On Football: Overcoming Generational Genius

Following defeats at the hands of Napoleon in the War of the First Coalition from 1792-1795 and the War of the Fourth Coalition from 1806-1807, Prussia found itself in an intractable situation. No one in the Prussian military could match the brilliance of France’s emperor/commanding general, or the organization of La Grande Armée.

Much like the Prussians of the early 19th century, NFL teams of today find themselves in a quandary. How can organizations compete with Bill Belichick if they do not possess his natural ability to create new plays, synthesize information, adapt to new opponents, or instill a winning culture? Additionally, why have the assistant coaches who have left New England been relatively unsuccessful in implementing Belichick’s system?

It very well may be that Belichick, like Napoleon before him, is a generational commander within his battle space. Or, it could be that the Patriots have assembled a staff sufficient to empower him to perform as he has.

If Sean McVay does pan out to be the next best thing in the NFL, what is a team to do in response? The same challenges exist at the college level, where a small cadre of coaches hold sway over recruits because of previous success, which breeds more success, and thus better recruits. If Dabo Swinney takes the mantle from Nick Saban and dominates the college ranks for the next two decades, there must be a way to overcome his recruiting and culture advantages. It is simply not possible for multiple teams to have the best coach within their respective level — professional or college — and thus we must change how we fight.

We must fight as the Prussians did: with a complete and total reformation of our entire organization from top to bottom.

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Football has long been compared to warfare, from its violent nature on through the emphasis on strategy and tactics. Head Coaches and General Managers, more now than at any other point in the history of football, have a staggering amount of information at their fingertips. Front offices keep track of every facet of the game, direct the training of players and staff, and in most organizations, have a large amount of say during the draft and free agency — it’s a job full of descriptions.

Clearly delineated parts of game preparation have existed for decades, but, much like warfare, football is evolving within its own technological landscape. Today we have radio identification tags that track players on every play, down to the closest tenth of a second. We have years of play-by-play data, both college and professional. The amount of information available to coaching staffs can be overwhelming.

Similarly, as armies grew in size during the early 1800s, military leaders at the highest level were challenged with keeping track of an increasingly complex landscape of information. Until the 19th century, generals often wielded sole executive power over their formations, sending out orders to their subordinates via aides.

But that would change as Napoleon ravaged his way across Europe.

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We have met the enemy, and he is our own limitations

The Prussian General Staff was the first of its kind among Western militaries. The miraculous transformation of Prussia’s forces during this time is so special because, unlike most military innovations, it required absolutely no technological solution. Prior to its creation, the size of a field army was restricted by the abilities of a commander and the skills of their subordinate officers of which there were very few. In fact, the majority of commanders held the responsibility of planning, training, and executing a battle plan almost entirely themselves, having very small staffs focused mostly on relaying messages rather than developing plans and providing general access to their intellectual power.

Today, coaches are asked to make decisions in an increasingly complex environment by drawing on some form of data in a multitude of situations: deciding run versus pass based on the opposition, making formational choices due to opponent tendencies, choosing to go for it on fourth down, etc. Research is accompanied by an unending swarm of discoveries that must factor into a team’s decision making.

It is highly unlikely that one person — or even a small group of people — can keep up with all of the information bombarding them throughout a game, let alone apply contemporary football research findings under the stress of game-time decision making. Decision making under cognitive load is a well-researched area that we can apply to coaching in the modern NFL. People, when put under a sufficient amount of stress, make suboptimal decisions even when they are fully aware of the right information and choices.

What is the likelihood that you, our hypothetical NFL owner, are going to pick the right coaching candidate who can train effectively, manage assets correctly, and handle decision-making under a heavy load? Add to this the fact that some coaches nowadays also have a share of — if not complete — General Manager duties.

While you may believe that your judgment is better than average, it likely isn’t.

People, when put under a sufficient amount of stress, make suboptimal decisions even when they are fully aware of the right information and choices.

Instead of hiring the next Napoleon, Walsh, or Belichick you’re much more apt to stumble your way forward with the next Lieutenant General Brudenell. Visualize your team charging haplessly into the open, memorialized by Tennyson ever after.

 

“Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.”

 

Some will advocate for finding a coach who can do everything the greatest coaches can. The same goes for GM’s. If it were possible to simply divine out the next Hall of Fame level coach able to go toe to toe with Belichick consistently, such a being would have been found by now. In his biography The Score takes Care of Itself, Bill Walsh discusses the immense personal toll he paid for his singular, obsessive level of focus on coaching. To replicate that level of effort, expertise, and innovation in one person is a fool’s errand.  There is nothing to suggest such a selection is possible beyond the previously used system employed by many: luck and timing. (Of course, timing may well be just an extension of luck.) Prussia could not conjure an equal to Napoleon and they could not simply outwork him. They had to present a system so robust that it leveled the playing field against a true savant.

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To propose only challenges, to highlight only the well-entrenched adversary before us is the work of cynics, cowards, and sycophants. This piece exists for solutions; to lay out a plan to beat Bill Belichick or any like him in the future; to contend with the genius of any era. It is not possible for every organization to have access to the greatest coach of all time.

But we can create the greatest organization of all time.

The General Staff

Key to the success of the Prussian General Staff after its formation were both the reduction of officer appointments by means of nepotism, and granting semi-autonomy to commanders of lower level units. Let us address the first point initially, as it enables the second.

Nepotism among NFL coaches and management hires is a well-documented problem. In recent news, pundits and NFL analysts have bemoaned the lack of diversity in NFL head coaching hires. These problems are interrelated. Much like the German Army, the NFL cannot solve its problem of patronage overnight, nor is it true that those selected in part because of their familial ties are unqualified. On the contrary, exactly like their military counterparts, coaches of today work exceptionally hard.

The problem does not lie in a lack of effort so much as the concentration of absolute authority into the hands of people who may not be the best at their respective professions. To put it another way: are these decision-makers supported sufficiently to exploit all the information at their disposal? Rather than remove these professionals, which may be impossible due to various reasons, it should be the goal of ownership and executive groups to supplement their operational leadership with a quality staff; a staff sturdy enough to make up for any apparent shortcomings and to reduce the overall workload of the coach to keenly focus their mind on game day decisions.

There are no financial limits in place that would curtail an expansive football staff, nor limit the income of those hired. So, unlike players, an ambitious owner has very little in their way of assembling a large cohort of talented individuals. However, this cannot happen without complete buy-in from the highest levels. There must exist sufficient political will in the mind of the ownership to coerce the organization into a model that can and will succeed, not simply one that follows its own traditional model.

In most armies, the commanding general leads the training, deployment, and movement of formations directly, with little support from subordinates. This is similar to certain football staffs, in that the head coach may supply the vision of the organization while also calling plays and conducting their own research. The Prussian General Staff model changed things up by introducing a middle layer, designed to plan the logistics of army movement, and investigate new employments and tactics. This allowed for larger field armies and unprecedented coordination in both the attack and defense.

Unfortunately, no matter the size of our staff, we cannot increase the number of players on the field or those in reserve. However, we can take the concept of continuous research and adaptation from the General Staff.

To this end, military staffs are split into various departments serving different purposes such as intelligence, logistics, etc. While modern armies include many more staff sections, the largest benefits to football operations lie in the establishment of a future operations section and integration of well-defined feedback loops between departments.

Such an organization would allow increased coordination while also encouraging mid-level leaders to buy in to organizational culture beyond just the General Manager, Head Coach, and coordinators. Modern team structure falls somewhere on a spectrum. Some are in a proto-General Staff state while others are largely unchanged.

The primary role of the General Staff is to fundamentally understand all aspects of an upcoming operation through meticulous planning and an unparalleled understanding of the underpinnings of war itself. Are current NFL coaching staffs equipped to address football at this same level of detail? I submit to you they are not. Most teams consist of between six to nine coaches on offense and defense, and one or two on special teams. They are responsible for individual positions, film study, play design, player development, and more. In the course of their many duties, each coach also creates contingency plans to account for potential courses of action by the enemy. Some teams list multiple personnel involved with football research or quantitative analysis, while others have no analytics personnel whatsoever.

What I propose is a fundamental restructuring of NFL coaching staffs and how they operate top to bottom.

Tomorrow, we will turn to a concrete example: the Seattle Seahawks.

Click here for Part 2