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State of the Coaching

Steve Spurrier came into the NFL last season wanting to see if his system would work in the NFL. After conquering the college ranks, it was time to see what he could do among the best of the best. With a team built for power running, he still managed a fairly respectable 7-9–not bad for a rookie NFL coach. After studying what did and didn’t work in the 2002 season, he went into the 2003 offseason with three definite goals in mind: to find players who more clearly match the wide-open system he wanted to install, to be more involved with all aspects of the team, and to instill some discipline and heads-up play in his team.

I was taught as an undergrad that when reviewing books, you have to judge the book as the author intended it–not as the book you *wish* he or she had written. Likewise, when grading the Ol’ Ball Coach, it’s important that we rate him on his own stated goals rather than wishing he were playing some other brand of football. He has stated repeatedly that he intends to be with the team at least three years, and “if after three years, this team is still struggling, we’re playing undisciplined and we can’t block very well or tackle very well, shoot, somebody else deserves to be the coach.” But the three-year plan he’s been operating under gives us a pretty clear basis for judging his progress this season: Last year was about evaluation. This year is about “coaching ’em up” and getting things rolling in the right direction, perhaps into the playoffs. Next year is about making the push for the big game.

Steve Spurrier is a coach who believes in delegating responsibility, so he can’t truly be evaluated on defense or special teams–those are areas over which he’s got general authority but for which the day-to-day coaching is provided by others. But the offense–now the offense is his baby. With all of this in mind, let’s see how he has done with his particular head-coach responsibilities now that we’re about halfway through year two of the plan.

Scheme

Having had a year to evaluate the Fun ‘n Gun last season, it appears that the main conclusion Spurrier reached when it wasn’t very successful is that he didn’t have the right personnel to run it. So this year he and the front office went out to find pro players more suited to the scheme–fast receivers, shifty running backs, and strong pass-protectors.

At the same time, he has also made minor adjustments in the scheme itself. In 2002, it seemed the running game was virtually anathema to Spurrier, but this year–especially earlier in the season–he committed early and often to the run, striking an offensive balance that helped both the passing and running attacks and produced the number one offense in the NFL for a time. In the last few weeks, the balance has been skewed once again as the pass seems to have become Spurrier’s safety valve when the team has fallen behind. But after talking up draws and short passes to running backs as being a staple of the revamped offense, there has been little evidence of such plays–which is a shame, as they may well be pretty successful given the backs on the roster.

But the scheme overall remains much the same as it was last year. The quarterback is encouraged–virtually required–to audible at the line of scrimmage in the hope of avoiding the negative play or exploiting a hole in the defense. He is also trained to look deep first and then to the middle before finally looking short–and the byproduct of that is that he hangs onto the ball longer than most (courage remaining the trait most valued by Spurrier) and forces the O-line to hold their blocks as long as possible. And Spurrier floods the field with potential receivers, which often leaves the line shorthanded against blitzing defenses and/or creates mismatches–one infamous example occurring of late when tight ends have been matched against defensive ends.

The Fun ‘n Gun requires a virtually impregnable pass-protection–without that, the whole system breaks down. And for various reasons (see the O-line report card for details), the pass-protection scheme hasn’t yet hit on all cylinders. Until it does, it’s hard to judge the entirety of the Fun ‘n Gun–as a scheme–being run by these more talented players. But, on the other hand, some of the problems stem from the nature of the scheme itself–which redounds to the coach. It’s his scheme, so he has to figure out how to make it work.

Grade: C

Overall Preparation

Coaching is an amalgam of many different roles–disciplinarian, mentor, father-figure, psychologist, tactician. But the role with which Steve Spurrier most closely identifies is probably that of teacher. He came into the NFL expecting–in vain, perhaps–a group of self-motivated men who had mastered the basics of the game and needed only to learn the intricacies of his particular offense and style of play in order to become successful.

Unfortunately for the Ol’ Ball Coach, discipline and motivation have taken up much larger chunks of his time than he’d like. But with regard to the overall ability to impart the Fun ‘n Gun offense, I believe he has done well. There can be no doubt that he pays closer attention to the quarterback position than any other head coach in the NFL–from details of posture and head position to the ability to read defenses, Spurrier constantly works with his signal-callers. Several offensive players have mentioned in the offseason and during the season the importance they have come to put on reviewing film and time in the classroom. The improvement in players entering their second year in the Fun ‘n Gun, such as Patrick Ramsey and Rod Gardner, and the success for those who have just been exposed for the first time, such as Laveranues Coles and Trung Canidate, is a testimony to Spurrier’s ability to impart his system to players.

Grade: B+

Game planning

Once the season has begun, the time for teaching the overall scheme is more or less over. Week-to-week life in the NFL is about evaluating the last week’s performance and planning for the upcoming opponent. Coaches study miles of film to learn the subtlest tendencies of their foe in order to exploit those inclinations during the sixty minutes of play between the whistles. Such familiarity is priceless–knowing how to attack an opposing offense or defense generally spells the difference between victory and defeat.

Or so it is with most teams. As far as I can tell, the Redskins this year haven’t indulged overmuch in the art of game planning. I’m sure they do–if they hadn’t at least a little, they probably couldn’t have won any games at all–but for teams whose weaknesses are recognized even by the general public, there’s been very little evidence of an intentional attack on those weaknesses. For instance, against the Jets there wasn’t much of a pass-rush mounted against the living statue, Vinny Testaverde. Nor did they truly attack the injury-plagued Patriots defense in week 4.

It’s almost as if the Redskins are afraid that their opponent has already game-planned the ‘Skins game planning. So they don’t attack the known weakness as if they fear that it has secretly been strengthened. Instead, the Redskins’ plan going into most games generally seems to revolve around waiting to see how the game unfolds and taking it from there–not an awful approach, by any means, but one that leaves some golden opportunities sitting out there unclaimed.

Grade: D

In-game coaching/adjustments

Right on the heels of the game-planning discussion above comes the question of in-game coaching and adjustments. The Redskins–and Coach Spurrier–have been inconsistent on that score to say the least. At the end of last season and in the early games of this, the Redskins had sort of developed a reputation for never truly being out of a fight–even when down by 17 or 18 points, they’d managed to make adjustments at the half that gave them the opportunity to roar back and tie–and sometimes win–the game.

But on other occasions, the team played brilliantly for the first half and then came out and got smacked around in the second. One might argue that the team shouldn’t make any changes if what they’d been doing had been working–the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation. But they *have* to be ready to adjust to their opponents’ adjustments, and that has been the death of the team a few times this season.

Grade: C-

Heart/motivation

As mentioned above, one of Steve Spurrier’s most significant lessons upon entering the NFL is the discovery that professional football players are *not* all self-motivated men who live and die by every win or loss the way he is and does himself. Perhaps it is merely the nature of the game–free agency and the era of the multimillion-dollar contract may have simply changed the character of the professional athlete. In many ways, I believe Spurrier would have been happier coaching when pro players had to hold down jobs in their home communities in the offseason–those men played for the pure love of the game.

This season has been marked by the same sort of inconsistency with regard to heart and motivation as has marked other areas of the team’s play. There can be no doubt that this is a team that has shown more grit and determination in two or three games than it seems it ever showed in seven years combined under Norv Turner. But at other times–notably in the second half of the Bucs’ game and the whole of the Bills’–the team seems to just want to lie down and die.

Spurrier’s approach seems to be to allow his players to be men and take responsibility for their own actions–and this works for many, especially the older veterans who have played under controlling martinets like Marty Schottenheimer. But other players–and sometimes the whole team–need external motivation, whether from pep talks or the threat of dire consequence for passive play. It is in this area that Spurrier might want to concentrate some effort, and happily it appears that he has recognized that during the off-week, when he was quoted as saying, “[A]s coaches, we need to get a little more fire and passion and be more demanding that our guys get the job done. I think players will respond to that, and we’ll see.”

Grade: C

Discipline

Ah, discipline–the Achilles’ heel of the team this year. It must be driving Spurrier insane. In the offseason he said, “We’re going to emphasize doing the little things correctly, like lining up onsides, taking care of the ball, learning how to run with it correctly.” He instituted a system of $10 fines for every jump off sides, every dropped pass, every false start. He brought in extra referees during practices. He preached the importance of disciplined play as often as possible. “We hope to be better organized,” Spurrier said. “We hope to be more fundamentally sound than last year.”

And then the season opened. And all that discipline seems to have flown out the window. Twelve penalties one week; seventeen the next. All told the team’s 72 penalties is on pace to break the NFL record. And that doesn’t even touch on the dropped passes and blown assignments that have held the team back.

Spurrier seems to be at a loss, though part of the blame must fall on him. He appears to be reluctant to light into his team, as if he doesn’t want to shake the kind of relationship he established with them when he first became coach–unfortunately, he hadn’t truly established himself as the sole and unquestioned (and unquestionable) leader when he arrived, so the team was never in fear of him. On the other hand, this goes back to his apparent feeling that players should be self-motivated and self-disciplined and he shouldn’t have needed to concern himself with such matters. But it’s all compounded by the fact that he has a tendency to threaten dire consequences immediately following a loss–fines, benched players, cuts, signing guys off the street–and then to backtrack after he cools down. I don’t think there’s a greater conspiracy afoot when he backs off of these extreme statements–some have argued that Snyder or Cerrato must be telling him he can’t make those moves–I think he’s just realizing that he has to play with the hand he was dealt. But this pattern has just reinforced the view that he’s not really holding the players accountable for their actions.

The Ol’ Ball Coach needs to get a little caustic and cutting from time to time–call out players directly for violations and get in their faces when they make mistakes. He was legendary at the University of Florida for dressing down his quarterbacks on the sidelines for the slightest error–even when they had scored a touchdown. This kind of attitude of uncompromising perfection needs to be brought to bear on all his players when they mess up.

Oddly enough, it strikes me that he was a little intimidated by the pro player or the pro game when he came to the NFL–it’s like he was told he can’t be too harsh with professional players or something bad might happen. But the time has come to cast those illusions aside and knock heads when it’s warranted. Until he does, undisciplined play is going to be the millstone around this team’s neck.

Grade: F

Overall, Spurrier’s second year in coaching seems so far to be going much the way of his first–last season he ended up 7-9, this season is right in the same pattern so far, with a 3-4 record. But he does have the pieces in place–especially in talent–to take this team where he wants to go. There are signs that he is starting to shake off the funk that seems to have settled on him the past few games. He’s declared his intention to reclaim his Fun ‘n Gun system and start airing it out–I suspect he’ll be wrapping in the lessons he’s learned about the need to protect Patrick Ramsey, so we’ll see something of a successful compromise between his Fun ‘n Gun and a more traditional NFL offense. More importantly than the scheme change is the attitude change–if Spurrier truly does regain the swagger that sets him apart from his coaching peers and imparts it to his players, I believe he and the team will start building momentum as the season wears on.

Though the overall grade so far isn’t good, I think better times are ahead for the Ol’ Ball Coach. He’s beginning a tough stretch, and it’ll take all his skills to coach his way through it. But if the team gets disciplined, their talent can take them a long way. That, combined with his inborn mastery of play calling, might yet mean the playoffs aren’t out of the picture. And if that momentum is rising at the end of the season–look out NFL, the Redskins are coming in 2004.

Overall grade: C-

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

Categories Posted In 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:

OUT IN SPACE

Sun Tzu said:

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

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.

MOMENTUM

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

Chang YĆ¼ 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.

SEEKING HARMONY

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.'”

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE

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

Sun Tzu Week 4: A Strong Defense

Greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans! On my little mountainside farm, the breeze is blowing cooler though the sun’s rays remain warm. Soon the leaves will begin to change. Our burgundy and gold army was once again victorious in a close-fought battle–and some unexpected approaches by the Ol’ Ball Coach are what allowed us to take the day.

Let us see what new lessons from Master Sun Tzu he took to heart this week:

WHAT’S THIS??

Sun Tzu said:

“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who
is not, will be victorious.”

Who’d-a thunk it? Steve Spurrier showed he’s learned another lesson about being an NFL coach–and it’s a most unexpected development: he coached a conservative brand of football. More specifically, he relied on defense–and the ground game–to bring him the victory. It was a game that might’ve brought tears to Marty Schottenheimer’s eyes. The Fun ‘n Gun was outgained 387 to 250 yards, and the field general behind the NFL’s top offense, Patrick Ramsey, went only 10 of 22 for 134 yards. This is Steve Spurrier, architect of the unstoppable air game? Steve Spurrier has never coached an NFL game–or perhaps any game–with so few pass attempts.

His approach was one of prudence, as Master Sun Tzu indicated; Spurrier decided the best thing to do was to wait to see exactly what exactly defensive master Bill Belichick would give him. When the Patriot’s coach crafted a plan that relied on subduing the passing game–he smothered the Redskins’ ace receiver Laveranues Coles and kept the pressure on Ramsey–Spurrier made sure Ramsey didn’t turn the ball over, and he gave the rock to his running backs. That passing stat, 22 attempts, was *less* than the number of rushing attempts–29. One scoring drive in the third quarter went without a single passing *attempt.* “It seems like when we run more and pass less, we win the game,” the coach said Monday. “Obviously, that’s what we were trying to do.” And he was content to use all that rushing to help preserve the lead, rather than trying to run up the score with spectacular–but dangerous–passing plays.

But we mustn’t ignore the other half of Master Sun Tzu’s equation: lying in wait for an imprudent enemy was George Edwards’ defense. They showed some ball-hawking of which we haven’t seen much. Three interceptions came from the defensive secondary, including a pretty spectacular catch by Champ Bailey (who has a broken wrist). Bailey also forced a fumble and, while he danced in celebration, Matt Bowen scooped the ball and just barely missed getting into the endzone. So, too, did the defense step up: when the Patriot’s got the ball on the Redskins 45 with 1:39 left in the game, a nice play on the ball by Ifeanyi Ohalete prevented them for converting on 4th down–a strong defensive effort to save the game.

It just goes to show that Spurrier will surprise people by concentrating on the one thing that is most important in NFL football: being victorious.

NICE TRY

Sun Tzu said:

“Do not gobble proffered baits.”

In the opening drive of the second half, the Patriots tried some trickery. On 3rd and four on their own 26-yard line, the center snapped the ball into a shotgun formation–not to QB Tom Brady, but directly to RB Kevin Faulk. Despite Brady’s attempt to sell the pass, Champ Bailey sniffed out the play immediately and knifed through the line to tackle Faulk for a five-yard loss. Bailey forced the fumble and, as mentioned above, he fiddled a bit while Bowen burned–burned the Patriots by planting the ball on the 6-inch line and setting up an easy Redskins touchdown.

But that little bit of humor doesn’t take away from the fact that Bailey wasn’t fooled for an instant–he didn’t gobble the proffered bait of Brady’s “pass.” He made a big defensive play that knocked the Patriots back on their heels.

READ AND REACT

Sun Tzu said:

“These are the strategist’s keys to victory. It is not
possible to discuss them beforehand.”

And:

“Determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which
strategy will be successful and which will not.”

One of the great pleasures of this season has been watching Steve Spurrier, OC Hue Jackson, and DC George Edwards’ approach to the game. Many NFL coaches have the first ten or fifteen plays scripted out beforehand and will go with that first set no matter how successful (or not) they are. Not so Steve Spurrier and the Fun ‘n Gun, nor the defense of George Edwards. They’re much more interested in seeing what the opponent does and in adjusting to that, so that the plays they call have a better chance of succeeding. It is of course a hallmark of the Fun ‘n Gun that the quarterback is expected to audible into a better play once he gets a chance to look over the defense.

But on a broader philosophical level, Spurrier does that as well–he will test an opponents’ plan as far as coverage or pass rush goes and then make adjustments to attack their weaknesses. We haven’t seen the kind of half-time adjustments that Spurrier and Edwards makes since the days of Joe Gibbs, and that ability to read the opponent makes the Redskins all the more dangerous. If one thing doesn’t work, they’ll try another and another until weakness is exposed.

Mei Yao-ch’en, in his commentary on the first quote above, said, “When confronted by the enemy, respond to changing circumstances and devise expedients. How can these be discussed beforehand?” That’s exactly right. Steve Spurrier said, before matching wits with defensive guru Bill Belichick, “Sometimes as an offensive coach, you just have to go to the ballpark, try to figure out what the other guys are trying to do and go from there.”

And it worked against the Patriots: “[Belichick] gave us the run,” receiver Laveranues Coles said. “Coach Spurrier was taking advantage of whatever the he gave us, and that’s what we’re about. Matching wits with a guy like that, Coach did that and came out on top.”

So far, so good.

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 3: Close to Giant

Ah, Shaolin Redskins fans–we came close this week to eking out another come-from-behind victory; alas, it was not meant to be. But I was seated high on my mountainside and watched the battle unfold below me, and I could see that the Ol’ Ball Coach learned more from Master Sun Tzu.

Let us examine how:

FLYING LAUNDRY

Sun Tzu said:

“When his flags and banners move about constantly
he is in disarray.”

And:

“Now gongs and drums, banners and flags are used
to focus the attention of the troops. When the
troops can be thus united, the brave cannot
advance alone, nor can the cowardly withdraw.
This is the art of employing a host.”

Much ink has already been spilled in the media about the team record-tying *seventeen* penalties incurred by the Redskins in this week’s competition. The only other game the Redskins were flagged as many times was played in 1948–that’s FIFTY-FIVE years ago.

But what do those flags signify? To me, it primarily stems from one thing–this team is still young and is seeking it’s identity. They haven’t played much together, so players are thinking about their individual assignments rather than their unit-oriented jobs. I believe that they’ll straighten this out. So yes, the team is in disarray–but this is a temporary condition.

Instead of dwelling on the mistakes as such, I think the players and coaching staff can use these flags as an opportunity much as Master Sun Tzu has stated–to focus the attention of the troops. The team has not been notably disciplined in its play so far this season or in the whole of last season. It is a matter that has been addressed proactively by the coaching staff in the off-season. The victorious nature of the first two games of the season covered the sins that were committed (18 penalties in the two games combined); however, now that the penalties have led directly to a loss, the players will–MUST–begin to believe that only through discipline can victory be assured. This Giants team did not beat these Redskins–the Redskins beat themselves through penalties. They can compete with any team in the NFL if they straighten up.

And once they unify–both through the gradual process of playing together and the intentional process of addressing these discipline issues–the brave will advance together. No cowards will be seen. The host will be victorious.

YOUNG WARRIOR

Sun Tzu said:

“[A]t first be shy as a maiden. When the enemy
gives you an opening be swift as a hare and he
will be unable to withstand you.”

While few professional football players would ever want to be described as “shy as a maiden,” it is perhaps a fitting if poetical way of describing the play of our offense under young quarterback Patrick Ramsey. He has now started eight NFL games. Of those eight games, fully half–against New Orleans and Philadelphia in 2002 and Atlanta and New York this year–have seen Ramsey and the Redskins battle back from at least 17-point margins.

He only won two of those games, but in a third–against the Giants–he managed to tie the game. The team is coming to realize that with Ramsey at the helm, they are never truly out of a game, and that’s a powerful weapon for a young team. In week two, his ability to step it up after being down by 17 assured us a victory. In the Giants game, only the flip of the overtime coin gave the enemy a shot at beating the Redskins–there is little doubt that, if the coin had landed on the other side, that Patrick Ramsey would have marched the offense down the field for a game-winning score.

It is remarkable to see his growth before our eyes. Again, Ramsey has started EIGHT games, and had significant time in all of two others. But he plays with a poise of a seven-year veteran. He’s got a rifle for an arm and a truly sharp mind. After his maiden-like start to the Giants game (5 of 15 in the first half for 80 yards and no TDs) he needed only shrug it off: “Early, it’s going to be an adjustment. If they come out doing a lot of the same things, then it makes it a little easier. But they didn’t today. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get going early.” Hidden is the unspoken statement that the young quarterback (and his coach) *was* able to make those adjustments and to get going later–in the second half, Ramsey went 18 of 30 for 268 yards and two TDs. This ability to pick up his game gives his team hope at all times, and that is a commodity for which–and with which–teams will fight their way to victory.

He is able to start recognize the opening his enemy gives him, and he then moves swift as a hare–and they are, simply, unable to withstand 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 2: Fluttering Falcons

FLUTTERING FALCONS

Good day, Shaolin Redskins fans! It is a glorious day indeed–our troops return victorious from the field after a close-fought battle. The sun has been shining in these cooling days, as it has shone on our army.

The Ol’ Ball Coach continues to show that he has taken to heart a number of Master Sun Tzu’s lessons. Let us see how he has done so this week:

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

Sun Tzu said:

“Now an army may be likened to water, for
just as flowing water avoids the heights
and hastens to the lowlands, so an army
avoids strength and strikes weakness.”

Against Atlanta, we saw the team get knocked back on its heels in the first quarter, falling to a 17-0 deficit. But they were unwilling to give up, fighting and clawing their way to a 33-31 victory. Yet it is *how* they went about that fighting and clawing that is so instructive.

Early in the game, the Falcons were using their 3-4 defense (and the crowd noise) to great effect, overwhelming the offensive line and running backs with blitzes and sacking Ramsey four times in the first half alone. But adjustments were made–seemingly an art lost with Joe Gibbs–and that bought the Redskins the time and means to mount their comeback. Spurrier started calling for short slants and three-step drops to keep the Falcons’ defense at home. And it worked, so that the Redskins could mix those short throws with runs and the occasional bomb, seizing the momentum again, knocking the crowd out of the equation, and generating scoring drives that eventually put the Falcons down and out for the count.

The Redskins avoided the strengths of the Falcons’ defense–their successful blitz packages, for example–and attacked its weaknesses, such as the exposed secondary. The result was, as Master Sun Tzu predicted, victory.

QUICK STRIKE

Sun Tzu said:

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

With 0:19 left in the third quarter and the Falcons pinned back against their endzone by a fine Redskins special teams play, Atlanta QB Doug Johnson took the snap and dropped back into the end zone, beginning a play-action fake to dump the ball off to tailback Warrick Dunn. Redskins linebacker Jessie Armstead had seen that play in the first half and had covered Dunn, knocking down the pass. But he made a mental note to himself to keep an eye out for the same play–because it had presented an opportunity.

This time, with less than a minute left in the third quarter and a 24-24 tie on the scoreboard, Armstead watched the play unfold and instead of covering Dunn again, he knifed through a gap in the line and crushed the unprotected Falcons quarterback for a safety. And those two points were critical as they provided the margin of victory for the game.

This is the second week in which the Redskins linebacking corps has shown the instinctive play that has set this season apart already for them. Last week it was Jeremiah Trotter bursting through the line to drop LaMont Jordan for a critical 4-yard loss. Instead of adhering to Marvin Lewis’ rigid defensive scheme, the linebackers are permitted by new DC George Edwards to play with more freedom. And with that freedom comes more opportunity for all three linebackers to wreak havoc as the center of the defense. Timing, instinct–and the breaking of the body of their prey.

LAVAR-SAN

Speaking of instinctive linebacking, our cousin across the sea in Japan, Miyamoto Musashi, has these words of instruction for our samurai linebacker, LaVar Arrington. From the Book of Five Rings:

“Or, if the enemy attacks calmly, you must
observe his movement and, with your body
rather floating, join in with his movements
as he draws near. Move quickly and cut him
strongly.”

Twice within three minutes of each other in the fourth quarter, LaVar managed to bat down passes near the line of scrimmage, showing how he watches the play develop and–with his body rather floating–spikes the play in question. The same thing happened last week against the Jets–LaVar making a play on the ball like a cornerback. There is simply no question that LaVar-san moves quickly and cuts his enemy strongly.

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 1: Flying High

Greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans! It has been many months since last we spoke, but now the campaign season is upon us and our army in burgundy and gold has been well-rested and -trained. I hope the quiet months have treated you well; I am glad you have come back–or if you are new to our village, it is good to have you here among us. I myself have been busy in my mountain retreat, working my garden and lengthening the stone wall–ah, but you aren’t here to listen to the prattling of an old man.

You want to know if Qiu Lei Yun Dong Jiao Lian–the Ol’ Ball Coach–learned anything from his experiences last season. If the battle last Thursday is any indication, he has taken Master Sun Tzu’s lessons to heart.

THE OFFSEASON

Sun Tzu said:

“It is a doctrine of war not to assume the enemy will not
come, but rather to rely on one’s readiness to meet him;
not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to
make one’s self invincible.”

The 2003 offseason was dedicated to preparation: Steve Spurrier wanted to be able to rely on the Redskins’ own readiness to meet the enemy, and to make sure that they were indeec themselves invincible. The 2002 season was useful in to primary ways–it helped the Ball Coach to figure out how best to run his system in the NFL, and he had sixteen games in which to evaluate the players he had. That way, he could go into the offseason with a particular plan of attack in mind for improving the team.

So as soon as the offseason began, Spurrier and the FO started making determinations about who to keep and what kind of players they needed to acquire. Two characteristics stand out: 1.) speed, speed, and more speed, on both sides of the ball. 2.) Hard-working lunch-pail types, guys who are willing to do what they need to for the good of the team without worrying about individual accolades. And no player better embodied both than Laveranues Coles, who has unreal speed that is perhaps only matched by his off-the-field preparation.

With a team like this, Spurrier won’t have to hope the enemy won’t show up that day–he can be confident in going out positively with victory on his mind.

LANDING THE JETS

Sun Tzu said:

“Having paid heed to the advantages of my plans, the
general must create situation which will contribute to
their accomplishment. By ‘situations’ I mean that he
should act expediently in accordance with what is
advantageous and so control the balance.”

The Ball Coach startled his critics this week with a 34/23 rush-pass ratio. Wait–this is Steve Spurrier, author of the Fun ‘n Gun aerial assault. In the first half, Patrick Ramsey could do virtually no wrong in the air, completing 12 of 13 pass attempts.

But the story behind the stats is the interesting thing. The ground game was used both to set up the pass and to relieve the pressure on Ramsey in the second half when an INT and a fumble rattled the young QB. Spurrier has made some revisions of his Fun ‘n Gun–it has, in effect, grown up a bit so it can go against legitimate NFL opponents. The early returns show a system that is much more balanced in execution, and perhaps even more importantly, Spurrier is showing a willingness to be flexible in his play-calling. He’s going with what works, instead of insisting on going bombs away no matter what the conditions are on the field. He’s even relying on his defense to protect a lead.

He critically examined the advantages of the Fun ‘n Gun and is now working on creating situations which will contribute to their accomplishment–he’s paying attention to what works, and what works right now (and worked against the Jets) is balance.

(And now, a bonus from our cousin in Japan, Miyamoto Musashi:)

SAMURAI LINEBACKER

Miyamoto Musashi said in the Fire Book, heeded by Arrington-san:

“Advance with as strong a spirit as possible, and when you
reach the enemy move with your feet a little quicker than
normal, unsettling him and overwhelming him sharply.”

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: The Expected Eagle Strike

Good day, Shaolin Redskins fans. It is a crisp dawn here outside my little hut, but the fish are biting in the deep pools edged with ice. It has been some days since our army returned from battle; the loss was perhaps anticipated, but there is excitement nonetheless at the skills and leadership exhibited by our new, young field commander.

This week, the Ol’ Ball Coach has found himself both tutor and tutored in the ways of Master Sun Tzu. Let us examine some of the lessons:

YOUNG ARM

Sun Tzu said:

“There are five methods of attacking with fire. The first is to
burn personnel; the second, to burn stores; the third, to burn
equipment; the fourth, to burn arsenals; and the fifth, to use
incendiary missiles.”

The fifth method of attacking with fire is the one that has so many Redskins-watchers–both on the field and in the stands–abuzz this week. Against the Eagles’ talented secondary, rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey showed off the arm strength for which he is known–zipping passes through the eye of a needle in a manner that neither of the other QBs on the roster could hope to match.

In one particular play, Ramsey threw an absolute bullet past three Philadelphia defenders in the endzone, j-u-u-s-t past the fingertips of one of them, for a touchdown. And he showed a nice touch on a deep lob, hitting Rod Gardner in stride down the left sideline for another TD–a great sign of his ongoing improvement, as he had missed a throw like that out of bounds just a week before.

But his frozen ropes–they are incendiary missiles indeed!

THE SEASON OF GIVING

Sun Tzu said:

“Should one ask: ‘How do I cope with a well-ordered enemy host
about to attack me?’ I reply: ‘Seize something he cherishes and
he will conform to your desires.'”

Alas, this lesson is one taught to the Redskins by many teams this year, including the Eagles. How have teams coped with the Redskins’ attack? So often, they seize the object we most cherish–the ball–and we are forced to conform to their desire for victory.

In short, we’ve turned the ball over way too much. There is a clear pattern: in every game that we’ve lost the TO battle, we’ve lost the game, and in all but one game where we’ve been even or won the TO battle, we’ve won the game. It is the best predictor of our success, and a brutally obvious category for improvement in the offseason. Luckily, Spurrier-coached teams have generally been heads-up about these matters, so we can expect some changes on this front.

COMEBACK

Sun Tzu said:

“Do not press an enemy at bay.”

As commentator Tu Yu relayed: “Prince Fu Ch’ai said: ‘Wild beasts, when at bay, fight desperately. How much more is this true of men! If they know there is no alternative they will fight to the death.'”

This mistake almost led to a comeback for the Redskins in Philadelphia. The Eagles were up 31-7 at the end of the third quarter, and the Redskins were pressed back into the corner. And for perhaps the first time this season, they came out fighting in the fourth quarter, twice marching down the field for touchdowns while holding the Eagles to only one field goal. One gets the feeling that if the game were only a little longer, perhaps some real magic might have happened.

Steve Spurrier must have been pleased at the fight exhibited by his young players–it is a good sign for the seasons 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 14: A Giant Step Back, a Giant Step Forward

Greetings, Shaolin Redskins fans. Our army returns again to our little valley with heads down, swords dragging in the dust. They know that they can only now fight to salvage some personal pride and to cause problems for other contenders.

But at the same time, the Ol’ Ball Coach has spent the past few weeks getting back in touch with his “inner Sun Tzu,” reminding himself of the style of play and type of team that has gotten him where he is. Let us see what he has heard from the master of late:

A TRUE HEAD COACH

Sun Tzu said:

“Now the general is the protector of the state. If this
protection is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if
defective, the state will certainly be weak.”

It is the role of the general-in-chief, argues Sun Tzu, to protect and defend the state. He must concern himself with all aspects of offense and defense and not let any detail escape his notice. If he focuses on all these matters, he will succeed and the state will be strong; if he pays attention only to a certain subset of matters or fails to effectively meet his responsibilities in any area, he will fail and the state will be weak.

So too with the professional football head coach. And indications are growing that Spurrier is stepping up his overall control of the team. When defensive coordinator (and assistant head coach) Marvin Lewis was dancing with Michigan State this week, Spurrier didn’t seem too broken up at the notion of his possible departure. Said Spurrier: “We’re prepared to carry on if that would happen, sure.” He also indicated on his radio show that he’s planning on taking a much more active role next year in defense and special teams as well as offense–from personnel moves to actually working with the team through the year.

These are good developments. If Spurrier’s sphere of influence truly becomes all-embracing, the state of the Redskins team is sure to strengthen.

RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS

Sun Tzu said:

“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will
never be in peril.”

and

“When campaigning, be swift as the wind; in leisurely march,
majestic as the forest; in raiding and plundering, like fire; in
standing, firm as the mountains. As unfathomable as the clouds,
move like a thunderbolt.”

As has been observed in this column of late, Spurrier is returning to the form of coaching that has garnered him such success in the past. It is critical that he know–and trust–himself as he makes decisions, whether they be game-day decisions or personnel decisions in the offseason.

His style of play is well described by the second quote above, something he should return to again and again: Speed is at the heart of the program–whether it’s footspeed or brain speed. But the right balance looseness and order is a part of it, too. A strong defense is critical. And out of the unfathomable reaches of his offensive mind, strike swiftly in unexpected ways.

Every professional must find that center that reminds them of why they do what they do, and for Steve Spurrier, it is of paramount importance that he not lose sight of that. From such a wellspring flows victory.

A NEW DAWN

Sun Tzu said:

“During the early morning spirits are keen, during the day they
flag, and in the evening thoughts turn toward home. And
therefore those skilled in war avoid the enemy when his spirit is
keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers
homesick. This is control of the moral factor.”

The sun set on the team this year for all intents and purposes with the defeat against the Giants. The thoughts of some veterans turned toward home–the offseason, avoiding injury, etc. But with the introduction of younger players onto the field of play, a new spirit sparked through the team–this is not something that Spurrier would miss. Indeed, rookie QB Patrick Ramsey almost single-handedly brought the team back from defeat. A new spark of youthful energy is being felt throughout the organization.

Spurrier is now in the midst of evaluating his current personnel as to whether they fit into his style of offense–not just the actual route-running but the *type* of player (attitude, work ethic, and more) that best fits his team. Young guys–like Darnerian McCants, Ladell Betts, and Carl Powell–are playing to see if they have the right make-up to stay with the team next year.

This keen, early-morning spirit might yet surprise some people *this* year–particularly the crusty veterans who don’t want to try a new way. Their time is perhaps short–but it is the youth, and youthful-hearted, who will see the sun rise on the B&G 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