A perfect mesh: This Chiefs offense was three decades in the making

The coupling of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid produced a historically potent offense, the likes of which has rarely been seen in the NFL. Calling it high-powered is akin to saying a nuclear power plant could serve as a child’s night-light.

In his second professional season and inaugural campaign as the Chiefs’ starter, Mahomes eclipsed 5,000 passing yards and threw 50 touchdown passes, joining Peyton Manning as just the second quarterback in the league’s history to do so. He has also made a strong case for league MVP honors.

“(Mahomes) is an amazing talent, and that is a credit to Andy for trading up and getting him,” Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “It is also a credit for them to let him watch a guy like Alex Smith for a whole year. It is a credit to the Chiefs for surrounding him with quite an arsenal of talent. They are going to be tough in the playoffs, you’ll see.”

When the dust settled on the 16-game regular-season gauntlet, the Chiefs were the first NFL team ever to score 26 points or more in every game (they scored 30 or more in 12 games). They’d accumulated the third-most points in a single season in league history (565), and spawned the most prolific receiving tandem in the league.

Wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce became the first pair of teammates in league history to each tally 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in a single season.

Back in September, during the week leading up to the Chiefs’ season opener, Kelce unsuccessfully tried to fight off a smirk when asked about what was in store for the new Chiefs offense with Mahomes at the helm.

“Without saying too much — I can’t really because I don’t want to give away too much of the secret — it’s going to be fun to get out there,” Kelce said, prophetically. “It’s new for everybody, so I think it’s something that really everyone can get excited about — even the fans.”

The union of Mahomes and Reid clearly holds the potential to terrorize defensive coaching staffs and ravage the NFL record books for years to come.

That Mahomes-Reid union and the offense it spawned have roots — via both quarterback and coach — dating back more than three decades to a Mormon university tucked away amid the mountains above Provo, Utah, and a widely revered coach who died four months before Mahomes and Reid united in the spring of 2017.

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and helps us produce sports coverage like this.

LaVell’s legacy

LaVell Edwards grew into a coaching legend at Brigham Young University, a school founded and operated by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and located just shy of 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. The football stadium at BYU bears Edwards’ name.

He died at age 86 on Dec. 29, 2016.

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Edwards parlayed his pass-heavy version of the West Coast offense into 19 conference titles, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the 1984 national championship and the seventh-winningest record in major college football in 29 seasons.

Edwards’ offensive philosophy centered upon stretching the defense vertically, as well as horizontally, by using receivers, tight ends and running backs to exploit seams in the defense and set up a ball-control offense.

Reid played on the offensive line for Edwards at BYU from 1978-80 and served as a graduate assistant on Edwards’ staff in 1982.

“The one unique thing about the offense — West Coast or whatever term you want to use — is that it covers a lot of different areas,” Reid told The Star. “It has branches that you can go off on and explore, and it gives you flexibility. That’s a unique part of that whole system.”

Edwards’ coaching tree, like Reid’s, has varied branches. Many of Edwards’ former players and assistants went on to coach in college and the pros. Reid, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick and former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren remain arguably the most prominent among that group, but others felt Edwards’ influence, too.

“It gave you flexibility, so everybody kind of put their name on what they were doing and went with it and named it whatever they named it,” Reid said. “But those base principles and fundamentals are really what Paul Brown started way back when. Everybody is just kind of branched off.

“Bill Walsh did a little bit different than Paul Brown did. Mike Holmgren did a little bit different than Bill Walsh did, and so on. The base fundamentals and rules, we just kind of form it around our guys and our guys’ strengths.”

Brigham Young University head football coach LaVell Edwards watched his team practice in this Dec. 24, 1999 photo at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. Edwards died Thursday. PAUL WARNER The Associated Press

Air Raid-inspired

It’s not necessarily widely known that Edwards inspired, nurtured and promoted the development of what has become known as the Air Raid offense.

Hal Mumme is the godfather of the Air Raid. He’s the coach who hired an unknown with a law degree from Pepperdine University named Mike Leach as an assistant coach. Leach, who attended BYU but did not play football, went on to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and head coach at Texas Tech head. He’s currently coaching at Washington State.

Mumme, a Texas native, first became enamored with Edwards’ offense while coaching at West Texas State. He turned on the 1980 Holiday Bowl and his eyes stayed glued to the television screen as Edwards’ BYU Cougars rallied from a 20-point deficit with four minutes left and beat SMU by one point.

“I went to the office the next day and I told everybody at (West Texas) that I don’t know what that guy in Provo is doing, but I’m going to find out,” Mumme said in a phone interview with The Star. “So I just kind of set out to do that.”

The next season, Mumme joined the UTEP staff as an assistant. And for four years UTEP followed BYU through the schedule, which meant he always had game tape from BYU’s games to devour and emulate.

In Mumme’s last season at UTEP (1985), the Miners upset BYU ... but the entire UTEP coaching staff was fired at the end of the year. BYU’s staff lost Holmgren to the NFL that same year and, according to Mumme, he was invited to talk to Edwards about filling Holmgren’s job.

Mumme, wanting to run his own program, instead turned to the high school ranks in his home state of Texas. That was 1986. But the connection had been made. Mumme started making annual trips to Provo to study Edwards’ offense up close in 1987.

“I saw every offensive game film that LaVell Edwards ever coached at BYU,” Mumme said. “From 1987 until about ‘97 — for about 10 years — I’d make at least one trip out there, usually two. LaVell was always real gracious and opened his doors. After about five years, it got so that at nighttime, LaVell’s secretary — this woman named Shirley — she would hand me the key and say, ‘Here Coach. Just lock up when you leave.’”

This continued through Mumme’s coaching stints at Copperas Cove High (Texas), Iowa Wesleyan (then NAIA) and Valdosta State (Div. II). He’d take notes, generate ideas and then use his teams as a testing ground.

“We basically just copied their offense totally at first,” Mumme said.

Then, in 1991, Mumme got the idea to go no-huddle all the time.

Watching Don Matthews coach the World League of American Football’s Orlando Thunder through a two-minute drill, Mumme was smitten by the team’s level of orchestration, precision and speed. He looked at Leach and said, “That’s what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do it all the time, not just in the last two minutes.”

“That’s how Air Raid was kind of born right there,” Mumme said. “It was the BYU offense; just we sped it up.”

In a football climate where the conventional wisdom was run, run, run and only throw when you have to, Mumme and Leach motored around the country in a 1984 Ford Taurus, learning as much as possible about the passing game. They incorporated ideas from coaches such as Mouse Davis, June Jones, John Jenkins and Dennis Erickson into their system.

But Edwards’ offense always provided the foundation.

“We always talk about how we didn’t really invent anything,” Mumme said. “Everybody always says we invented it. We didn’t invent anything. We’re kind of like Nabisco, you know. They didn’t invent cookies, they just packaged up Oreos and it was a pretty good idea.

While at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mumme and Leach produced an offense that led the NAIA in passing yardage one season and finished second twice. Their quarterbacks passed for more than 11,000 yards in three seasons and broke 26 national records.

At Valdosta State, their offense broke 66 program records, 22 conference records and seven national marks in 1993. The next season, they broke 80 program records, 35 conference records and seven national marks.

With a recommendation from Edwards, Mumme landed a head coaching job in the SEC at the University of Kentucky in 1997. During his tenure there, he coached the eventual first overall pick in the NFL Draft: quarterback Tim Couch.

Joining forces

Slowly, the college ranks adopted the Air Raid offense or offshoots of it. However, a stigma formed that quarterbacks from that system couldn’t succeed in the NFL.

Couch didn’t make it in the NFL. Neither did some of Leach’s top passing pupils at Texas Tech, such as Graham Harrell or Kliff Kingsbury. The same shortcoming dogged quarterbacks who played under Mumme/Leach disciples, too, guys like former West Virginia coach and recently named Houston coach Dan Holgorsen and Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh. Time and again, Air Raid quarterbacks put up eye-popping numbers in college only to then struggle in the NFL.

Kingsbury coached Mahomes, another Texas native, in an Air Raid system at Texas Tech. Mahomes put up gaudy numbers as a three-year starter under Kingsbury. He led the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) with 393 yards of total offense per game in 2015, and led FBS with 421 passing yards per game in 2016 (5,052 total yards, 41 TDs and 65.7 percent completions).

“I love that college guys are throwing the ball,” Reid said. “That’s a start. That’s a base principle in NFL in today’s world, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball. Do you do a few different techniques and fundamentals? Yeah, but he was well-coached with a guy that played in the NFL and kind of knows what to expect there. And he could see, he had to read a full field — not just a half a field, but a full field.

“He had to do things on the move. All those base principles fit into what we do. Then we just branch it out from there and you kind of expand with his strengths and it becomes his offense. We did the same thing with (former Chiefs quarterback) Alex (Smith), and we’re just doing it a little different with what Pat’s strengths are.”

The West Coast offense will always provide the foundation of Reid’s schemes, but he had branched out long before Mahomes arrived in Kansas City. In 1986, before Mahomes was born, Reid and Brad Childress coached together at Northern Arizona and experimented with a spread version of the offense run by a young quarterback named Greg Wyatt. Wyatt set NCAA Div. I-AA records for pass attempts and completions by a freshman.

So sure, there are differences between how Reid teaches his offense and how Mahomes had been taught before, but they were hardly chasms.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid (right) talks with quarterback Patrick Mahomes (center) during the second quarter of Sunday’s football game on October 14, 2018, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. John Sleezer

“Our read might start here, and their read might start there, one of those deals, but it’s still the same principle-type things,” Reid said.

Setting pass protections was one of the bigger adjustments for Mahomes in the NFL, but he had the equivalent of a redshirt season to watch and learn under Smith.

As far as the design of plays, there was some carryover for Mahomes — traces of the Air Raid in which Mahomes thrived as a collegian.

“There’s a few similarities,” Mahomes said. “I feel like we do a lot more just because you’re able to move around personnel groupings and stuff that I didn’t have in college with the tight ends and the fullbacks and stuff like that. There’s concepts where guys are kind of getting into the same areas, but the formations and how people get to those places are definitely different.”

Something old, something new

Mahomes’ left-handed pass on the run against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football couldn’t have provided a more perfect example of how the Chiefs offense has come together, right down to the play concept Mumme copied and adapted from Edwards’ offense called “mesh.”

Hill and Kelce’s patterns were short crossing routes originating from opposite sides of the formation. At the snap, they pass within feet of each other over the middle. There’s also a deep option on one side of the field, giving Mahomes multiple possibilities to each side. It’s a play designed to give fits to opponents, whether they’re playing man-to-man defense or zone.

That Monday night in Denver, Mahomes’ natural improvisational abilities turned the play into the stuff of legend.

“I think we’ve taken some of the stuff that Pat does really well in college,” Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka said. “We’ve watched it. We’ve studied it. Then we tried to implement some of the stuff that he likes and he’s comfortable with into our offense. I think it’s paid dividends for our offense and for Pat.”

Kafka knows where all the differences, imperceptible fine lines to those not indoctrinated, exist in the latest incarnation of Reid’s offense. After all, Kafka played quarterback under Reid in Philadelphia and has been on the Chiefs’ staff the past two seasons.

“The West Coast offense that Coach Reid has grown up in and installed here — there’s definitely some base, core concepts, the stuff that I learned when I was in Philly with him,” Kafka said. “He’s brought that here, obviously. When I was in Philly with Mike Vick and his ability to get out of the pocket and make throws downfield, we kind of took some of that stuff and kind of molded it to what Pat did in college. We’ve done a good job of mixing all that stuff in there.”

The run-pass option, or RPO, play, which allows a signal-caller after the snap to turn the play into either a handoff or play-action pass, was an element Mahomes had grown up with. So Reid implemented it into his offense. Mahomes’ first touchdown pass of the season, a 58-yard catch-and-run by Hill, came on an RPO play.

“Andy’s a very creative, innovative coach, and I think he does a great job of taking concepts and being able to apply them into his system, and the same thing with personnel: creating opportunities for unique personnel that he has,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in October. “And so, over the course of time, he has been able to modify some of the traditional West Coast principles from Coach Brown to Coach [Bill] Walsh to Coach [Mike] Holmgren and so forth to fit his personnel and to fit new scheme ideas that he’s incorporated.

“So, the West Coast offense is still built around speed, space and balance — catch-and-run plays, yards after catch, balance between the running game and the passing game and getting the ball to skill players so they can make yards with it with the ball in their hands. So, the RPO certainly fits into that category, but he’s done a great job incorporating that probably as much as any team we’ve seen — probably more than any team we’ve seen.”

And the marriage that brought the West Coast offense and Air Raid full circle has yielded results few have seen in the NFL.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.