# California High School's Offensive Scheme Adds Randomness to Football

With an undermanned squad, Piedmont High School's coaches got creative to beat bigger rivals

"RANDOM" WINS: Using a new mathematical strategy last year, Piedmont won a surprising seven of their 11 games before losing in the play-offs--and improvement over winning five and losing five in 2005 Image: COURTESY STEVE HUMPHRIES

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#### View Slide Show of the plays

By the numbers, the Piedmont Highlanders should not have won so many football games. The squad at the Piedmont, Calif., high school was cobbled together from slim pickings—thanks to an 800-person student body that's half the size of the other schools in their division.

But head coach Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries, the Highlander's offensive coordinator, invented a secret weapon to keep them competitive: the A-11 offense.

View Slide Show of the plays.

Last year, Piedmont won a surprising seven of their 11 games before losing in the play-offs—an improvement over winning five and losing five in 2005 and tallying six wins and suffering five losses in 2006. Humphries predicts that without the installment of A-11, they would have gone four and six in the win–loss column in 2007.

A-11 puts the quarterback in the shotgun formation—seven yards behind the line of scrimmage—and replaces linemen with receivers. What does all this mean? Essentially, the scheme makes all 11 members of the team potential, eligible receivers.

This year, they're upping the ante: in 2007 they ran A-11 plays 60 percent of the time; next year, it will make up 85 percent. "We expect to go 8-2 this year and get deeper into the playoffs," Humphries says.

Using a standard formation, a team can throw to five out of six players—wide receivers, tight ends, running backs and the quarterback. A-11 changes the odds of a play going to a particular team member from five out of six to five out of 11. The strategy even allows for two, three or four quarterbacks on the field.

In a standard formation with five fixed linemen, a play can unfold with 36 different scenarios for who receives the snap and who ends up with the ball—including a quarterback sneak. In the A-11 offense, because the receivers and linemen (and even quarterbacks) are interchangeable, the number of different possibilities for what can happen on a given play skyrockets to 16,632.

When the Highlanders went up against division leader, the undefeated Las Lomas High School Knights, Humphries believes "they should've wiped us off the map 100 to nothing." But with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Piedmont had the ball and was only 14 points behind.

The Highlanders didn't win. But they got closer than they would have with conventional plays.

"Football is so conservative," Humphries adds. "There's not a lot of strategy if you're just smashing 300-pound guys together in predictable ways. A-11 filters that out so everyone is active and nimble—like soccer."

There's more than just speed and quickness to A-11, say some game theorists.

"Anything that adds permutations, but also adds mystery about pattern makes this more complicated to decipher," says John Lindhe, a mathematician at Northeastern University in Boston who has blogged about A-11. "Football has all these [gimmick] plays—Statue of Liberty, hook and ladder—that are seldom seen because they're very decipherable."

But, because A-11 has so many options, it's harder for would-be tacklers to figure out what is going to happen on a particular play. The guessing game that A-11 causes is the key to any successful gridiron strategy.

"What we're seeing here—and I think this is great—is amping up the noise to hide the signal of what's going on exactly," says Ian Ayres, a game theorist and economist at Yale University. "Randomization is key to any real sustainable victory. It is the only way to prevent the opposition from developing a statistically sound response to your behavior.

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1. 1. JustinDoDrop 09:40 PM 9/2/08

LOL< Football totally ROCKS. I love it.

JT
http://www.privacy.cz.tc

2. 2. strunkl 11:44 PM 9/2/08

"Any coach would be much better off using a cheap [Microsoft] Excel random number generator to make their decisions"

That's simply not true. Some plays are so poor for a given situation that they may be easily ruled out without sacrificing the prospect of genuine confusion by the opposition. For example, it's legal to try a field goal from your own 20 yard line when it's 1st and 10. An Excel-generated play might select just that. But any coach would skip that play as nonviable.

It seems to me that a-11 ADDS options, it doesn't simply randomize the existing scheme. Its not that the team is pulling pages out of the playbook at random, its that they have a totally different, much thicker playbook from which to carefully (not randomly) select plays.

3. 3. inboulder 03:25 AM 9/3/08

99% of football comes down to execution, it doesn't matter how confusing a play is to the defense if the QB can't complete the pass. I have a feeling 'A-11' only works with talented pitch and catchers, this may favor a smaller team, but not an unskilled one.

4. 4. huskerdrew 10:09 AM 9/3/08

I think maybe Aryes hasn't seen enough "good" football. For one thing, he is making an assumption that all players are of equal ability and are essentially pawns in his game theory model. Real life says you take advantage of your mismatches and play to your strengths. You need to be unpredictable but not random. Maybe, just maybe, you could make that random number statement if you include a caveat about the probable yards function for each play. Or in football words, halfback dive on 4th and 17 would have a small probability of gaining the necessary yards and should have a small fraction multiplier to that random play selector.

5. 5. tplambeck 10:38 PM 9/4/08

Football rules usually require 7 players on the line of scrimmage with only the end two players on the line eligible as receivers. That means you've got 2 potential pass receivers on the line, and amongst the other 4 players (7+4=11), one is the quarterback, so that's 3 more receivers, for a maximum of 5 possible receivers on a passing play (unless you do something tricky like pass the ball back to the QB. So if these plays are legal they are playing some game that's not quite football I think, it's more like ultimate frisbee, hardly a macho game

6. 6. Xebak in reply to tplambeck 04:15 PM 9/6/08

TPLAMBECK wrote " So if these plays are legal they are playing some game that's not quite football I think, it's more like ultimate frisbee, hardly a macho game"

This is real, legal football. In high school, you can line up in a scrimmage kick formation on any down, and they coaches have realized that by doing so, you can legally have all the receivers potentially eligible If you have more questions, just check out their website at www.a11offense.com. This is potentially a real game-changer just like the forward pass, the shotgun, etc.

7. 7. tplambeck in reply to Xebak 01:06 AM 9/8/08

Hmmm, the A11 site seems to admit that these plays are not yet legal in 10 states. I guess it's catching on though. Anything that reduces injuries is good (if that's really true, as is claimed on the A11 site).

8. 8. roc 02:17 PM 9/10/08

i thain a 1000 percent

9. 9. 007 in reply to Xebak 12:36 AM 9/15/08

Look closely. The A-11 still follows the rules of 7 players on the line with only the two end players as eligible receivers. The "split tackles" are used as blockers on all pass plays.

I think this is awesome!

10. 10. in_awe 08:13 PM 9/26/08

As the Piedmont coach said, their student body lacks typical lineman physiques, but they are blessed with a large number of "skills" type players. So rather than pitting undersized linemen against beefier opponents, the coach went to maximizing his team's strengths. Reminds me of Mohammed Ali in the early 1960's when he introduced the "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" alternative to two heavyweight boxers standing toe to toe and pummeling each other. It seems to have worked out pretty well for him and quite a string of other fighters since then.

It is sad that some state associations have banned it despite it being legal under the current rules because in the minds of some it just isn't "fair" and isn't "what football is supposed to be like". Sheesh, grow a pair and figure a defense that matches up!

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