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Sun Tzu Week 16: The Eagles’ Strike

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

Categories Posted In Archive: Sun Tzu | Washington Commanders

Sun Tzu Week 15: Wrestling with the Bears

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

Sun Tzu Week 13: They Might Not Be Giants

Greetings and salutations, Shaolin Redskins fans! It is a few days since our troops returned triumphant from the icy battlefields of the northeast, but the joy at their victory has not abated. Though we huddle around our small fires, we are warmed by their success!

It is *most* pleasing when the Ol’ Ball Coach once again instructs others in the lessons he has learned from Master Sun Tzu. Let us see what he taught to his foes this week:


Sun Tzu said:

“Appraise war in terms of the five fundamental
factors. . . The first of these factors is moral
influence; the second, weather; the third,
terrain; the fourth, command; and the fifth,
doctrine. . . By weather I mean the interaction
of natural forces; the effects of winter’s cold
and summer’s heat and the conduct of military
operations in accordance with the seasons.”

It was a mere 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind was blowing at 15 miles per hour from the north-northwest, and gusting in a swirling, nasty way across the field. There was snow in the stands and piles of the stuff by the sides of the field.

It was, in short, a cold one at Giants stadium this week.

So how did the Ol’ Ball Coach fare? The same ball coach who loved to pass through the balmy fall nights in Florida, who loves it when he can describe a game day as “a beautiful day for passing”?

He went in and called a game that had a 48:19 pass-to-run ratio. Forty-eight to nineteen. It would seem, on the surface, to be completely unheard of by this coach.

And maybe it was, but it sure as heck was effective. The Redskins had a 37:08 to 22:52 advantage in time of possession–that is, the Redskins had the ball 60.88% of the game. And the combination gave the Redskins a clear-cut victory, 20-7.

But is this play-calling an anomaly? I’m beginning to think it isn’t. I feel, down in my deepest bones (where the cold can’t reach) that Spurrier is starting to show that he gets this professional game. I have no doubt that he’d rather be able to pass it up and down the field and rack up a 50-point differential; but he’s come to understand that such games are rarities in the NFL.

So instead, he’ll do what it takes in the present game to ensure a win; and this week, in this cold, that meant conducting his operations in accordance with the season. It wasn’t a time to throw it all over the place. It was a time to keep it on the ground while picking the right spots to throw. And because of this plan, the Redskins came home winners.


Sun Tzu said:

“For there has never been a protracted war
from which a country has benefited.”

Master Sun Tzu tells us that extended efforts rarely achieve the results the home nation desires; too often, such campaigns are too draining, so that when they finally do wind to a conclusion, the nation is too exhausted and drained of resources to take any sort of benefit from the victory.

So it was, ultimately, with Bruce Smith’s pursuit of the so-called sack record. Let me not show too much disrespect–any professional football player who lasts nineteen years has my deepest respect just for the willpower and stamina it shows. But longevity for the sake of personal goals over team goals is a tarnished legacy, and the fact that Smith was willing to keep playing pretty clearly for the sole reason of pursuing that record meant that a.) his accomplishment, when finally achieved, was pretty darn hollow; and b.) that not a lot of fans truly cared that he actually achieved it.

Frankly, it took too much time–so that while being stretched so long and thin, we could see right through his gauzy efforts to the selfish motives underlying them all. And that’s a shame. That’s no way for a athlete of his quality to go out. Few players look as much like actual battle-scarred warriors of the ancient world as he does when he straps on his pads, so I was sad to see his precipitous decline.

I can only hope that in some way, he taught players younger than he the right kinds of lessons.


Sun Tzu said:

“[The general] leads the army deep into
hostile territory and there releases the

And that trigger, this year, has a name: Darnerian McCants. Allow me to take a moment to praise the play of one of our up-and-coming young stars. Darnerian has come a long way since he was referred to by his new coach as “Darkerian.” Indeed, he’s made some noise now.

In his senior year, at Delaware State, McCants caught only 36 passes–but an astounding 18 of them were for touchdowns. While it’s a harder row to hoe in the NFL, this year he’s caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice: of his 23 receptions, 6 have been for touchdowns (and 6 have been for 20 or more yards). He’s a terror in the red zone–he seems to be consistently open and has the leaping ability and sure hands to give the Redskins QBs a target they can count on. And they certainly have done so.

If the team is smart, they’ll lock McCants in for a long-term contract. I don’t know if he’s ready to challenge for a starter spot yet, having never really gone up against starter cornerbacks. On the other hand, if Rod Gardner were to be traded–and I don’t think he necessarily should be–McCants should get a crack at the role. He’s done little but provide Spurrier with a sort of ultra-TE (with a wide receiver’s ranginess) in the end zone–once Spurrier has gotten the team deep into hostile territory, he needs but pull the trigger. And up #85 comes up with the ball, again and again.

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

Sun Tzu Week 12: The Saints Came Marching In

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

Categories Posted In Archive: Sun Tzu | Washington Commanders

Sun Tzu Week 10: Bitten by the Panthers

Ah, Shaolin Redskins fans–it was not meant to be! Our gritty army, arrayed in its burgundy and gold, came close to defeating a foe that had beaten almost all its opponents. Alas, we could not pull it out in the end–or so the judges decided.

In any case, controversy aside, this contest was an opportunity for the Ol’ Ball Coach to learn some more lessons from Master Sun Tzu. Let us see what this week showed him:


Sun Tzu said:

“When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of
its prey, it is because of timing.”

This was the week of Stephen Davis. The Redskins knew it was the week of Stephen Davis. They were prepared for the week of Stephen Davis. They knew he would be coming like a battering ram, and were physically and psychologically prepared for him and the big plays he had the potential to make. Indeed, they managed to hold him to a total of 92 yards in 28 rushes–a 3.3 yard average. Especially impressive when he’d gotten well over 100 yards in six of his previous eight starts.

What they couldn’t do, what they couldn’t prevent, were the big plays Jake Delhomme made to Panthers receivers–Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith, and Davis out of the backfield–at crucial junctures of the game. Just as the Redskins thought they might have the Panthers back on the ropes, looking at a three-and-out or a good defensive stop, Delhomme would make a beautiful deep throw at *exactly* the wrong moment. They’d find seams and make spectacular catches, or find Davis uncovered out in the flat. The Panthers had *eight* passes for more than 20 yards. The quick, deep strikes kept them in the game–and must have driven Spurrier mad, since those are the plays he’d like to see his team make. For his part, Patrick Ramsey was held to a mere 3.3 yards per attempt himself–nothing like the Fun ‘n Gun Spurrier wants to see.

The art of the quick strike–when timed right, it can absolutely break the body of the opponent.


Sun Tzu said:

“He who knows the art of the direct and the
indirect approach will be victorious. Such
is the art of maneuvering.”

Last week, Spurrier received a great deal of praise from near and far for his decision to step aside to allow offensive coordinator Hue Jackson call the plays. In this very space, it was observed how the biggest positive was the respect he would begin to earn for setting his ego aside in the name of improving the team.

A second week of a Jackson-led offense sheds more light on the situation–perhaps the Ol’ Ball Coach shouldn’t remove himself too far from the equation. He has expressed a little frustration at his inactivity on game days. I believe that the OC should continue to have a stronger role in the offensive play-calling than he has had for the bulk of the season, but it is indeed true that the one thing that Spurrier distinguished himself in during his long, successful tenure in the college game was his prowess–and near mystical ability–at calling plays during games.

Spurrier has said that he’ll make an announcement later this week as to how the play-calling will be handled–I hope that it ends up being an even greater integration of Spurrier’s daring and Jackson’s relative (and it’s only relative) conservatism. Each week is a minor experiment, to be tweaked and reworked in the days between games.

But the *right* blend of direct and indirect involvement (through the intercession of Jackson) will indeed be victorious.


Sun Tzu said:

“In good order, [the troops] await a disorderly
enemy; in serenity, a clamorous one. This is
control of the mental factor.”

Perhaps lost amid the anguish at the defeat in Charlotte is the good news about two aspects of the game that have shown marked improvement.

The first is the fact that the Redskins had zero–count ’em, ZERO–penalties this week, and only had four last week. This is a stunning turnaround when compared to the earlier weeks that saw double-digit penalties each game. This might be attributable to the kind of offensive play-calling being done by Hue Jackson, either in style or substance (in other words, either he just gets the plays in more efficiently or the plays he’s calling don’t lend themselves to penalties). Or it might have been a coaching decision on the part of the Ol’ Ball Coach to cut down on audibles or make some other adjustment. Or the players have simply finally settled down. It truly doesn’t matter–so long as they continue to keep up the good work.

The other improving aspect of the game–despite the final outcome–has been the improved and aggressive play of the defense, and in particular the ability to generate turnovers. Four last week and five this week are impressive numbers. The next step, of course, is to start generating more points from turnovers–getting a single field goal off of five turnovers is no way to win a game. The quick-strike capability mentioned above (and shown by the Redskins earlier this season) is just the kind of response we should have once we take the ball away from our opponents.

But both of these are examples of the fact that–contrary to popular belief–we can see the effect coaching is having on this team. Perhaps we have a few more problems than we realized during our 3-1 start, but it is clear that steps are slowly but surely being taken to improve the play of this team. The only problem, from the impatient fan perspective, is that we only get to see the results of any improvements once a week, so it is hard for us to gauge the results of the coaching. Luckily, they’re there day in and day out and have a better handle on what’s going on.

But even the impatient fan can see that the team is correcting its mistakes one at a time (and more than one at a time) and seems to have a grasp on the mental factor–and a certain serenity is the result.

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

Sun Tzu Week 9: The Seahawks Brought to Roost

Good day, Shaolin Redskins fans! It is a glorious morning indeed, with our army returning triumphant from the field of battle and the sun splashing burgundy and gold stripes across the dawning sky.

It was a curious week for the Ol’ Ball Coach, one in which he seems to have learned some lessons about leading his troops–and in turn imparted some lessons of his own–lessons he learned from the master, Sun Tzu.

Let us examine them:


Sun Tzu said:

“Now war is based on deception. Move when
it is advantageous and create changes in the
situation by dispersal and concentration of

The Fun ‘n Gun reared its pretty head towards the end of the game against Seattle. At the ten yard line, after a Seattle timeout with 2:02 left in the game and a 20-20 tie on the scoreboard, Patrick Ramsey flared a lateral to Rod Gardner to the left side of the field. Gardner caught the ball and, rather than running ahead with the apparent wide receiver screen, stepped back and lobbed the ball across the middle of the field to a wide, wide open Trung Canidate in the end zone. That touchdown won the game for the Redskins.

But it wasn’t an isolated play. It had been set up through the course of the entire game with a number of wide receiver screens to Gardner–some more successful than others, but all pretty standard plays from the Fun ‘n Gun playbook. The Seahawks had to be expecting another such play, and they rushed as a team to keep Gardner from the end zone. They were, simply put, deceived by the long-term plan to get in their heads, and the Redskins moved when it was most advantageous.


Sun Tzu said:

“In enclosed ground, resourcefulness is required.”

Very little ground has been as enclosed in recent weeks as that around Redskins Park–encircled by the gleeful media, surrounded by the apparent displeasure of a supposedly impatient owner, hemmed in by expectations dashed.

And caught in the middle of this pressure cooker was the Ol’ Ball Coach himself, with his heralded offensive system declared untenable and a death watch set on his tenure in professional football. “Never,” said that gleeful media, “never will it work because Steve Spurrier won’t set aside his ego.”

And never were they more wrong. In a move that he described as “benching myself” and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson called merely “try[ing] something different,” Spurrier handed the reins of his baby to Jackson and let him take over the play-calling. The result, in combination with Jackson’s fieriness on the sideline and a moving speech by the OC the night before, was a balanced attack and a victory. But what it showed was that more than anything else, Spurrier is willing to do anything he can to win.

And what’s more, it may bring an additional significant benefit–the clear respect of his players, who couldn’t have helped but start questioning their coach during a four-game losing streak. “It’s not like we didn’t respect him before,” said kick returner Chad Morton. “But I respect him so much for that, and I think everybody else does too. He benched himself. That’s really big for him. I’m sure he has a lot of ego just because he’s been so successful in college. And then for him to call those two plays says so much about him.” Added guard Randy Thomas: “I’ve always had confidence in Spurrier, but he really showed what he’s made of this week. He’s a different type of coach. He’s laid-back but at the same time he demands a lot from his coaches and players.”

That kind of respect–borne out of resourcefulness–will pay dividends in the weeks and months to come.


Sun Tzu said:

“The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is
to be without ascertainable shape.”

A significant side benefit of having Hue Jackson–former running backs coach and current offensive coordinator–call the game is that the ratio between running plays and passing plays was much more even than it had been in recent games (32:33). And the style of the passing game–short passes early on setting up deeper passes later, plus some roll-outs–served to keep the Seahawks’ defense off-balance. Indeed, defensive guru Ray Rhodes said that the success of the Redskins’ ground game (137 yards gained) was enough to make him afraid to blitz Patrick Ramsey, a near-miracle given how much pounding the young quarterback has taken.

But at the same time, Spurrier was hardly out of the picture. He made the crucial decisions to go for it on 4th-and-inches from his own 25 (unheard of) and called for the trick play from Gardner to Canidate to close out the game. It seems like this might be a very workable combination, having Jackson call the basic game so Spurrier can concentrate on the big picture to get a feel for when his biggest plays can be most effective.

The pair of coaches together will make it very hard for opposing defensive coordinators to ascertain the shape of the team–will this third-and-four play be something conservative or will it be a big strike? Will they hand it to the living bowling ball, Rock Cartwright as they have three times in a row, or will it just be a play fake for a deep bomb to Laveranues Coles? If Spurrier and Jackson can work out exactly the rhythm such a style will require, they might make some impressive noise in the second half of the season. It’ll be fun to watch that partnership grow.

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

Sun Tzu Week 8: Deja Vu in Dallas

Ah, Shaolin Redskins fans–the tempest is blowing prodigiously in my little mountain valley. It’s as if the gods themselves are irate at the way our army failed to acquit themselves against their greatest enemies. Lightening, thunder, hail, rain–will it end? Will the tempest around our army eventually calm? Or will the army scatter and its pieces blow away on the wind?

The Ol’ Ball Coach was schooled many ways this week in the lessons of Master Sun Tzu. Let us see what he learned.


Sun Tzu said:

“The wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the
enemy, for one bushel of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to
twenty of his; one hundredweight of enemy fodder to twenty
hundredweight of his.”

Alas, we failed to feed on the enemy this time, despite their willingness to offer themselves to us. Dallas coughed up the ball *three* times in a mere *six* plays to open the game. They lost it another time later in the game. And they had two touchdowns called back by penalties.

And yet the most we could come up with was six points on a touchdown–not even seven, because the extra point was blocked.

These are the gifts that cannot be ignored in the NFL–teams are too close in quality, the turn of the game is on shades of yards and bounces of the ball. We had the opportunity to bury the Cowboys before the game even got under way, but unfortunately the Redskins are too, well, discombobulated to take advantage of another team’s generosity.

If I were Spurrier, I would drill those images into the minds of my players, so they come to learn that they can *never* let such gifts go by with capitalizing on them. Getting the ball is one thing–getting the ball via a takeaway and turning that into seven easy points multiplies the pain twentyfold.


Sun Tzu said:

“When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because
of its momentum.”

And this, I believe, is the simple explanation for why opposing defenses have had such success swarming Patrick Ramsey with blitzes. It isn’t a matter of mere physical prowess–the enemy now has the psychological momentum, and the Redskins’ pass-protectors (O-line, running backs, and tight ends alike) have gotten into a zone where they more or less expect to be defeated.

And because of that, they are tossed aside as boulders before the flood–and Patrick Ramsey pays the price time and again for their inability to stop the pass rush.

It won’t be until the team starts implementing schemes to stop the blitz–making them pay with runs, short passes (that score), and most certainly with quicker decision-making by the young quarterback–that the pass-protectors as a group will begin to feel a bit more confidence. And as that confidence builds, the boulders will find themselves more firmly rooted against the flood.


Sun Tzu said:

“Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed,
weapons are blunted and morale depressed.”

The psyche of the professional athletic team is a delicate instrument. Team chemistry–while decried as irrelevant by some and scoffed at as “soft” by others–still remains an important ingredient in determining success or defeat on the field of play. On some teams, adversity can drive a wedge between players; others find that developing good chemistry in the face of difficulty helps them to elevate their play, so that they come to play better than their apparent talent would dictate.

But almost everyone agrees that the best salve for team chemistry is victory. Blessed victory pretty much smoothes over all problems. Anybody with a beef against another player, or a coach, or a scheme, or an owner–all those problems dissolve when the W’s keep coming. So maybe it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. Does good chemistry cause victories, or is it caused by them? Like the chicken and the egg, the answer is probably a bit of both.

Right now, the Redskins can no longer worry about their place in the division standings or whether or not they have the league-leading offense as they did in week 3. Their challenge at this stage is merely to put together a victory. And in some ways, that might be a bit liberating: outside considerations and distractions can be swept aside when the goal is so clearly crystallized.

There’s no telling what may yet come to pass this season–continued defeat might mean the end of his tenure with the Redskins for the Ol’ Ball Coach. But if he turns it around–as this team has done before–then the weapons might well be sharpened, the morale improved, and a chain of victories be strung together again like bright diamonds.


Sun Tzu said:

“Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape
and even when faced with death they will not flee. For if
prepared to die, what can they not achieve?”

Perhaps now is the time for a team meeting–with or without coaches–in which the players come to realize that Spurrier isn’t going anywhere and that they have nothing to lose this season. I can’t help but think that if they “prepare to die” in this way, their talent will win out and the victories will become more likely. They need that psychological break to get them out of this slump.

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

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

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

Categories Posted In Archive: Sun Tzu | Washington Commanders

Sun Tzu Week 6: Plundered by Buccaneers

Greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans. The pale sun is rising this crisp morning and plays across the flags and broken weapons of battle. Our burgundy and gold army went up against last year’s victors, and while they hung tough for a time, in the end they could not stop the enemy.

This week, the Ol’ Ball Coach was more student than teacher. Let us see what Sun Tzu taught him through Jon Gruden and the Buccaneers:


Sun Tzu said:

“To be certain to take what you attack is
to attack a place the enemy does not

This lesson became painfully clear to Spurrier in the third quarter when the Bucs were trailing 13-7 and had been pinned back on a 3rd-and-15 at their own 15 because of a taunting call on Keenan McCardell. Their previous three possessions had ended in two 3-and-outs and a kneel-down to end the first half–and now it looked like they were in for more of the same.

Gruden called a play to the left side, sending WR Keyshawn Johnson deep to clear CB Fred Smoot out of the way while the tight end lined up on the right and went deep to pull the left linebacker out of the play. All this was so RB Michael Pittman could catch a dump in the left flat and–if all went well–he would only have to outrun the two remaining linebackers in an attempt to get the first down. The problem was, from the Redskins’ perspective, that the two linebackers–LaVar Arrington and Jessie Armstead–*both* blitzed (due to a miscommunication) and took themselves out of the play. That left Pittman all alone in the flat and he roared 18 yards up field to convert that 3rd-and-15.

There’s no telling what might have happened if he hadn’t converted; we can only speculate that the Redskins might have gotten the ball back in excellent field position and may have even extended their lead. Instead, the 3rd-and-long conversion led the way to an 80-yard scoring drive and the first of 3 consecutive 70+-yard touchdown drives that swung the game in favor of the Buccaneers and buried the Redskins.

Yet Gruden wasn’t done teaching the Ol’ Ball Coach this particular lesson. The three touchdown drives were all ably aided by play-action fakes and roll-outs that seemed to leave Tampa’s receivers–particularly their tight ends–open in the flat with nobody near them. The misdirection plays had the Redskins’ defense completely turned around.

Steve Spurrier’s offensive philosophy is simple: “If they play real tight, throw it over their head. If they play way back, throw it short.” In other words, throw it where they ain’t. But this time, Jon Gruden was the one reminding him of that lesson. He attacked where the Redskins weren’t protecting, and it cost them.


“Thus, the potential of troops skilfully
commanded in battle may be compared to that
of round boulders which roll down from
mountain heights.”

Chang Yü wrote in his commentary on the above passage: “Li Ching said. . . ‘When one takes advantage of the enemy’s laxity, his weariness, his hunger and thirst, or strikes when his advanced camps are not settled, or his army is only half-way across a river, this is situation in respect to the enemy.’

“Therefore when using troops, one must take advantage of the situation exactly as if he were setting a ball in motion on a steep slope. The force applied is minute but the results are enormous.”

Thus it was that the Buccaneers regained control of the game. The play outlined above was the minute force that was applied, but the enormous–and devastating–results for the Redskins knocked them completely out of the game. The Redskins defense, once confusion set in, could do nothing to stop the onrushing Tampa team. Miscommunication compounded miscommunication until it seemed like the Bucs could move at will.

“It was just a downhill spiral,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. “Once it starts going downhill, it’s tough to stop.”

It can be hoped that the Redskins defense won’t allow that first round boulder to shift–so that they prevent the avalanche.

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

Sun Tzu Week 5: The Eagles Soar Higher

Good day, Shaolin Redskins fans. It is the quiet of the evening alongside the river here in my valley, and the stars are coming out. Our army–though valiant to the last–could not return to their homes victorious after this battle.

But from both victory and defeat, lessons can be learned. Let us see what lessons the Ol’ Ball Coach learned from Master Sun Tzu this week.


Sun Tzu said:

“Apprise war in terms of the five fundamental
factors . . . The first of these factors is moral
influence . . . By moral influence I mean 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.”

There appears to be a slight disconnect between some players and the coaches. Not that there is anything approaching ill will–nothing close to that–but there sometimes appears to be a conspicuous failure to be on the same page. The coaches coach hard and the players by all accounts perform beautifully in practice, but when the lights come on at game time, execution of fundamental plays suffers.

But we see glimpses of the possibility for greatness from time to time–individual plays that are things of beauty, or individual players being in exactly at the right place at the right time. They are *so close* they can almost taste it–it’s like when one is in an orchestra and one instrument is just *sli-i-ightly* sharp or flat. It throws the whole of the performance off, even though so much is working well. And the problem is that each time it seems to be a different instrument; but one gets the sense that once they can get rid of these mistakes and all get on the same key, the entire piece will be stunning.

On this team, it is up to the coaches–Steve Spurrier in particular–to keep working with all of the players to get them to come together. With some, gentle cajoling is probably all it takes; others will require a firmer hand. But it is my sincere belief that the Ol’ Ball Coach will be able to get them all on the same page.

Theirs is an exercise in finding true harmony; once it is found, they will be even stronger for having worked through the problem. As Chang Yu said in his commentary to the above passage: “The Book of Changes says: ‘In happiness at overcoming difficulties, people forget the danger of death.'”


Sun Tzu said:

“If the general is unable to control his
impatience and orders his troops to swarm
up the wall like ants, one-third of them
will be killed without taking the city.
Such is the calamity of these attacks.”

One thing that tempered the ability for the Redskins to claim a victory against the Eagles was the lack of balance in the first half. Knowing that the Eagles had the 31st-ranked team against the pass and the 1st against the run, and combining those facts with his well-established predilection for throwing the ball, it is no surprise that Spurrier and the Redskins came out throwing.

But Philadelphia was ready for that approach and used a strong attack at the line–both with linemen and blitzing linebackers–to disrupt the Redskins’ passing game. Unfortunately, the Redskins didn’t try to establish a running game to keep the blitzers from going after Ramsey. It was a bit of a relapse to the form that Spurrier showed last year when he threw at times in the face of logic. While it made sense on paper to do so against the Eagles’ defense, on the field the Redskins should have realized that their real success this season has come with a good mix of runs and passes, keeping the other team off balance.

While I applaud the desire and the plan to strike quickly and get a lead, when it didn’t come to pass, adjustments should have been made. Spurrier has learned a great deal in his short time in the NFL and has now been reminded that he can’t merely swarm the walls. Patience is, as always, the key to victory.

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