The offense that revolutionized football was invented 25 years ago in a small town in Iowa

Davis Webb is just the latest in a quarter century lineage.
Davis Webb is just the latest in a quarter century lineage.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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This weekend, as millions of football fans around the country watch NFL and college games from stadium seats and on television, they will be watching a sport that has undergone a revolution: from the ground-and-pound, run-dominated dark ages of the 1970s, it has become a wide-open, passing-crazy game, particularly at the college level.

What many fans may not know is that one of the men most responsible for this was LaVell Edwards, the former BYU head coach who passed away at the age of 86 on Dec 29. Edwards in effect rearranged the logic of the game, running pass-crazy offense in a world dominated by the run, and winning national championships with it. His death has special meaning for me since I just spent the last few years working on a book, “The Perfect Pass,” whose subject was Hal Mumme, LaVell’s most influential protégé, who along with Edwards and a few other coaches gave us a large chunk of the game we watch today. It was the product of highly disruptive innovation that required the same sort of garage-style tinkering, ingenuity, and out-of-box thinking that we have come to associate with technological wizards like Hewlett and Packard, and Jobs and Wozniak.

To understand what Mumme did, you have to go back to Aug 31, 1991, when two football teams met in the town of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, about 250 prairie miles southwest of Chicago. On the surface, it looked like an almost grotesque mismatch. The larger, sleeker, and better-provisioned group were the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State, a football dynamo with 9,000 students and a national power in the NCAA’s Division II. Opposing them were the Tigers of Iowa Wesleyan College, a flyspeck of a midwestern liberal arts college with 500 full-time students, abysmal sports facilities, and a long and storied tradition of getting murdered on the football field. The Tigers were 25-point underdogs.

Instead of a blowout, however, the 3,000 fans who came to see the game found themselves watching what amounted to a reinvention of the sport. What Northeast Missouri witnessed was the official debut of an aerial style of football unprecedented in the sport’s 122-year history, a style that was dominantly influenced by LaVell Edwards.. They found themselves suddenly in a sort of football anti-world in which conventional ideas of time and space and even the geometries of the field were altered, in which the game was different—with different goals and objectives, different premises—depending on which side had the ball. In other words, a wildly relativistic approach to the national pastime. Iowa Wesleyan piled up 537 yards of offense and won the game 34-31 using significantly smaller, slower, and weaker players than Northeast Missouri.

Though no one understood at the time what had happened, the game of football in America changed that day, no reporters recorded it, no announcers sanctified it. The news did not spread. And no one anywhere had absolutely any idea that in the new millennium Iowa Wesleyan’s wide-open passing offense would sweep through and dominate huge chunks of American football. Such as most of the Big 12 conference, to take just one example. The pass-infused game you are watching on television in 2016—Drew Brees throwing 42 passes for 423 yards and four touchdowns, or Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes averaging 523 yards in the air per game—is a direct, lineal descendant of what happened in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa on Aug. 31, 1991.

Though Hal Mumme was not the only coach responsible for this change, most analysts agree today that he gets the lion’s share of the credit. His style of football—know as the “Air Raid”—was the result of years spent begging, borrowing, and stealing ideas, and otherwise cobbling together his vision of offensive football. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Mumme had set off on a number of cross-country treks—often with his young offensive line coach, Mike Leach, another offensive genius later to become famous at Texas Tech—whose purpose was to discover the secrets of the forward pass. He visited high school coaches and junior college coaches and coaches from defunct professional leagues and even NFL coaches. He sought a unified theory of the passing game. He found it primarily at BYU’s football training camps, which Edwards invited him to attend.

What is most interesting about Mumme’s system—and deeply frustrating for his opponents—was that his X’s and O’s and play diagrams were not the main show: they were merely byproduct of larger ideas, and visions about the nature of the game—just as Apple’s iPhone is the end-product of the company’s own industrial principles, systems and beliefs about the meaning of digital technology. In both cases the product itself is of secondary importance.

In this case, the product was a game that appeared to have two entirely different sets of rules: one for his team, and one for yours. His opponents, for example, believed that controlling the ball was the most important single objective. Mumme considered it the most worthless statistic of all, not worth bothering about. He could, and often did, win games by 50 points holding the ball for only 20 minutes. His opponents believed that an offensive team was allotted about 60 plays in a game and played accordingly. Mumme’s teams ran 85 to 100, the equivalent of somewhere between a quarter and a half more of offensive football. He invented super high speed, no-huddle football in the modern era, which he introduced to the world in the Northeast Missouri game.

His opponents believed that to win football games they needed thick playbooks with many complicated plays. Mumme had no playbook and just a few plays. The game was ultra-simple for his team, highly complex for his enemies.

The physical dimensions of the game shifted, too: Because he spread his whole team, from linemen to backs and receivers, across the full 53.3 yard width of the pitch, his field was actually much bigger than yours. Even the number of downs was different. Because Mumme often went for it on fourth down, his team played with what amounted to an extra chance: 4 instead of three.

So when you watch the University of California’s Davis Webb throw 60 passes for five hundred yards, think of Hal Mumme, and Mike Leach, and Iowa Wesleyan, and years spent in obscurity searching for the secret of the perfect pass.