Shift Happens: The A-11 Offense Is New, Improved

Remember the A-11 offense, that wacky football invention by mad scientists Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries over at Piedmont High in California? It kind of startled opponents when it debuted two seasons ago, when Piedmont lined up and everyone just went long. Actually, Bryan utilized a loophole in the rules by lining up the offense in a punt formation on every down, thus making multiple players eligible to catch a pass. Hilarity, and wins, ensued.

A-11 offense, Piedmont High

Well, the thing started to catch on: 41 states legalized the A-11, and several schools adopted it as their primary offense. Then in stepped the National High School Federation last season to outlaw it. (“Conform … conform …”) So is Piedmont lining up in a T formation this season, handing the ball straight ahead to a fullback? Nope. They’re still fighting The Man.

Bryan had vowed to tinker with the rules once again to help his undersized squad maintain their edge against bigger teams in their league. I caught several Piedmont games last season (the town is an Oakland suburb), but missed their nonleague opener on Friday. Fortunately, Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune was there.

The A-11’s co-creators, coach Kurt Bryan andoffensive coordinator Steve Humphries, took the NHSF offseason rules changes intended to defang their cutting-edge offense and added more teeth.

Hence, on the Oakland school’s second play of the 2009 season on Friday against Drake of San Anselmo, a Piedmont player wearing No. 77, George Fullerton, took an end-around from quarterback Cormac Cragie for a 7-yard gain … out of a Statue of Liberty handoff. Doesn’t the NHSF rule change, which mandates that four players line up on the line of scrimmage wearing numbers 50 to 79, prevent No. 77 from carrying the ball?

No. Players wearing those numbers — the so-called ineligibles — still can carry the ball, throw it, catch screens and block. They just can’t go downfield to catch passes.

“The roots of the offense are still 100 percent the A-11,” said Humphries. “Our entire offense and the terminology has remained basically the same. All 11 players are still potential threats, and we might even have more options now than before. We do everything with the ineligible player that’s legal that’s hardly ever used.”

Using the revamped A-11, Piedmont beat Drake — a team it lost to last year — 41-14.

There is no doubt great wailing and gnashing of teeth over this from football traditionalists — the same ones who last year worked so hard to get the original A-11 banned. But look folks, football is going to evolve whether you’re with the program or not. It wasn’t that long ago that the forward pass was looked on by football purists as blasphemy from the netherworld. According to some, we should still be playing rugby.

Innovators come in all shapes and sizes — Bill Walsh tweaked the blueprint just a bit in the 1970s and came up with the West Coast offense. Bryan and Humphries set convention on its ear and invented the A-11, leading their perennial also-rans to the playoffs and increasing attendance at Piedmont games from 800 to 2,000 fans per game in two years.

To hear Bryan and Humphries tell it, more coaches than ever are considering the possibilities of the A-11, not only at the high school level, but colleges and pro. Humphries said Boise State converted a successful two-point conversion out of the A-11 formation against Oregon last week. The Tennessee Titans, in an exhibition game, ran a Statue of Liberty out of a punt formation that was on a DVD of Piedmont’s top 75 A-11 plays from last year. The DVD was sent to 18 NFL coaches and more than 40 college programs.

“Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher is a big fan of it,” Humphries said.

The Piedmont coaching staff has been innovative in other areas as well. They streamed their games live on their own web site last season, and this season have teamed with RIVALS.COM and the National Collegiate Scouting Association to create the A-11 Network, to stream the games nationally.

Bryan and Humphries also sell A-11 concept manuals on their web site for $149; something for which they’ve been criticized. But they’ve also distributed countless A-11 installation manuals and DVDs for free, and much of their revenue goes back to the school. So what, the inventor of the Wildcat offense didn’t get paid for his efforts?

“It’s crazy where the game is headed,” Bryan said. “One of our guys said it best, that once you let the genie out of the bottle, you can never put it back in.”