Interview Conducted by Kurt Bryan -
Recently, I spoke with a football coach & author who has been a student of the game for decades - going back through the game’s history seeking insights on the best ways to coach and advance the game in every regard. He is remarkably blunt about the game’s past, present and future.
Football Historian, John T. Reed is a West Point grad (1968) and Harvard MBA (1977). He also has 16 seasons of coaching football under his belt, and has written seven football coaching books. His 1997 manual “Football Clock Management” is revered by football coaches at all levels - high school, college and pro, and it is now in its 4th printed edition.
The Interview Session with John T. Reed…
Question: What is your opinion about the status of pro football today regarding player safety?
Reed: “Pro football has a major issue with concussions. And, there is a rarely-spoken-of issue about linemen being too heavy—far beyond the Body Mass Index (BMI) number that physicians say is healthy.
When football started in 1869 (Princeton vs. Rutgers) the attitude about player safety was Neanderthal, and the game has not yet ‘fully’ moved on from that overall mindset. In 1906, the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw the game, period. He called a meeting with about 60 of the top college head coaches and administrators and demanded that the game be made safer, immediately. The result was the legalization of the forward pass.”
Question: It was 101-years between the legalization of the Forward Pass in 1906 and the unveiling of the A-11 Offense in 2007. Are those two unique episodes in football history worthy of comparison, or not at all?
Reed: “Before I answer, let me say I was intrigued by the A-11 Offense after its birth in 2007. Luckily, I was able to watch and learn about the A-11 first-hand at Piedmont; during a number of meetings with the coaches and players in depth, and having a football background myself. I was pleased with the initial success it had and very distressed when the National Federation of High Schools changed its rules because of an ‘old guard’ backlash against such a substantial innovation as the A-11. The A-11 had previously been ruled permissible before Piedmont and other football teams nationwide adopted the A-11. The Forward Pass met similar resistance after the 1906 rule change and many people back then thought it was going to ruin the game.”
“Back to your question, the New York Times said in September 1906 after that rule change, “the main efforts of the football reformers have been to ‘open up the game’—that is to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible, mere brute strength and force of weight.”
Image Below: Circa (1912) Football Helmet Safety Test
Question: Are the two developments linked in any way?
Reed: “The 1906 rule change achieved some of its goals but it did not go ‘so far as possible.’ The legalization of the Forward Pass did not ‘eliminate mass plays’ and totally replace ‘brute strength and force of weight with speed and skill.’ The A-11 Offense actually finishes that job. By broadening the roles of interior linemen to include the option of receiving the ball and more dynamic open field blocking, the A-11 removes the unhealthiest aspects of the current professional game and improves upon it by schematic design. The A-11 replaces one large set of more limited players and replaces them with more athletes who possess the speed and skill that the New York Times and many others thought football was getting in 1906 via the Forward Pass.”
Question: In what regard?
Reed: “In fact, an unintended consequence of the legalization of the Forward Pass and the restrictive jersey-numbering requirements that ensued have caused the specialization of players for pass protection, resulting in a lot of unnaturally-sized linemen on both sides of the ball. Some of those linemen do get hurt by what happens on the field, and also by what they have to do to bulk up and make the lineup in order to get onto the field. The A-11 reverses that avoidable mistake.”
Question: Exactly, how?
Reed: “For example, when the staff at Piedmont coached in the A-11 Offense, they’ve said a number of opposing coaches stated they had to remove some of their starting defensive linemen from the field and replace them with faster linebacker/defensive back types to deal with the speed, skill, and versatility of the A-11 linemen. The first time that happened was the day that the New York Times’ premature prediction of more than 100-years ago finally came true.”
Question: OK, but is that a bit of a reach?
Reed: “Not at all. The A-11 and spread offensive football around the country may have ended ‘traditional’ smash-mouth football. That more limited brand of pro football has run its course. The invention and implementation of the A-11 Offense in 2007 was the century-later ‘second coming’ of the big innovation to improve safety that Roosevelt forced in 1906 to advance the game’s complexity and to make it safer for the players. The A-11 completes that long-overdue promise described in the New York Times article.”
Question: What other ideas would help to improve player health and safety in pro football?
Reed: “I would outlaw players whose BMI exceeded the medical experts’ recommendation—a weigh-in and height measurement before every game like they do in boxing, mixed martial arts, horse racing, and wrestling, etc. The current practice of encouraging and even demanding that linemen carry an unhealthy amount of weight is a moral outrage. Coaches and the owners rightly defer absolutely to the doctors regarding traumatic injuries like concussions and neck injuries, and so forth. But they do the exact opposite with regard to doctors’ advice when it comes to long-term health issues like the linemen BMI. That makes no sense. It needs to be changed to help the players stay as healthy as possible during their careers and afterward. The game will not suffer—it will improve as a result. I would expect to see much fewer of the five-step and seven-step drop back pass protection plays without the sumo wrestler body types on the offensive line. But the game will be safer, faster, more athletic, more fun to watch and play, and more interesting. With the A-11 Offense unbridled at the pro level the offensive and defensive line-play becomes a contest of great athletes who can block, catch, or run with the football. Many compare football to chess and the linemen to pawns. But in the A-11, linemen block, catch backward or forward passes, and carry the football. At Piedmont the lineman even threw some passes. Chess is a great game, but not because of its pawns. In A-11, all eleven players contribute towards victory in a broader variety of athletic ways.”
Question: What will happen to the Quarterback position at the Pro level in the A-11 Offense?
Reed: “The new-found versatility of the offensive line will cause an increased emphasis on versatility at all positions. It will increase the number of passers on the roster and encourage coaches to use many multi-threat players on the field at the same time. Imagine three players in the backfield at once, all of them being able to run, throw or catch as a regular staple of the offensive game plan. Talk about opening-up the game by structure…having so many triple-threat skill players on the field at once, opens up the game—squared.
Drawing a basketball analogy, football is now what basketball would be like if only Lebron James on the Heat were allowed to shoot. Or like soccer, where only Beckham could attempt a goal. The A-11 turns football into a game where, like basketball or soccer, every player is capable of performing most football skills and on any play. Only unlike basketball and soccer, you would still have the between-play stoppages that allow football to be so much more complex, cerebral, and planned. Even in the fast-paced no-huddle version of the A-11 Offense at the professional level.”
Question: Conversely at the highest levels of the game, what will happen to the Defenses?
Reed: “We’ve already seen the dramatic match-up changes at the high school level against the A-11. If the offense gets more versatile then the defense must do so as well. The defensive linemen against the A-11 will need to be hybrid players able to match-up against the multiple roles that an A-11 offensive lineman will play, and the other players too. The defense must adjust to the fact that the more extreme specialization of recent football schemes like the seven-step drop back passes are probably no longer the issue. Since all eleven of the A-11 personnel are capable of doing almost anything at any time, you cannot have today’s more extremely specialized ‘limited role players’.”
Today, you can basically tell just by looking at a college or pro football player in street clothes what position he probably plays. Not in the A-11. The A-11 will eliminate extreme specialization that severely limits the pro game now. The current pro game is overly predictable and the beauty of the A-11 is in its versatility and lack of tendencies, which leads to a more wide-open style of play and should increase scoring. A-11 forces the defense to remain honest most of the time and levels the playing field for both sides of the ball, which leads to improved player safety. When I wrote the book, ‘The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense’ in that I expressed my dislike of the ability for football defenses to gear up to stop a particular type of play by studying opposing offensive tendencies. As a coach, I was for forcing opposing defenses to remain in their ‘Base set’ during the course of the game because of my offensive team’s tempo and because I was using the same formation almost every play. It’s important not to give opposing defensive coordinators basic tendencies to tee-off on. The A-11 does all of these same types of things to the defense because of its unpredictable nature.”
Question: What will the game of pro football look like ten to twenty-years from now?
Reed: “Assuming the A-11 takes off, it will make the game far more complex, faster, with more finesse and skill at every position, and more athletic overall. Each player will be contributing in many more ways than in today’s pro game.
The unintended specialization caused by the legalization of the Forward Pass was aided and abetted by the adoption of a platoon system during World War II (needed because of a lack of players due to the draft).
The A-11 will not end all platoon football, nor should it, but it will force players on both sides of the ball to be less specialized and much more versatile. When you think about it, football has evolved into a sort of three-ring circus; with a shoving match going on over here…and a passing and catching competition going on over there…and the running and chasing in another location over there. I don’t think the leaders of football today would have created such a game on purpose from scratch with so many unhealthy limits. The A-11 steps in and sweeps clean the attic that still contains the last vestiges of its Neanderthal origins, and that’s a good thing.”
Question: 100-years from now, what will football historians say about the A-11 Offense and its impact on the game?
Reed: “I expect the football experts of the future to say the A-11, like the Forward Pass before it, saved the game from its own bad habits, including too much sumo-type shoving, less than truly optimal athleticism on the part of nearly half the players on the field, and severely insufficient attention to the health and safety of the players.
Decades from now, the A-11 Offense could be seen as the ‘second-coming of a football revolution’ in safety and athleticism wrought by the 1906 rule changes that preceded it. A-11 can rescue the game of football by making it safer for the players, more interesting, more complex and cerebral, and more fun to watch.”