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Sun Tzu Week 16: The Eagles’ Strike

By Eric Johnson | December 31st, 2003

Ah, Shaolin Redskins fans–it was not to be. Our troops went to battle, but they were not strong enough to carry the field. It was not their day–nor, indeed, was this the year of the burgundy and gold army. As the winter snows settle in on the shoulders of my mountain, it is a time for contemplation.

Qiu Lei Yun Dong Jiao Lian–the Ol’ Ball Coach–has reached a time of decision. He must decide if he wishes to return to lead his troops next year. As an ardent student of Master Sun Tzu, he knows the old master can help guide him in his thinking, about this past year and about his future. And he can help us in our year-end analysis of the Ol’ Ball Coach. Let us, in this final column this year, examine how:


Sun Tzu said:

“If you say which ruler possesses moral influence, which
commander is the more able, which army obtains the
advantages of nature and the terrain, in which regulations
and instructions are better carried out, which troops are the
stronger; which has better trained officers and men; and
which administers rewards and punishments in a more
enlightened manner; I will be able to forecast which side
will be victorious and which defeated.

“If a general who heeds my strategy is employed he is
certain to win. Retain him! When one who refuses to listen
to my strategy is employed, he is certain to be defeated.
Dismiss him!”

Master Sun Tzu has given us the formula for a victorious general and army. I will examine each aspect in turn, with an eye towards this past year’s performance and any need for change in the next year, assuming he returns.

* “If you say which ruler possesses moral influence”

Sun Tzu defines moral influence as “that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.” In the context of the NFL, it’s a question of whether the team has bought into a coach, his scheme, and his style, so that they will go where he leads them. We have seen this happen this year with the hated Bill Parcells–he has quickly created a team that will follow him through fire if they can.

Is this the case with the Redskins and Steve Spurrier? By all accounts, the team likes their coach, but there isn’t a sense that they would do anything for him. I think this is because 1) the Ol’ Ball Coach has been unable to give the team an identity around which they can build, and 2) he didn’t dominate the team with his personality when he first came.

In the first aspect, he’s veered from insisting that the Fun ‘n Gun is where he needs to stay to saying that really, an NFL-style balance is best. In recent weeks, he seems to have stepped up the trickery a bit–so is that what the team should be about? Luckily, this season he had personnel more suited to the Fun ‘n Gun so he can now evaluate it better than he could after last year, when he had the wrong system. So in the off season he should really be able to build a consistent approach. The second aspect will be trickier–he came into the league assuming his players were self-motivated professionals, and all he would need is to coach ’em up in his style of play. He didn’t realize how thoroughly he would have to take over the team, providing motivation and instilling discipline and his own style. This will be his great challenge for next year, and the determining factor of his success.

* “which army obtains the advantages of nature and the terrain”

On a week-to-week basis, is the team responding appropriately to the conditions on the field? “Conditions” can be defined pretty broadly here–does the game plan take into account whether it’s rainy or cold? Is the team taking advantage of the opponents’ known weaknesses? Are they making adjustments at half time (once they get a sense of “the terrain” for that week)?

Spurrier has sometimes done well in this regard–attacking a weak secondary or making half-time adjustments–but usually it seems that he hasn’t paid his opponent much attention and has concentrated primarily on his own team without regard to the strength or weaknesses of his opponent or the weather forecast. In some ways that’s a bold thing–make them respond to us–but in the modern NFL, all coaches are too good, and a team can’t afford to sit back and respond only after the game has begun. His exposure to NFL play has probably begun teaching him this lesson.

* “in which regulations and instructions are better carried out”

Early in the season, the team seemed to have some difficulty carrying out their assignments, but in general they seemed to know what they were supposed to do. Perhaps some of the confusion and penalties during that time were as a result of players not understanding what they were supposed to do, but there is no real indication that that was the problem this season.

* “which troops are the stronger”

Redskins players are just as good as those of other NFL teams, and better than many. The D-line was injured so we’re really starting backups, but such is the vagary of the NFL. The personnel seems a good match for the Fun ‘n Gun as originally brought to the NFL, so this isn’t the problem. It sounds like there will be some refinement of the scheme for next year and a concommitant alteration of personnel–a “big time running back” and a stronger D-line, for instance–so we should get even stronger.

* “which has better trained officers and men”

How successfully has the team learned the schemes their coaches are teaching? It appears that this year, there has not been much difficulty with this. Indeed, Tim Hasselbeck was coached up so quickly that he could step in and take over behind center after only a few weeks of instruction–that shows the coaches are pretty darn good at that aspect of their jobs.

One clear problem, though, is that some of the team’s coaches aren’t experienced enough in their positions to be completely effective. The biggest example of that is defensive coordinator George Edwards, who is a first-time DC. It appears that his players like him, but they say they sometimes felt unprepared and they certainly played that way much of the time. It isn’t clear whether he has the forcefulness to keep his players sticking to their schemes. My suspicion is that the team is better-served by keeping him but getting him a very experienced assistant who is a former DC. If they get a replacement, they need a successful, experienced one. Kim Helton, the offensive line coach, appears to have lost his players and should probably be replaced.

* “and which administers rewards and punishments in a more enlightened manner”

This was Spurrier’s Achilles heel. He came into the league assuming that his players were self-motivated professionals. When they didn’t perform well last year, he tried to instill discipline by bringing in officials in the offseason and emphasizing it–but he failed to really make it stick (he hamstrung himself by not setting up a framework that allowed punishment). But he mainly thought it was because he didn’t have the right players–until this year, when he learned that the discipline problems remained.

He was very good at one aspect of administering rewards and punishments–if you did what he asked better than another player at your position, you played. If not, you didn’t. That’s a *great* approach. But he needs to do better with the week-in-and-week-out punishment of disclipine infractions (cell phones in meetings, etc.) and execution mistakes (if a player messes up in a drill, make him do it again until he does it right). It’s those little things that make a team focused, and that was where the team let themselves, the coaches, and the fans down this year.

These are but a handful of lessons–but important ones–that might help the Ol’ Ball Coach focus on the future development of this team. Perhaps we may yet think of Master Ol’ Ball Coach in the same breath as Master Sun Tzu.


“If a general who heeds my strategy is employed he is
certain to win. Retain him! When one who refuses to listen
to my strategy is employed, he is certain to be defeated.
Dismiss him!”

And now, as of Tuesday afternoon, we know the answer to it. Spurrier has dismissed himself. It appears that two factors came into it–he was concerned that the team wanted a wholesale replacement of the coaching staff below him (and therefore felt that the head coach really should then be replaced, too, which makes sense), and he seems to have decided that the Fun ‘n Gun just won’t make it in the NFL in the form he so enjoys. But more than that, I believe he just wasn’t having any fun, for a whole host of reasons–and because of that, I think he made the right decision.

I will never say he shouldn’t have tried his best–I’m glad he did, and I wish him great success in his future endeavors. I’m glad he was coach of this team–being a fan is all about feeling hope, and he always gave me that because he had a bit of the “mad genius” about him at all times. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, and the best thing for all sides is to move on. But never doubt the good spirit that brought him to us. Good luck, coach!

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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