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NFL Offenses A New Language to Some College QBs

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Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Dustin Dewald builds dream homes. From concept through construction, he’s been creating custom homes in central Texas for more than 20 years.

Sitting at the drawing board in his office between Waco and Austin, he knows what Geno Smith’s biggest challenge is going to be in adjusting to life as an NFL quarterback.

Learning to speak the language of a new offensive system.

Dewald knows a bit about the Air Raid Offense that Smith ran at West Virginia. He was the quarterback at Iowa Wesleyan when Hal Mumme – the original architect of the Air Raid – arrived with his evolving brainchild. Mumme brought with him an assistant coach named Mike Leach, who would eventually bring the Air Raid to Texas Tech; breaking NCAA passing records became a rite of passage for Red Raiders quarterbacks.

One of Dewald’s receivers at Iowa Wesleyan was Dana Holgorsen, who played the position the way Wes Welker would play it for Leach at Tech. Holgorsen, of course, is the head coach at West Virginia, and it’s been in his version of the Air Raid that Smith has developed into arguably the best prospect in the quarterback class of 2013.

So when Dewald tells you that the only way the system Smith came from – an offense built to “put pressure on the defense, all the time, stretch it sideline to sideline and vertically the whole time” – will hold him back is in its terminology, it’s a perspective worth listening to.

Chris Hatcher happens to agree with Dewald, and he, too, should know. Hatcher is the head coach at Murray State, which plays a version of the Air Raid he was introduced to as the record-setting quarterback at Division II Valdosta State. His coach with the Blazers? Mumme. The offensive coordinator? Leach. His position coach? Holgorsen.

Hatcher sees it as beneficial that a quarterback gets a ton more reps throwing the ball in the Air Raid than he would in a more conventional pro-style offense. He thinks there should be no reason to question Smith’s arm or accuracy because of the system he played in.

“The one thing that a quarterback like Geno has to overcome early on is the complexity of the way the pros call their plays. Their plays are two lines long on a sheet of paper. Our plays, three words,” said Hatcher.

It’s the same issue Hatcher used to hear about from Tim Couch, after he’d been taken first overall in the 1999 Draft. Hatcher was a grad assistant at Kentucky while Couch played for the Wildcats under – you guessed it – Mumme and Leach.

An Air Raid quarterback at, say, Murray State (which scored 70 points against Tennessee Tech the same September Saturday that Smith and West Virginia hung 70 on Baylor) will call “Blue 92." Two words and everyone on the offense knows the formation, the protection and the routes.

In an NFL West Coast offense, that very same play might be called, in Hatcher’s estimation, “Blue Flop Z Fly 92 Switch Post H Wheel.” And even that's probably shorthand for something more intricate.

Suddenly, the whole language barrier issue doesn’t seem such a minor inconvenience, does it? Boomer Esiason has talked for years about the challenge even a veteran quarterback faces in learning the language of a new offense when he switches teams. It’s not until he can make the connection between what he used to call something and what this new coaching staff calls it that a quarterback can become truly comfortable in an offense.

Think of it as learning a foreign language. Until you become fluent in it – and can speak without having to translate it first in your mind – you are hamstrung by it.

“If you speak English every day, and then starting tomorrow you can operate only using Spanish, it’s going to be difficult,” said Chris Weinke.

Weinke has no personal history with the Air Raid. But he did win a Heisman Trophy and spent seven seasons playing quarterback in the NFL. And, as director of football at the IMG Academy, he has worked closely with Smith, preparing him for the combine and his pro day.

He, too, agrees with the notion that the biggest initial obstacle to Smith’s success will be verbiage.

“Concepts are concepts,” said Weinke. “You have to take what they’re calling this play now and compare it to what you called it in college. It’s still a double post with a dig on the backside, but what are we calling it now?”

Smith’s challenge is nothing new. Cam Newton had to learn a more complex offense when he came into the NFL. So did Robert Griffin III. (Andrew Luck, not so much; the language he spoke at Stanford when Jim Harbaugh was his coach served as a rosetta stone to enable his NFL fluency).

To ease their transitions, the coaches at Carolina and Washington made the decision to incorporate some of their new quarterback’s old college playbooks. Ron Rivera and Mike Shanahan wanted to give Newton and Griffin something they would be comfortable with, something they knew they could do. In this case, familiarity bred content.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” said Hatcher. “You want to play up-tempo, you can’t have wordy calls.”

And so that is what Geno Smith is facing – a rookie season where the most important terms are not in his contract but his playbook.