Thursday, December 18, 2008 Updated: December 19, 11:39 AM ET
Shock to the System
By David Fleming
Ronnie Brown in "The Wildcat" for the Miami Dolphins this season.
Wait a minute…could the current Pittsburgh Steelers defense stop all this innovation? Go here and find out.
At first glance, Steve Humphries' apartment, near the Presidio of San Francisco, hardly seems like the place to launch a football revolution. There's the wine collection and the Pates Baroni print. There's the radio tuned to NPR. There's the cat, Armani, who likes to hurl himself across the dining-room table, which is covered by enough Mac equipment to start a graphic design boutique.
Searching for a corkscrew, Humphries digs under the debris that surrounds his computer: black-and-white photos of football players in wool jerseys and leather helmets mixed with futuristic-looking playbook pages full of crisp graphics. He promises with a laugh to straighten up the place before the historical society starts giving tours to fans. It was only last Jan. 5 that Humphries, a 42-year-old mortgage broker who doubles as a prep assistant coach, realized just how badly the NFL could use a little of his messy inspiration. That day he watched the Steelers all but concede defeat while clinging to a 29-28 lead over the Jaguars in the AFC wild-card game. On a third- and-six at its own 26, Pittsburgh didn't throw, didn't even hand off. Instead, coach Mike Tomlin had gimpy Ben Roethlisberger run a timid bootleg. It fooled no one. Jacksonville, predictably, got the ball back and marched down the field for the winning score.
After the loss, Tomlin, one of the game's brightest young minds, said he'd call the same bootleg again if given another chance. "They got to him, too," Humphries thought, shaking his head in disgust. In his mind, the Steelers had exposed the risk-averse paradigm that's choking off offensive innovation at football's highest levels. Anyone with a fantasy team can tell you scoring remains strong in the NFL. But what passes for bold and fresh these days—Miami's direct-snap Wildcat scheme—is a prehistoric relic invented by Pop Warner himself. Bill Walsh's West Coast, launched in the early 1970s, is the last offense invented by a pro team. How's that for progress? "We are in the most boring, stagnant era ever," Humphries says, uncorking a bottle of red wine. "And you start to think, how much more conservative can we actually get before we ruin football altogether?"
Seven months before that Steelers game, Humphries stood in front of a dry-erase board hanging in his cat-scented apartment. In a fit of imagination, he and his buddy Kurt Bryan, an insurance salesman who triples as a novelist and football coach, invented what may be the antidote for the NFL's offensive ills. It's called the A-11: an überspread offense with virtually no offensive line, 11 potential receivers and backfield choreography that resembles Princeton basketball's motion offense. The two would-be Lombardis dreamed up the scheme for a small, Oakland-area school called Piedmont High, where Humphries serves under Bryan. In less than two years their mad creation has kicked off a genuine football uprising, transforming an obscure Northern California team, and hundreds more just like it across the country, from pushover to powerhouse.
The A-11 isn't close to legal in the NFL, and probably never will be. But the ideas behind it—two QBs are better than one, what occurs before the snap is just as important as what occurs after it, physical limitations can be shattered by ingenuity —look increasingly to be football's future. Maybe its savior. "The A-11 isn't just new and cool," says Humphries. "It's needed."
More than any other sport, the NFL is mutant, connected to its forebears as humans are to amphibians.In the late 19th century, American football evolved out of the European sport of rugby, where the original ball was a Danish soldier's head. It didn't take long for our game to become equally barbaric. During the 1905 college football season, 150 players were seriously injured and another 18 were killed on the field. Spurred by President Theodore Roosevelt, rules changes were introduced to open up the game and reduce the carnage. Among them: A neutral zone was established at the line of scrimmage, and lethal mass formations like the flying wedge were outlawed.
Fast-forward to the 1930s, when the game was a low-scoring and sadistic sport that critics called "paid punting" and "a bloody, brutal, disgraceful affair." Facing fierce competition for entertainment dollars during the Depression, the fledgling NFL shrank the ball's circumference from its original 27 inches to a more QB-friendly 21, made passing legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, established hash marks to keep the ball in the middle of the field, and enacted the first roughing-the-passer rule.
Now flash to 1977. Two years removed from a recession, pro football was being squeezed, as zone schemes, new pass-rush techniques and increased athleticism had reduced scoring to its lowest point in 35 years. Right on cue, the league made it illegal for defenders to contact receivers more than five yards off the line, offensive linemen were allowed to open their hands and extend their arms while pass-blocking (read: hold), a seventh official was added to monitor pass interference downfield, and referees were instructed to stop play when a QB was in the grasp. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, an assistant coach named Bill Walsh had been developing something called the West Coast offense for almost a decade. Behind this quick-strike system, which perfectly exploited the new rules changes, Walsh would go on to win three Super Bowls in the 1980s for the 49ers. And at the time of his death, in 2007, his West Coast philosophy was close to ubiquitous in the NFL.
What would offensive revolution do for his pro prospects?
Which brings us to today. Last season the Patriots set the NFL scoring record with 589 points. But it's a marketing marvel set atop a house of football cards, since nearly a third of the league didn't score half that amount. Unlike Bill Belichick, most coaches—bound by paychecks, fan pressure and parity—have little room for offensive error, let alone innovation. That's why their playbooks are barely distinguishable from the ones Paul Brown first handed out in the 1940s. "When it comes to new ideas, I wouldn't say the NFL is risk averse," says former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "I'd say it's downright paranoid. You want something new? Sure, go ahead and try something. Make one mistake, and your ass is out on the street."
With offenses standing still, it's only a matter of time before defenses close the gap; witness how the Cover 2 has largely neutralized Walsh's creation. As scoring plummets, you can bet the league, once again facing scary economic conditions, will react as it always has—with more offensive-minded rules changes, followed by new schemes designed to take advantage of them. "The game will always evolve," says Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chair of the NFL's Competition Committee. "The only question is, What's next, and when is it going to happen?"
It may be sooner than you think.
In June 2007, Humphries and Bryan set out to create an offense that evened the playing field for Piedmont—which, at half the size of the other schools in its athletic division, hadn't won a title in 32 years. Inspiration didn't come easy. The two men were boxed in by field dimensions that hadn't changed in 94 years, even though players keep getting bigger and faster. Offensive pioneers like Sid Gillman and Don Coryell had stretched the game vertically as far as it could go. Walsh had pulled it to its horizontal breaking point. "It felt like a thick, hardened crust had formed over the game," says the perpetually scruffy-faced and scratchy-throated Bryan, 44.
Ready to quit, Bryan was reading the fine print of his California high school federation rule book when he landed on the "scrimmage kick formation rule." "Oh, my god," he said to Humphries. "Look at this."
Normally used for punts, the rule stated that as long as the player receiving the snap was seven yards behind center, any teammate wearing the jersey of an eligible receiver (between Nos. 1 and 49 or 80 and 89) was permitted to go downfield. Bryan and Humphries had already been noodling with a 3-3-3 superspread base formation that had two sets of three receivers flushed out wide in "pods" close to the numbers, with a center inside flanked by two tight ends, in addition to two QBs in the backfield. Now the scrimmage kick formation rule was saying they could potentially send any of those 11 players out for passes. "There was this lava flow underneath the modern version of the game," says Bryan. "All it needed was a little pinprick to erupt."
Insert the A-11. With two easy presnap shifts as the play clock winds down, the Highlanders can go from a superspread vertical pass look to a tight power-run formation to an unbalanced heavy look with five receivers grouped 10 yards to the right of the hash marks. And with two QBs and several players in motion, things get really tricky once the ball is snapped. According to Scientific American, the typical offensive formation has 36 postsnap scenarios of who can take the ball from under center and where it can go. Bryan and Humphries discovered a way to increase the permutations to an eye-popping 16,632. "The game will always evolve," says the Falcons President. "The only question is: what's next, and when is it going to happen?"
It's driving defenses crazy. One opposing coach said he had no idea where the ball was going 70% of the time. It's also producing results. Using the A-11, Piedmont dropped its first two games in 2007, then won 15 of 20 while qualifying for both the 2007 and 2008 state playoffs. During a five-game winning streak this fall, the Highlanders averaged 43 points per game. They did it with just two players over 225 pounds and a quarterback who barely measures 5'10" and 150 pounds.
Bryan estimates that in the past year several hundred high schools across the country have adopted his offense. And, more interestingly, this high school scheme's success is drawing the attention of the pro game's top-paid minds. "Who knows?" says Chiefs offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. "Maybe we'll all end up spread out all over the place in this A-11."
At the moment, NFL rules stand in the way. There's no scrimmage kick exception on the books. And as a result of arcane regulations, any lineman reporting as an eligible receiver has to sit out the next play—unless there's a break in the action, like a team time-out—before coming back in as an ineligible blocker. It's called the No Fun League for a reason.
Still, Tennessee's coaching staff has considered at least one modified application of Piedmont's creation, for third-and-short at the goal line. Here's how it would work: The Titans have two backup tackles take the field, report to the ref as eligible receivers, then position themselves at either end of the line. As long as the Titans have seven players on the line of scrimmage, those tackles are free to receive the ball downfield. And if the offense doesn't score, the backups simply leave the field, as required, while the starters return for a field goal attempt or another shot at the end zone.
Curiously, Titans coach Jeff Fisher, the other co-chair of the NFL's Competition Committee, says he has no interest in modifying the rules to allow for a full-blown A-11, because it would alter the game too radically. No matter. Bryan and Humphries have twisted and bent the fundamentals, philosophy and geometry of football. Once you do that, there's no turning back. Says Gailey: "I may be old and set in my ways, but I know this: The game will always change in a way that makes it more exciting."
It's not hard to see where this evolution is headed. During the past half century, NFL players have been slowly spreading out from center, with the tight end morphing from a sixth blocker to a hybrid wide receiver. As a result, the tackle now often finds himself alone on the line's edge. And the farther that tackle continues to spread out from the ball, the more likely he'll morph himself from a sedentary blocker into a hybrid, giant tight end.
His pass protection won't be missed one bit, either. Imagine a world in which an NFL team, inspired by the A-11, uses two quarterbacks at the same time. Set up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, they could both take snaps, act as decoys and shuffle the ball back and forth, so long as there is no more than one forward pass. Even the quickest unblocked defensive lineman can't move 25 feet to cover multiple throwing targets in less than two and a half seconds. Good-bye Shawne Merriman, hope you do well in MMA.
Piedmont's A-11 scheme could change the NFL too, someday.
And we're just warming up. If scoring begins to decline, McKay says the Competition Committee will move swiftly to add even more protection for QBs, the lifeblood of the NFL's multibillion-dollar business. The league might start by widening the neutral zone at the line of scrimmage to slow the pass rush, or increasing the field dimensions to create more space for receivers. And since it's already illegal to hit a passer above the shoulders, below the knees, into the ground, while he's in the grasp or after he releases the ball, it's only a small leap for the NFL to make them off-limits altogether, like the punter. Seems ridiculous, but so did the forward pass for 30 years of the game's history and so did five-receiver sets for 75.
The proliferation of the spread-style scheme in high school and college means there are fewer classic pocket passers in the pipeline. When the well finally runs dry, NFL QBs will naturally evolve into smaller, more durable runners who can handle the physical pounding of the game and throw when they have to. Assuming the NFL creates special roster exemptions, teams might sign four of these new prototypes (think: Tim Tebow), platoon them two at a time like tailbacks or hold one out for safe-keeping until November. Instead of banking everything on one $12 million star, teams will pay four passers $3 million each. And with tougher QBs and less economic risk, they'll be free to run wide-open schemes, like the run 'n shoot, that expose passers to more hits.
Even if the NFL never makes all 11 offensive players eligible, the league might very well reduce the number of players required on the line of scrimmage from seven to six, allowing an extra player to go downfield. As a countermeasure, defenses will develop the first full man-on-man schemes. Both developments will immediately tilt the game toward smart, fast and smaller players.
And that will be the real game changer, because average-size teenagers will once again dream in earnest of going pro, like they did 30 years ago. Pee Wee and high school roster sizes will explode. Scouts will have to camp out in the smaller college divisions they typically ignore. And, most significantly, the NFL will move at a pace commensurate with the players inheriting it: the current generation of fast-thinking thrill-seekers, kids weaned on the Internet, iPods and Madden, kids who run the same belly-read option shotgun offense in Pop Warner that was once thought to be too complicated for college players. "There's a loud minority in football that says the A-11 is the devil," says Bryan. "But that's what they said about the forward pass. Old-timers can grumble all they want. In five years, they're going to look like the flat-earth society."
Until then, for a glimpse into the future there are always the pioneers at Piedmont. On Oct. 18, the Highlanders traveled to Albany High for a must-win game in the North Coast Section playoff race. Albany's field features an elevated monorail track running down the length of the visitors' sideline. Every 18 minutes or so, games are greeted by a train from Bay Area Rapid Transit screeching by in a metallic whir.
Clinging to a 38-30 lead, and facing fourth and five at midfield with four minutes to play, Bryan didn't think about punting or, worse, that Steelers bootleg. Instead, he opened his A-11 playbook and called for Base Stagger 193 Slant. Wideout Joey Andrada, who got a free release at the line thanks to the all the typical presnap theatrics, caught a quick hitch, shook his single coverage and raced up the sideline for a 50-yard score to ice the game. It was the start of a five-game winning streak for Piedmont that would end in late November in the first round of the state playoffs.
As the team mobbed Andrada in the back corner of the end zone, the monorail started to hum a few feet away. Moments later, the BART train shot past in a blur of silver and electricity.
The entire stadium seemed to stand still and watch as it raced, unimpeded, into the future.