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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A-11 Ruled Illegal

So it's gone. I have updated my original "A-11 Offense: A Pragmatic Approach" article to reflect this new development (I still get many hits and comments on that article). I have reprinted that discussion in this post for those who have already read the original.

The A-11 has now been ruled illegal. The ruling is consistent with this piece: rather than aim directly at the offense or the formation, the National Federation of High School Athletics has clarified the scrimmage kick exception to be limited only to fourth down. As explained in the full-post, the A-11's creators, Steve Humphries and Kurt Bryan, had found a way to transform the scrimmage kick exception (which all agree was at least originally intended only for kicking situations) into an every down offense by putting the quarterback more than seven yards deep. The new ruling eliminates this by requiring that at least four players on the line of scrimmage wear an ineligible jersey number (50-79), except on fourth down.

The A-11's creators have a few arrows left in the quiver. First, they have encouraged teams interested in the A-11 to break off from their state's rulemaking body to form a loose-coalition of A-11 teams, or all A-11 league for themselves. Doing so would require that those schools would not be eligible for their state playoff systems (because they would not be following the rules/procedures that other schools did) and would have to encourage the other, non A-11 league teams locally to play them using their brand of rules. This proposal has not been met with enthusiasm, to say the least.The other proposal they have floated, this time via email, is called "numerical camouflage." To me, part of this is an admission that the A-11 itself is not that innovative -- the major contribution Bryan and Humphries made was not the formation or the "super-spread," but was with toying with who was and was not eligible so as to confuse the other team (and officials). Basically, they would line up in the A-11 or old BYU type formations with three interior linemen, and give the eligible and ineligible guys similar numbers, like "68" and "88." This way they could still have everyone huddle up near (but not on) the line of scrimmage before the snap, and then, just like the old A-11, have some of them step onto the line and be set for only a second.

Whereas with the real A-11 each would be potentially eligible (before being covered up), here, although it would be foreordained that 68 would need to be on and 88 off, the defense might not be able to determine who was wearing 68 and 88 until it was too late. Make of that proposal what you will, but they are certainly determined.In any event, it's slightly sad to see it go. I never had any animosity against the offense (certainly not against innovation and being spread), but the scrimmage kick exception was never the proper vehicle.

Maybe football is moving the direction the A-11's creators say to being fully wide-open where linemen are a thing of the past, but why not do away with the eligibility restrictions entirely? Many states also have 8-man football leagues, which more closely resemble Arena football, which is itself something like what the A-11 proponents advocated for. Moreover, there was always so much confusion about the offense: so many thought that "A-11" actually mean that the offense could send eight, nine, ten guys downfield to catch passes, when the reality was that it only referred to what was going on pre-snap, and after the snap the offense had no more downfield receivers than the west coast offense or the wishbone. Maybe in the future we will continue moving that way, but it always struck me as bizarre that this was seen as some kind of ultimate and brand new innovation. As documented in the full-post, the actual formations have been around for fifty years, and the Canadians have been one-upping the A-11 since they can send six receivers out for a pass (rather than five as with every U.S. team, including the A-11), due to the fact that there are twelve players on each side.

If we want to change the rules we ought to do it head on. The memory of the A-11 will not fade away, and flag, Arena, and Canadian football are constant reminders of what is possible, if it is true that football is inexorably moving in the direction of being all-spread, all the time. I for one disagree that this is the only direction football goes. It is more cyclical than that and linemen are not as useless -- or as uninteresting -- as the A-11's proponents seemed to argue.

Moreover, even in the vaunted A-11 offense, the players who replace regular ol' offensive linemen are about as uselessly limited as can be: they stand on the outside of the formation and back up to possibly receive a lateral (which a lineman can currently do in any offense), but is otherwise purely a decoy. To me, the idea of the spread is to turn kids into threats by isolating them, moving them around, and unleashing them as downfield terrors.

All too often, despite its "wide-open" appearance, the offense tends to restrict the number of eligible downfield receivers (because the running back is needed as a blocker with only three linemen, the offense routinely only can release four receivers downfield instead of five) and it turns players who can do multiple things to the defense -- yes, linemen -- into mere bystanders. That's not spreading; it's bad arithmetic. And that's not an argument against the spirit of the game or to persecute them, it's just that I don't think you gain a strategic advantage from the offense besides whatever deception you might get from confusing the other team about who is and is not eligible.

But that debate is over for now, and will have to be taken up in the future. It no doubt will be.

(Image credit: New York Times)


Will said...

Chris, great work as always. Not to be overly nitpicky (which I am) but I have to point out the image you show from the New York Times shows an illegal play, even under the A-11. As you point out in the article, the tailback is in the backfield for pass protection, yet the image shows 5 downfield receivers (quads plus the backside SE), so one of those would have to be an ineligible covered lineman.

I agree that most of the (post-snap) A-ll concepts are neither innovative nor are they now outlawed by the new rule - of note, covered linemen can release downfield on screens, so the defense does have to acount for them numbers-wise when they are spread out, even if only for the screen game. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the eligible/ineligible trickery continue on (4th down) punt plays.

Anonymous said...

One thing I would like to see with the new rule - some very good team (even best if this occurs in a playoff somewhere) that doesnt use 4 "lineman" on their field goal blocking unit get flagged on a last-second game winning attempt on an earlier down, then miss the kick from 5 yards back.

I will laugh and laugh if it happens. And no ref better withhold his flag in that situation either.

Will said...

Wait a minute, just read the ruling on rivals:

"The NFHS changed the rule and said that on first, second and third down, there must be four players on the line with numbers 50-79. The snapper may have a number 1-49 or 80-89, but he is ineligible."

So the snapper is now ineligible on all non-4th down plays??? That would ban center-eligible formations like the swinging gate polecat and George Halas' "Bears Spread." Anyone have a clarification on this?

Anonymous said...


Looks like you read it right to me. I now wonder about xps. Does an extra point fall under 4th down rules or 1-3 rules? Did the rules people even think about this?