am a strict traditionalist when it comes to football. Ever since my days with TexasPrepXtra.Com, I have consistently expressed my frustration with the evolution of football and shared how I felt the spread offense was destroying this game that I love.

While others might find it boring, I believe the way you win football games is by running the football and stopping the run defensively. I believe this is best achieved by building a team from the inside out, that is putting as a great of an emphasis, if not greater, on the offensive and defensive lines, than at the various skill positions.

I celebrated Texas A&M’s move to the SEC because the SEC seemed to be the last haven for traditional football, a place where the pigskin values I admired were honored, but the hiring of Kevin Sumlin caused me to pause. I felt the move would move the Aggies away from this perfect vision of football and towards a bastardized version of the game.

In fact, back on December 10, 2011, I wrote:

Sure, Sumlin’s offenses put up some pretty impressive numbers, but keep in mind that most Conference USA defenses are worse than Houston’s, inject a gimmick offense and you’re bound to put up some big numbers. Gimmick offenses won’t work in the SEC unless you have Tim Tebow or Cam Newton running the show. The Ags have neither. In fact, we’re not really sure who’ll be under center–or even if the quarterback will take snaps under center in the new coach’s offense–next season. What we do have is one of the biggest, most experienced, offensive lines in all of college football, a couple of talented running backs, perfect for a power running game. Now they want to bring in a coach whose offensive philosophy will not play to the strengths of the roster, which makes absolutely no sense. The Aggies finished the regular season with a Top 10 ranked offense. Clearly, that’s not where the problem lies.

How was I supposed to know about Johnny Football?

The 2012 Texas A&M Aggies taught me several things.

First, not to doubt Sumlin. At Houston and at A&M, he has proven to be one of the premier coaches in college football and the hire was a great one for A&M, both on and off the field.

Next, progressive playbooks, like Sumlin’s “air raid offense,” should not be feared by football traditionalists. Sure, some of the formations and tempo are a bit unorthodox, but these are not systems that abandon the run. In fact, the Aggies finished 11th in the nation in rushing offense, approximately 42 yards a game better than they averaged last season.

The Aggies featured one of the best offensive lines in the country, anchored by arguably the two best tackles in college football. Many will tell you that pass blocking is less demanding than run blocking and, as such, linemen in pass oriented systems lack that “edge” and “toughness” often linked with offensive linemen in a power running attacks. For this reason, I had always been critical of offensive lines in these types of systems, but the Aggies offensive line looked nothing like any I had ever seen in any spread system.

My biggest concern with Sumlin’s “air raid offense” that so much emphasis was placed on offensive execution that  the defense would surely suffer, but the Aggies under Sumlin surprised me yet again.  Statistically, the Aggies made only slight defensive improvements, finishing 56th in the nation in total defense, up three positions from the end of last season, but any improvement, no matter how subtle, should be interpreted as a positive considering that Sumlin brought in a new defensive coordinator who switched the Aggies from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive front.

Additionally, the defensive statistics do not account for reserves seeing a lot of playing time at the end of games due to blowouts generated by Sumlin’s “air raid offense” and Johnny Manziel’s heroics. In short, if you watch the games, you saw  vast defensive improvements.

Perhaps the Aggies’ red zone defensive efficiency accounts for the team’s biggest improvement. The Aggies faced six fewer red zone defensive opportunities in 2012 than they did in 2011; however, they surrendered eight fewer red zone touchdowns. This explains how the Aggies were able to close out many games in 2012 that they probably would have lost in years past.

This resulted in a four game turn around in the won/loss column, with the Aggies improving from 7-6 to 11-2. In the end, this is the only statistical category that really matters when analyzing Sumlin’s first season in College Station.



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