How an Army Strategist Thinks About Football
Daniel Sukman, an U.S. Army strategist. These views do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
As we pass September and enter the height of hurricane season on the East Coast, I am thankful that on Sunday nights, after my kids have been put to bed, I can focus whatever attention I may have left to the Sunday night football game. As a strategist, my interest lies less in the teams playing the game, and even less on possible gambling results. Perhaps it is too tactical, but I do not participate in Fan Duel or Draft Kings, although I do hope they merge so I can see another commercial. Having reached my football-playing zenith at the young age of 17, I watch to observe how the roots of the great military thinkers play out on the screen in front of me. Watching football reminds me of the greats, from Clausewitz and Douhet to Warden and Boyd. It’s all there. Let me explain.
No discussion of strategy is possible without starting with Carl Von Clausewitz. In his seminal work On War, he compared war to a wrestling contest where two opponents grappled and maneuvered to get the other to submit. Clausewitz would have made the football analogy in lieu of wrestling had he been a 21st Century American, and not a 19th Century Prussian.
Clausewitz defined war and broke it down into its sub-units for the great captains of history. A top point of his book is the thoughts on fog, friction, and chance. Fog is the uncertainty in war, friction is the countless minor incidents that make the simple very difficult, and chance is the unpredictable circumstances that consistently occur in war. This concept easily translates to the gridiron. I see chance in who is sitting on the injured reserve list. Each game, indeed each play has the potential to eliminate the essential players of a team.
In an instance, a team’s Center of Gravity can be lost. Witness the loss of Dez Bryant and Tony Romo in the current season or the loss of Tom Brady in 2008. No team is above chance. I see friction occur on each play. I see friction in the communications difficulties when Buffalo traveled to New England. I see friction when a referee makes the wrong call. And I see friction when a 70-yard scoring play gets called back due to a holding penalty on the opposite side of the field, completely unrelated to the play.
Observations of uncertainty occur when a team comes out onto the field in unusual formations. A head coach may watch all the game film he wants, but there is another head coach on the other sideline developing a strategy of his own. Perhaps it’s a trick play, or the exposure of a weakness on a team that never knew existed. Football is indeed a dual between two opposing, living and thinking forces.
Admiral J.C. Wylie, in his book Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control formulated a theory that the purpose of strategy was the establish some form of control over an adversary. Control over an opposing football team can be established through time of possession. The ability to put points on the board is paramount, but no more that the ability to keep your opponent off. Although not the definitive indicator of victory in a football game, keeping an opponent’s offence off the field certainly increases your odds of success. Indeed, the strategy of control is not just the ability to control an aspect of war, but to deny control from the enemy.
Guilio Douhet advanced a theory of airpower that postulated the ability to gain command of the air would allow a force to break an adversary’s will through the destruction of strategic vital centers. Indeed, Douhet believed airpower, unconstrained by geography, provided the opportunity for decisive offensive operations that technology had denied to ground forces. Applied to the contemporary football field, numerous offensive systems have developed over the years that rely on the passing game. From Jerry Glanville’s “Run and Shoot” offense run by the Houston Oilers, the 2007 New England Patriots, and the Philadelphia Eagles of today. The fundamental flaw behind a reliance on air power, and air power alone is that war is ultimately won or lost on the ground. Douhet may have been appalled by the barbarity of trench warfare, but to state the obvious, people live on land, and the ability to control, or deny control to an adversary is done on the ground. He who controls the ground controls the message. The Israeli Air Force may have struck every target on the Hezbollah target list, but Hezbollah’s control of the Lebanese terrain, and subsequent messaging won the war in 2006. Similarly, it is teams that run a balanced attack, the ability to both run and pass the pigskin when and where they choose that wins the football game. Frank Reich led his team to a comeback due to the inability of the Oiler’s to control the ground game and run the clock in the second half.
The fighter pilot John Boyd is often referred to as the greatest military strategist of the latter half of the 20th Century. Quite an accomplishment for a fighter pilot. Boyd, in his briefings developed the concept of the OODA Loop. OODA, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, is a method to get within an adversary decision cycle. The ability to paralyze an opponent’s decision-making can lead to rapid success, both in the air to air combat, and on the gridiron. Witness how Chip Kelly revolutionized the college game with his Blur Offense at Oregon. Rapid offensive movement denied the ability of opposing defenses to observe the offence and decide how they would defend. The recent ending to Super Bowl 49 serves as another example. Coach Belichick made his decision on the defense, refused to worry about the time remaining, subsequently putting all the pressure on Pete Carroll. The result was a pass 1-yard from the end-zone with the league’s best running back watching the interception. The ability to get in an adversary OODA Loop is a decisive point where one force starts winning, and the other starts loosing.
No war is won without proper net assessment. Any strategist worth their weight on a staff understands the need to understand the nature of the war being waged. Arguably, one of the major failures of Vietnam was the failure of the military to understand the type of war we were fighting. In football, half time adjustments can make a break a team’s ability to win. These adjustments may be necessary when the initial game plan fails to provide results. Indeed, proper half-time adjustments relate to the after action report at the tactical level, to a complete change of strategy at the strategic level of warfare.
The past decade and a half of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan gave rise to the “Coindanistas.” Those that believe and advocate for greater counter insurgency training and capability development in the force. The application of COIN theory directly relates to football in how the will and support of the local population is paramount to success. At the tactical level of football, nothing can intimidate or disrupt an opposing team then the level of interaction and noise from the crowd. Seattle’s “12th Man” is a critical aspect of their homefield advantage. Further, at the strategic level of football, support of the local population is paramount to the financial stability of a franchise. The more in ticket sales and television contracts, the greater the revenue, enhancing a team’s ability to acquire the best talent.
Similar to planning, football occurs on three levels. The tactical, operational, and strategic. The tactical level of football is the game between the sidelines. The actions of the players on the field, executing the called plays constitute the tactical aspect, in the same manner that soldiers on the ground execute their battle drills. Further, at the tactical level, training and preparation before execution is paramount to success.
The operational level of football lies with the coaching staff. Developing schemes over the three lines of effort (offense, defense, and special teams) is the responsibility of a host of coaches. Further, the coaching staff is responsible for organizing the team on the battlefield, finding opportunities to exploit opposing team’s weaknesses. This is similar to the operational art. The ability to arrange forces on the battlefield, conduct proper Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in terms of scouting an opposing team are essential elements in the lead up to the weekly game.
Owners and general managers constitute the strategic level of football. Indeed, it is the owners who are responsible at the institutional level to man and equip a team. The owner’s equivalent is the services, who hold Title 10 authority to man, equip, and train the force for employment by Combatant Commanders. General Managers, at the strategic level manage the resources or budget provided by the owner to assemble the best force they can. Moreover owners and general managers are responsible for developing the acquisition requirements for their respective teams.
To be clear, this is an essay on strategy and football, not war and football. Football has rules and fixed parameters, so where the aspect of competition between human beings is the same, life and death does not hang in the balance. Unlike war, each opposing force in football follows the rules of the game. Each team gets 11 players on the field. Touchdowns, field goals, and safeties are worth the same for each team. Moreover, a competitive atmosphere supported by the salary cap ensure continued interest in the game. Military strategists seek overwhelming advantages. Fair fights are not desirable in warfare. Each team gets the same number of time outs and challenges to start every game. Further, unlike warfare, everyone goes home. It’s a game, and at the highest levels a business, but it is not warfare.