Kansas Air Raid woes don’t start in the air

Several Baylor players celebrate over Kansas quarterback Carter Stanley (9) after sacking him during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Spending my entire adult life reporting on sports usually means I seek other topics, often true crime, when looking to become lost in a book. When I make exceptions, it’s often to educate myself on a work-related topic.

Since Kansas technically runs an Air Raid offense, I decided to give “The Perfect Pass” by S.C. Gwynne, a shot. Friend Joe Reitz, retired University of Kansas faculty member and founder of Lawrence Family Promise, a wonderful charity designed at helping homeless and low-income families to reach sustainable independence, lent me his copy.

A beautifully written, well-researched, breezy read that centers on the origins of the Air Raid through the careers of the offense’s creator, Hal Mumme, and sidekick Mike Leach, the most famous Air Raid practitioner.

Leach, then 28, and wife Sharon had one child and another on the way when Leach went to work for Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan. Leach was armed with a law degree, but not interested in a suit-and-tie career when, fresh off coaching in Finland, he accepted a $12,000 salary, plus free housing, a “moldy one-room trailer.”

Wrote Gwynne: “Located in a junk-strewn trailer park, it was engulfed by three-foot high weeds. The bedroom was carpeted with grubby, two-inch-deep, blood-red shag. The ceiling fan was mounted so low that the blades would sometimes hit Leach in the face when he crossed the room.”

From such humble beginnings, Mumme and Leach went on to change the way football is played.

The offense, when taught and executed properly, stretched the field horizontally and vertically in such a way that teams with lesser talent were able to score improbable upsets.

Rob Likens, David Beaty’s first offensive coordinator at Kansas, and Doug Meacham, are among the Air Raid assistant coaches mentioned in the book.

I still don’t understand the Air Raid offense, but I grew an understanding of why KU’s version of it doesn’t work. Two sentences on page 156 hit me like one of those thanks-I-needed-that cold slaps in the face from the old Skin Bracer after shave commercials: “As offensive line coach, Leach was an integral — Hal often thought the integral — part of the passing attack. If (Dustin) Dewald didn’t get three or more seconds, there was no offense.”

There you have it. Neither Likens nor Meacham was the source of the failure of the Air Raid at Kansas. If the blocks aren’t there, the air is filled with three-and-out failures. (A noticeable increase dropped passes didn’t help either).

Beaty inherited a roster sorely lacking in offensive linemen. The quantity of blockers has been upgraded, but so far the quality hasn’t kept pace. Will that change with an extra year of growth in the weight room and in mastering technique on the practice field? We’ll see.

Center Mesa Ribordy, who came to KU as a walk-on tight end, has been KU’s most consistent offensive lineman. The Jayhawks will have 11 offensive lineman who came to KU on scholarship, all but one (Jacob Bragg) recruited since Beaty took the job, participating in spring football.

It’s not known whether Kansas will stick with the Air Raid. This much is certain: If the offensive line doesn’t improve significantly, there is no offense.