'Futuristic Football' Is Hottest Topic in High School Game

By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

By 10 a.m. on a January day last year, Steve Humphries had pulled the painting of a chef making pasta from his dining room wall and replaced it with a white board. By 11 a.m., routes and blocking assignments streaked the dry-erase football field.

Humphries and Kurt Bryan, coaches at Piedmont High School in northern California, sat and stared at the marker board. They scribbled, erased and re-scribbled. Laptop and desktop computers hummed the entire time, displaying PowerPoint presentations that assisted in creating plays until 7 that night. The following weekend, Bryan returned to Humphries's apartment to complete the project.

When they finished, they had devised 60 plays in an entirely new offensive system -- called the A-11 -- and football coaches around the country soon would have a new topic of conversation.

Throughout football's history, offensive innovation has been based on misdirection and deception, from Knute Rockne's box shift at Notre Dame in the 1920s to the spread option of today. But what Bryan and Humphries created last year in that San Francisco flat has spurred a debate about the sport's tradition and rules of play.

The A-11 is named such because all 11 offensive players on the field appear to be eligible to receive a pass. The offense slows the defense's reaction time by spreading it out and forcing it to guess which players to cover downfield. The system fit Piedmont, a school with a small enrollment that lacks offensive line depth but with plenty of skill-position players. Bryan, Piedmont's head coach, thought it could be a solution for similar high schools across the nation, too.

"Does everybody have to run the A-11? No. But is it here to stay? Absolutely," Bryan said. "The game over the next 10-20 years isn't going to become slower and more confined. The game is going to become faster and more spread out."

The A-11 illustrates the thirst for knowledge and new ideas among football coaches. Although its practice is still in its infancy, the A-11 is a well-worn subject in coaching circles. It is frequent fodder on online coaching message boards. It is the subject of a combined 5,000 e-mails to Bryan and Humphries since the end of last season. And it led Bryan to change his cellphone plan a few months ago, opting for unlimited minutes because coaches have inquired about the offense from every state and as far as Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

But with the popularity have come questions: Is the offense just a gimmick? Is Bryan unfairly bending the rules? Or is he just a master of self-promotion, pumping up the offense online?

"For everybody who's saying this offense is no good for the game," Bryan said, "why don't they ask our kids or the thousands of other kids who are going to play this offense this season and see how much fun it is?"

The A-11 base sets use two quarterbacks lined up at least seven yards from the line of scrimmage. A center, bracketed by two tight ends, comprises the three-person offensive line. Six receivers are split wide. On a given play, only six men are eligible to receive a downfield pass. But because all players can become eligible by wearing jersey numbers 1-49 or 80-99, the defense is left to guess at who is going downfield on each snap.

"We're doing futuristic football," Humphries said. "We're doing football where every play is innovative, and that's why people find it fun to watch. It's fun to play. Every player has the potential to be a part of almost every play."

On football message boards such as Officiating.com or CoachHuey.com, many people called the offense innovative but nothing more than a compilation of trick plays. Bryan, skewered on those sites for heavily promoting the offense, can offer a simple response: He's fielded calls from 70 collegiate coaches interested in utilizing some form of A-11 packages.

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