Spreading the Offense
[The New York Times Magazine, 14 December 2008]
By Richard Morgan
This year, a strong season from a small suburban San Francisco high-school football team drew attention to its radical A-11 offense, a sprawling formation in which all 11 players are potentially eligible receivers. And in the pros, the idea of creatively spreading the offense found expression in the so-called Wildcat formation, which the Miami Dolphins first used in September to pummel the New England Patriots in a surprising 38-13 victory. It is now popular leaguewide.
The A-11, which employs a legal but cleverly modified punt formation, can use linemen as receivers and commonly includes up to four quarterbacks at once. Steve Humphries, the offensive coordinator at Piedmont High School who created the A-11, did so to help his undersize team compete against larger squads. “Because A-11 makes everybody eligible, it looks a lot more like soccer and less like guys slamming into each other,” Humphries says. Defenses are often left baffled, and even angered, by the formation’s various possible permutations and unorthodox passing schemes. Though the A-11 complies with the current rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the federation plans when it meets next month to address the controversy over whether the offense is an unfair loophole-abusing gimmick or a legitimate addition to offensive strategy.
In the Wildcat offense now popular in the N.F.L., the running back lines up at quarterback, the quarterback splits wide as a receiver and another running back lines up at wingback. It’s an adaptation of the single-wing formation created in 1907 and was revived (as the Wildhog) a few years ago by the University of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, now with the Oakland Raiders. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach, Mike Tomlin, said this fall that N.F.L. coaches watching McFadden’s consistent, deft use of the offense gave rise to its use in the pros.
Some observers dismiss the innovation as mere fashion. “Wildcat got crazy,” says the football analyst Aaron Schatz. “Everyone’s doing some knockoff version built around giving a direct snap to a running back. But it’s a silly fad, like leg warmers and parachute pants.”
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