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Sun Tzu Week 7: From the Bills to the Off-week

By Eric Johnson | October 21st, 2003

Ah, Shaolin Redskins fans–it was not meant to be. Our army seemed poised to recover its footing against an opponent who was eminently beatable, but instead it stumbled and fell into the abyss.

Each week from my mountain-top home, I examine two or three aspects of the game that show how much Qiu Lei Yun Dong Jiao Lian–the Ol’ Ball Coach–learned from Master Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” This week, I’ll do much the same, but I will concentrate the entirety of the discussion on one area: the coach’s need to bring discipline to his team. It is good that the off-week is upon us.

Sun Tzu said:

“When his troops are disorderly, the general
has no prestige.”

These words–uttered by Sun Tzu some twenty-three centuries ago–are perhaps the most true of all those contained in the “Art of War;” the most true, that is, for Steve Spurrier today–after the crushing defeat at the hands of the formerly stumbling Buffalo Bills.

Last season, to great excitement and hoopla, Spurrier took over the reins of the Washington Redskins from the stolid Marty Schottenheimer. He wanted to see if his incredible passing offense, the Fun ‘n Gun, would work in the NFL after destroying top-tier teams year after year at the college level.

After struggling to implement the Fun ‘n Gun with a team built more for the grind-it-out style of Martyball–yet still managing an impressive 7-9 record–Spurrier had reason to think that his second season would be better. Not only had the front office gone out and gotten him a plethora of players better suited to his high-flying offense, but he had committed to a program in the off-season focused specifically on correcting the other glaring problem of the 2002 season–the error-prone, undisciplined play of the team.

Some say that his teams at the University of Florida were also undisciplined, but that the prolific offense was good enough that it made up for any such deficiencies. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say first-hand, but I do know that Spurrier recognized that perennially sloppy play will prevent victories in the NFL. He started preaching the gospel of discipline throughout the off-season, and brought in referees to help patrol the sidelines.

When this season started, the unruly play carried over: 6 penalties the first week, then 12, then 17, then 9, then 11, then 9, then 9 again. It didn’t seem so bad at first–while a prolific offense didn’t cover up the gaffes, the heart and grit of the team seemed to. But after the 3-1 start, the lack of discipline seems to be infecting the whole team, and the team-wide illness is preventing them from winning.

Or, now, from even getting on the same page. Whether it is directly attributable to coaching, or only indirectly attributable (because responsibility is shared by the players), the fact of the matter is that ultimate blame for the lack of discipline is being laid as it should be at the feet of the head coach.

Sun Tzu said:

“If troops are loyal, but punishments are
not enforced, you cannot employ them.”

I believe that at the heart of the problem is Steve Spurrier’s unwillingness to impose his entire will on the team. I think that he came into the NFL believing that the players were self-motivated and self-disciplined, and that he and his coaches would primarily be responsible for teaching their schemes to the team. Once they learned to execute the Fun ‘n Gun to his liking, then he would be able to match it up against NFL-level defenses–and may the best scheme win.

He was, I think, unprepared for the week-in-and-week-out need to motivate players and keep on them to execute the most basic aspects of their positions. And the real kicker is, I can hardly blame him for it–why on earth should these exceedingly highly-paid professionals need anybody to drill them on the basics? Why shouldn’t coaches expect a base level of self-motivated professionalism so that the only thing they need to worry about is installing their particular offensive, defensive, and special-teams plays? Most of all, for Spurrier, why shouldn’t professional football players carry the same love of victory and hatred of defeat that define his every breathing moment?

One of the legacies of free agency is, unfortunately, that players have come to realize that they will be paid whether they stick to fundamentals or not, whether they win or not. But it really isn’t that they are lazy; it’s just that there is such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL that it is that extra kick of motivation–in whatever form–that can spell the difference between victory for one team and defeat for the other.

And so Coach Spurrier is now met with a conundrum: how to start motivating a team now when the “style” you came in with had nothing to do with motivation and everything to do with teaching or coaching a particular scheme? Spurrier didn’t come roaring in, last year or this, breathing fire, vowing to break his team down and then build it up in an image of his own choosing like it was some newly-fledged Marine unit. He respected the professionalism he believed existed in the NFL–and which may well have once existed in the form he anticipated, back before free agency when he was an NFL player himself–and set about his task of teaching them his scheme.

And the team respected him for it–they appreciated the fact that he saw them as professionals and treated them like men. It was perhaps a refreshing change from the Marty Schottenheimer who put sensors on dorm doors during training camp to keep them from going out at night. So, in short, he had their loyalty–indeed, many players were very excited about the prospects for this season.

But now the time for punishment is at hand–and as Sun Tzu said (and as the team has begun to show), if those punishments aren’t enforced, he won’t be able to employ the team at all. He has publicly considered fining players, benching players, or cutting playing time–and has backed down from that threat each time. At one level, it is understandable why he would do so–benching your star players, for instance, is generally a detriment in the professional game.

But for the greater, long-term good, he *must* enforce his punishments so that the players learn that there is a consequence for unprofessional, undisciplined play. The threats haven’t gotten the job done; the only way to turn things around now is to follow through with actions.

Yet it isn’t an excessive, all-or-none proposition. As Sun Tzu also said, “Too frequent rewards indicate that the general is at the end of his resources; too frequent punishments that he is in acute distress.” Spurrier has been a bit lenient–his “too frequent rewards” have consisted of permitting those undisciplined players to keep playing with nary a slap on the wrist. But he doesn’t want to go the route of the early-2001 Marty Schottenheimer–“too frequent punishments” at that point nearly led to a mutiny.

In balance, then, Spurrier is likely to find his path. More punishment than he’s done in the past, but not too much; more concentration on fundamentals, but not at the expense of his own system. Give the team limits, make it clear what those limits are (so they can’t claim ignorance)–and enforce them. What he can’t do is repeatedly make threats and back off of them without putting something in their place, as he’s often done in the past–that’s just another form of “too frequent reward.”

The open week is an excellent time to start striking that balance. After a season of duress last year, he swiftly instituted changes that (should) have had a major impact on this season. It is my firm belief that he similarly understands the problems that have plagued him in the first half of this season, and will similarly act boldly to make the necessary corrections.

He knows it can’t keep going like it has. Things have to change. And now’s the time to change them.

Hopefully next week–the open date–we’ll be able to examine what he’s started to do.

Edit: This blog was archived in May of 2016 from our original articles database.It was originally posted by Eric Johnson

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