Sun Tzu Week 12: The Saints Came Marching In

Archive: Sun Tzu Washington Commanders

Greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans. What a week it’s been–highs and lows, joy and pain, eating to excess, and then the highs, lows, joy, and pain of watching our burgundy and gold soldiers return once again in defeat.

It is in trial that life teaches us the most lessons, and unfortunately for the Ol’ Ball Coach, these past two months have been spent learning instead of teaching. But he as always can be open to the lessons of the masters, particularly those of Master Sun Tzu.

Let us see what he learned:


Sun Tzu said:

“Keep him under a strain and wear him down.”

A simple lesson, and a vital one. The last three games, we blew 4th-quarter leads of 20-17 (New Orleans), 23-10 (Miami), and 17-13 (Carolina). For whatever the reason, we haven’t been able to close out games.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s a single explanation for our inability to bury our opponents–instead, I think a combination of factors is to blame for this. In Carolina, the Panthers were able to drive right back and retake the lead on their possession following the score that put us on top, in a drive marked by a huge 4th-and-1 reception (25 yards) to an uncovered Stephen Davis, followed by a 30-yard strike to Steve Smith. In Miami, they drove down the field after we went up 23-10, converting on a 3rd-and-15 when we got a defensive pass interference call that put them on the one-yard line. Then we failed to get past the 50 on our next drive while they marched back down the field and scored on a huge Ricky Williams run. Against New Orleans, they scored in a short-field drive after returning our kickoff 52 yards–a serious breakdown in special teams.

Is part of the problem the offensive calls when we have the ball, failing to give our defense time to rest? Quite possibly. Is it mental breakdowns in the defense and/or special teams? Could well be. Is it poor defensive coaching? Might just be. The point is, it’s probably a combination of these factors–and we can’t expect a light bulb to go off. There is no silver bullet or a magic switch that instantly transforms a team. Instead, it just takes a lot of hard work and persistence, and it takes playing like a complete team. Once that starts happening (and it won’t unless the team commits to it), opponents won’t be able to come right back after we score. And then we’ll start winning these close games–games where we had the lead.

The biggest thing, though, is to never let up, no matter what–if we can keep our opponents under pressure in the whole fourth quarter, we’ll wear him down.


Sun Tzu said:

“War is a matter of vital importance to the
State; the province of life or death; the road
to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it
be thoroughly studied.”

Many fans, to put it mildly, are calling for the Ol’ Ball Coach’s head, now that we’ve lost seven of eight games. “He can’t coach at this level,” they cry. “He’s too stubborn to change his system.” They like to pretend that NFL football is a simple game of Xs and Os, and anybody with Madden 2003 can coach.

It’s funny, every time I sit down to write some sort of scathing, angry column decrying his ability as a coach, I find I can’t. It’s because I feel I know the man–and that, my friends, comes from his brutal honesty. He has always been honest with his reasons for entering the NFL (he wants to see if the Fun ‘n Gun can succeed in the NFL); he has always been honest in his assessment of his players (if they do what they’re asked to, they’ll play; if not, they won’t); and he’s always been honest about the limits of his knowledge (he didn’t pretend to know all about the defense last year, and he isn’t pretending he knows exactly what’s wrong this year). It’s a completely refreshing way of being for an NFL coach.

But it’s not just that I like Spurrier’s open style or his approach to coaching from an Xs and Os standpoint; I like how his mind works at multiple levels. On the one hand, he’s struggling with the day-to-day difficulty of coaching a 4-8 team. But I believe that on another–the same one that helped him know exactly what to do this past off-season to improve the team–he’s already tallying the changes that will need to happen to improve the team and the coaches again. It’s a special kind of instinct, a football instinct, that comes from a lifetime of living and breathing the competitive game that is football.

“Thoroughly studied” doesn’t begin to describe the Ol’ Ball Coach’s approach to the game. “Internalized and made part of his DNA” is more like it. For Spurrier, competition *is* the province of life or death, the road to survival or ruin. And contrary to the popular belief, he’s well aware of it–and, I expect, is much harder on himself than any fan can be on him. It is a matter of vital importance to him.

So yes, he may never fully adjust to the NFL game, in which case he probably shouldn’t coach at this level. But I find I’m willing–in fact, eager–to give him another year. He’s shown some tactical stubbornness, but I’m betting that his strategic flexibility will carry him through yet.


Sun Tzu said:

“He whose advance is irresistible plunges
into his enemy’s weak positions; he who in
withdrawal cannot be pursued moves so swiftly
that he cannot be overtaken.”

One pure positive note to take from the game is Chad Morton’s beautiful 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. One of the real pleasures of the season has been watching him come closer and closer each week to busting one. Morton puts in perhaps more work than any returner in the league, breaking down the opponents’ coverage team player by player and writing up a report on each one to distribute to his own blockers. This dedication has shown as the season has progressed and the unit subsequently tightened up. He is an exemplar of the adage “slow and steady wins the race”–not because he’s slow himself (oh, far from it!), but because he understands the success to be gained from plugging away at a difficult and complex problem.

May it rub off on his teammates–and may we again and again watch him irresistibly plunge through his enemy’s weak positions (blowing through tacklers), moving so swiftly that he cannot be overtaken. Hard work has paid off for him.

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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