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.
College football rules limit the occasions that a team can use the A-11 alignment, but high school rules are less stringent. Even so, before implementing the A-11 at Piedmont, Bryan shared his idea with high school sports' governing body, the National Federation of State High School Associations, which gave its approval. The NFHS ruled the A-11 legal because it used the scrimmage-kick formation, which enables players to become eligible to receive a pass downfield provided they are wearing the correct jersey number and at least one is lined up seven yards deep in the backfield with no quarterback under center. The formation initially was designed to allow teams to use their fastest players for coverage in punting situations.
But despite national approval, some states -- and the District -- are prohibiting the offense's use. Critics say the A-11 alters the intent of scrimmage-kick formation, and those who use it will be penalized. In North Carolina, for example, a team will be whistled for a 15-yard unsporting foul the first time it attempts to use the A-11. The second infraction will result in the disqualification of the team's head coach, who will be removed from the vicinity of the stadium and not allowed to observe the game in any way.
"This is different from innovative offenses like the wishbone and the spread, which meet number and eligibility requirements on every down," said Mark Dreibelbis, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association's supervisor of officials. "They're taking this deception of the rule and making it an every-down situation. . . . That's an attempt to deceive, and it's an unsporting act."
Neither Virginia nor Maryland has banned it, but Joe Warren, the football rules interpreter for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, echoes Dreibelbis, calling the A-11 offense "sneaky" and that "it makes a travesty of the game."
The uncertainty over the A-11 has left some interested coaches hesitant to implement it. Frederick Coach Vince Ahearn said he looked at installing A-11 but decided "it's too risky to kinda invest time and energy into doing it." Others, such as Louisa (Va.) High School's Mark Fischer, want to run the offense but fear officials will ban it.
Bryan and Humphries devised the A-11 as a way to unlock potential at Piedmont, situated in an affluent town of the same name near Oakland, Calif. With about 900 students, Piedmont High School struggled to compete against schools with nearly twice its enrollment, and its football practice field was absent large linemen or other Division I college football prospects.
With that in mind, the coaches pooled ideas and relied on a number of different influences, including the spread-option offense used by the University of Florida during the 2007 BCS championship game and inspiration from Humphries's days as a University of California rugby player.
Before spring workouts last season, Bryan called a meeting to introduce the scheme. He diagrammed plays and dispensed packets, about 50 pages thick and double-sided with plays, outlining this strange new concept. This, Bryan told the team, is our offense.
But Piedmont started 0-2, as running backs couldn't find the proper alignment in the backfield and receivers struggled with timing and spacing on passing routes. Some team captains openly questioned the offense, Bryan received scathing e-mails, and one anonymous caller left him nasty voicemails: "A-11 stands for all 11 coaches potentially fired!"
In time, though, Piedmont figured out the system and started winning games. The team's quarterback, Jeremy George, found himself being asked about the A-11 at the gas station and the grocery store, and neighbors would stop walking their dogs just to hear about it.
"I really admire his ability to stick with it," George said of Bryan. "He got a lot of harsh criticism but he believed in himself and he believed in the offense."
Piedmont finished the regular season 7-3 before losing its first playoff game.
After the season, Bryan embarked on a comprehensive promotional campaign. He posted videos and responded to questions on message boards. He co-authored an A-11 installation manual with Humphries. And he worked with a webmaster to develop a Web site, A11offense.com, which has A-11 videos, links to A-11 articles and a schedule of A-11 coaching clinics. Lately the site has received about 700 hits per day, with ad revenue expected to produce as much as $7,500 to help fund the Piedmont football team.
Historically, many football coaches have been reluctant to share their playbook secrets the way Piedmont staff has with the A-11. But Bryan said doing so allows him to give back to those who have shared so much during his more than two decades in coaching. Plus, dispensing the information almost was born out of necessity, considering all of those phone calls.
"I would have never imagined it would happen like this," Humphries said. "It's something we didn't realize would catch on on such a national scale, but we're glad it did. There's no doubt about it, it's a fun ride right now."