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Sun Tzu Week 15: Wrestling with the Bears

By Eric Johnson | December 23rd, 2003

Seasons greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans. I wish I could write to you of our resounding triumph, but alas, it was not meant to be. We fought well in the swirling wind, but it was not enough–our defense was not enough–to gain us the victory. And now here I sit outside my simple mountaintop cottage, in the keening wind, and hope for one last triumph.

Next week I will focus on the Ol’ Ball Coach himself, but for now we want to see what lessons the front office and his coaching staff have learned through this season (and throw in a mention of this particular game). Let us see what lessons have been learned from Master Sun Tzu:


Sun Tzu said:

“Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring
misfortune upon his army: . . . [the third of which is] When
ignorant of matters relating to exercise of military authority,
to share in the exercise of responsibilities. This engenders
doubts in the minds of the officers.”

The commentary from Wang Hsi expands on this: “If one ignorant of military matters is sent to participate in the administration of the army, then in every movement there will be disagreement and mutual frustration and the entire army will be hamstrung. That is why Pei Tu memorialized the throne to withdraw the Army Supervisor; only then was he able to pacify Ts’ao Chou.” To which Chang Yü added: “In recent times court officials have been used as Supervisors of the Army and this is precisely what is wrong.”

It’s sometimes scary to see how prescient this ancient text is. One of the key problems with a ruler’s influence is when his Army Supervisor–his political officer–had too much influence in the organization. The political officer’s loyalty was to the ruler rather than to the army itself, and his presence meant that some soldiers and officers would try to please the Army Supervisor rather than the general under which they served.

Isn’t that similar to the situation with the Redskins? The ruler is Dan Snyder, his political officer is Vinny Cerrato, and Steve Spurrier is the general. I do think there are signs of learning, and I don’t really want to purely bash on Snyder because of that. At the same time, I think that organizationally, the Redskins suffer because Snyder–ignorant of matters relating to exercise of football authority–tries to share in the exercise of those responsibilities when he shouldn’t. It isn’t clear where the authority lies, so players aren’t sure who they should pay attention to–Spurrier? Cerrato? Snyder?–and we end up with situations like that with Bruce Smith, kissing up to the ownership rather than the coaches. It made it harder than it has needed to be for Spurrier to implement his style and take ownership of the team–he already doesn’t have that kind of dominant personality (not finding it necessary), and the management practically went out of their way to make it harder.

They should have gone with the original plan, hiring a GM to oversee all football-related decisions. It’s not too late, and that’s the model that will probably ensure the most success for this team.


Sun Tzu said:

“A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and
does not demand it of his subordinates.”

This is a passage we have used before, but it continues to have resonance. Two aspects of the statement pertain to the situation of the Redskins this year. The first: a skilled commander seeking victory from the situation. From week to week, it has never been clear whether the Ol’ Ball Coach will react to the situation he finds the team to be in–will he plan around the weather and the weakness of his opponent, will he change his game calling once he sees how the opponent responds?–or whether he’ll try to dictate to his opponent (whether it seems to be working or not).

And the other aspect: a skilled commander (given the above) does not demand victory of his subordinates. In other words, a general *will* find success in responding to and planning around the actions of his opponent; in doing so, he has already placed the army in a position of success. He won’t need to rely on his subordinates to extricate him from his poor tactical approach.

Unfortunately, the Redskins have had problems with a consistent approach to the first part, and it has come clear that Spurrier might not have the subordinates (particularly on the defensive side of the ball) to give him success when he has taken that wrong approach. In the Bears game, as with several games this season, the Redskins played okay offensively, though they still didn’t always have the right approach (which is why they barely held onto the ball on any drive in the second half). But the defense simply couldn’t get the Bears off the field–they marched unstoppably down the field when a defensive stand would have assured the victory, or at least a tie.

The question then is whether the Ol’ Ball Coach has the right people in place. Kim Helton was under fire earlier in the season because the O-line seemed to be a sieve–but it appears that they’ve settled down in this later part of the season. More significantly, the defensive coaching is suffering–the scheme under new coordinator George Edwards doesn’t seem to be getting the job done, and the linebackers have regressed. One solution might be to replace Edwards, but I think he should probably get another shot–he could well be a good coordinator with experience. So if he’s retained, he should get some seriously experienced subordinates of his own who can act as sounding boards.

Hopefully, the Ol’ Ball Coach will consistently attack his opponents’ particular situations next season; and if he does, he won’t need to demand the victory of his subordinates. But if he needs to, it’s better that they would be ready to provide it.


Sun Tzu said:

“All warfare is based on deception.”

Maybe we’ve seen a hint or two of Spurrier’s plans for next season in the play of the last few weeks. Now that the games (unfortunately) no longer have any meaning, the Redskins have started pulling out some trickery. *Two* passes from Rod Gardner for touchdowns in one game–even though the officials may not agree. He’s got a QB rating of 149.3 on the season, which may well yield some more WR-to-QB-type plays next season. I expect we’ll see even more creative play-calling next week, just to make the game fun for Spurrier–and, in fact, perhaps as a sign of things, and a team, to come.

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

Categories Posted In | Archive: Sun Tzu | Washington Commanders |