Is the Best Defense a Random Offense?

Last year on this blog, Ian Ayres wondered why, to truly keep their opponents guessing, football teams don’t pick plays at random.

Two California high school football coaches have taken the thought one step further and randomized the plays themselves — by scrapping the traditional starting formation and making every player a potential receiver (normally, only five players can receive a pass from the quarterback). That increases the possible number of plays the team can run, from the usual 36, to 16,632.

It’s called the A-11 Offense — all 11 players are eligible to catch the ball — and it works by introducing such unpredictability into where a quarterback will pass the ball that it baffles the defending team and gives the offense a better chance of breaking through.

And it works enough of the time that it has helped the Piedmont Highlanders, the high school team that first deployed it, improve its record for each of the last three years, as they run A-11 plays more and more often. The randomized plays have given the scrappy team an advantage over brawnier teams that used to regularly clean their clock.

A-11 isn’t legal in the N.F.L., and it is uncommon at the college level. It’s so controversial in high school football that it has been banned in 10 states.

But the success of the new offense has made its inventors, Highlanders coaches Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries, heroes to some, who say A-11 could revolutionize the sport. Their detractors say A-11 is dishonest and unsportsmanlike because it uses randomness to distract and deceive the opposing team.

Using randomness in sports strategy may be effective, but is it sportsmanlike?


mark

@40
The point of scripting the first 15 plays is to run a variety of plays and judge the reaction of the defense. It is similar to using 15 pickup lines one night, then using only the few that seemed to work the next night (many variables in both situations). They were not random. They also abandoned (or delayed) the script on 4th down or if they got close to scoring - they weren't trying to lose.

toby

Using emotion to judge, this new offense will set the world on fire in the football world. But using logic, it is clear the game is becoming more of an up tempo, super duper spread out style of play. It will interesting to see the impact this new offense has on football at all levels, now and in the future.

Very good offense to watch.

Toby

steve long

"Because of those two game-changing conditions, a competitor may rationally want another competitor to be well-informed, rather than deceived.
— Posted by Mark Chussil"

And that the advantages of that kind of rational information sharing to mutual advantage is one reason there are antitrust laws. Rational and irrational competitors are all playing to win a monopoly price. Build a better mousetrap...

Deadsteen

I think the game lost continuity and spontaneity when the QB's stopped calling the plays and they started coming in exclusively from the sidelines.That led to situational substitutions and essentailly slowed down the game (though the players are individually much faster). Yes the coaches, spotters, etc. are better able to discern patterns & tendencies, but the great QB's like Starr, Unitas, Jurgensen, etc. had that "feel" that made for great theater. I'd love to see today's QB's without radios in their helmets. It would be a different game, but to me more "real" and I'd love to see this A-11 played by a high level college team. It's kind of like the Phoenix Suns or Loyola marymount a decade or two back playing run and gun... it's disruptive but forces everyone else to modify their game and the entire game grows as a result.
It's not "random", more like a "black swan".

kirk a watts

My boys teams record so far this year is 1 and 6 with 3 complete shutouts including (tonights) 50 something to, 0 we played a private school which can recrute statewide and we had no chance of matching up with them head to head in traditional football we have the skilled players but our line is smaller which gives us little time for play development. the A-11 offence would have allowed our team to have competed tonight!making it a more level playing feild, we might not have won the game but im sure that we would have scored thus helping to develope selfworth!in these young men but there are those out there who care nothing about helping others, they would rather step on the small and the week to elevate themselfs. most of those who played H.S.football never went on to play in college much less the pros,so why is there such a big deal about it? heres the main reason why! I have a good friend who used to coach back east and he told me if you cant put together a winning team and move forward you will get the
(axe) so when a coach gets scared that the team next door might come in and give them a good spanking on thier own field which normally wouldnt be the case then (FEAR OF THE ONKNOWN TAKES OVER)somtimes we forget that you only have to gain 10 YARDS in 4 plays then you get 4 more and 4more, a good Q.B. with numerous options can dismantle even the best of defenses with short quick routes and Q.B sneeks I hope our coaching staff will give this offence a good look FRIDAYNIGHT FOOTBALL WHAT A GREAT TIME!

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Martyn N (Australia)

American footy is a great game! I love it like all contact sports. However, the rules and constant interruptions are getting a bad as cricket.

English love rules, stats and talking rather than playing and I note they are taking to the the American game. Oh and they also like dressing up and kissing on the field. (I don't know where that digression came from)

Advice: Lose the coach and hangers on, the captain makes the decisions during the game, have one team on the field for the entire game and watch the poor buggers expire. Ye ha!

God Bless Team Sports!

achilles3

A-11 and Thriller Jesus forever!
CLASSIC!

FRT

This is by far the most thrilling new thing to happen in football since the Forward Pass. I love it.

Not only is it revolutionary, but sportsmanlike and kudos to the kids for winning games with it, and to the coaches for sharing their system.

FRT

Bronwyn Johnson (South Africa)

Sounds to me, similar to the Authors' Guild of Mystery Writers (or some similar organisation) complaining that Agatha Christie was "breaking the rules" when she wrote the Murder of Roger Aykroyd. The narrator turned out to be the murderer - wooo scandal. Her un-sportmanlike twist in the plot revolutionised mystery writing and the "rule book" had to be re-written, much to the advantage of the entertainment industry. It's great when the status quo is questioned.

Calvert Leake

Unsportsmanlike?? Of course not. Doing the unexpected to catch your opponent off guard is a tactic that applies to every sport I can think of. Being a sore loser is unsportsmanlike, however. So is whining.

Lombardi

#6,

While it's true Walsh used to script the first 15 plays, it wasn't set in stone. If the first three plays did not result in a first down, the 49ers would punt the ball, disengaging from the 15-play sequence.

Now, they may have picked up where they left off the next time they got the ball, but there indeed were situational issues that forced them to break from the sequence.

This raises a question. If the 15-play sequence was meant to confuse the defense, because for the most part the plays weren't called based on the down and distance, and the result was that it gave the 49ers an advantage, why didn't they script 15-play sequences more often, such as during their first possession in the second half, or after a punt where they start in their own territory?

Mark Chussil

It's interesting to consider whether randomness will work elsewhere, such as in business strategy (my field). Almost all strategists assume that they should hide their strategy. That often leads to head-on competition, where multiple companies converge on the same part of the market (sometimes leaving other segments unserved) and proceed to bludgeon each other (which may not even help the customer). It can be much better for companies AND customers if the companies focus on different segments.

Of course, there are at least two key differences between football and business strategy. First, football has a winner and a loser, and in business there can be two winners, two losers, or one of each (not to mention whether the customer is satisfied). Second, football games always end, whereas business competition can go on indefinitely. Because of those two game-changing conditions, a competitor may rationally want another competitor to be well-informed, rather than deceived.

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Jay

Anybody have a reference for the sociology text (that compares rules of sports and "national character") mentioned by Ron Obvious near the beginning of this thread? Sounds like it may be worth a look.

Justin Yost

Most, certainly randomness is fair, sports is sports, as long as you aren't cheating you are being fair. As long as both teams/sides have an equal opportunity to take advantage of the A-11 plays, then what is the problem. What is unfair or unsportsmanlike is when one team doesn't have the same opportunity to use the technique or tool.

Fred T.

"Using randomness in sports strategy may be effective, but is it sportsmanlike?"

I'm sorry, I was under the mistaken impression that the point of the game was to win.

I suppose Goliath thought David's slingshot was unsportsmanlike, too. After all, David was supposed to take his beating like a man, right? That would have been FAR more sportsmanlike of him, as compared to embarrassing Goliath.

Thriller Jesus

When a new and different idea came along, ten states took quick action and created rules to defend the status quo of high school football. You'll never guess which way they lean politically (polling aggregation from fivethirtyeight.com):

Alabama - McCain by 18.8
Georgia - McCain by 6.6
Louisiana - McCain by 8.4
Massachusetts - Obama by 19.3
Montana - McCain by 5.3
North Carolina - Obama by 0.5
Nebraska - McCain by 17.7
Texas - McCain by 9.4
West Virginia - McCain by 3.6
Wyoming - McCain by 23.3

While he's trying everything else he can, I think there's a big opportunity here for McCain to energize his base by supporting a nationwide ban on the A-11 offense.

Jeff F

Of course these players won't be prepared to play college football by playing the A-11. They wouldn't be prepared to play college football by getting blown out in every single game, either. That is what was happening before they implemented the A-11.

This isn't much different than running the option. Before the play, neither the offense nor defense knows who is getting the ball. Football history is rife with examples of trickery and innovation to level the playing field. The option. The wing-T. The spread. The forward pass.

The A-11 may not be the offense of the future, but smart coaches will find a way to incorporate its concepts into the next step in football evolution.

Johnny

Maybe the coaches recently read Ender's Game.

Andrew

Given that sports is an entertainment industry the only question is whether the A-11 offense is entertaining for spectators to watch? I suspect not and that is why it is perfectly acceptable for the rules to ban it.

Syed Ashrafulla

Fact check: Not all 11 players are eligible to catch the ball. 5 players are still ineligible, but because of the formation, the defense does not know which 5. They only know that the 5 ineligibles are inside of the two outermost wideouts and there are 2QBs.

So all the comments about 11 eligible receivers need to be re-thought because that is a fallacy. Only 6 are eligible. 5 are ineligible. The A-11 is based on the philosophy that you don't know which 5 are ineligible.