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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?