On war and football: Sun Tzu and Bill Belichick

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Left: Sun Tzu, Right: Bill Belichick at FedExField on Aug. 28, 2009 in Landover, Maryland. Keith Allison/Creative Commons
Left: Sun Tzu, Right: Bill Belichick at FedExField on Aug. 28, 2009 in Landover, Maryland. Keith Allison/Creative Commons

On war and football: Sun Tzu and Bill Belichick

by: Lt. Col. (Retired) Pete "Zupp" Zuppas | .
. | .
published: January 26, 2015

Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese Military General, lived over two thousand years ago. He’s best known for his famous book “The Art of War”…a masterpiece that endures today as a crafty reference guide, applicable not only to war fighting, but also many other pursuits.

If “The Art of Football” is to be written, Bill Belichick would likely be the most qualified author.

In large part due to his coaching genius, the New England Patriots are again on their way to the Super Bowl. As a legendary innovator across every aspect of the game, he has a record twenty-one post season victories and he is the only head coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowl championships in a four-year span.

Also legendary are Belichick’s under-spoken, stoic and somewhat cold (to say the least) post-game interviews…making for great fun and intrigue, with everyone wondering what the heck is going on in that football genius of a mind.

On War and Football – General Sun Tzu and Coach Belichick.

Sun Tzu: I’m constantly learning more and more about football. It’s addictive…so many of the elements of war are there. Elements spanning across leadership, strategy, tactics, teamwork, discipline, deception, surprise, struggle and some pretty serious violence...you’d almost think there’s a real battle going on out there.

Belichick: Mmm…I’m still learning. Gotta get ready for Seattle.

Sun Tzu:  Several of my teachings are directly applicable to football. Especially the cerebral aspects - what might be described as “neck up”…starting with the principle that Deception is the key to all warfare.

Coach, I think you’d agree that it’s often overlooked how critical deception can be to successful football. It looks like you have potential game-changing plays – based on deception – written into every game plan.

Belichick: Mmm. Can’t really talk about that. Getting ready for Seattle.

Sun Tzu:  I love the trick play…completely fooling the other team at the right time. The lateral to Edelman, and his 51 yard TD pass to spark a comeback victory in the AFC division title game - brilliant. Reminds me of some of the tactics I used in war, catching the enemy completely off-guard. Can you name a trick play after me? Maybe the Sun Tzu on two.

Belichick: Mmm. Right now we just gotta get ready for Seattle.

Sun Tzu: Yes, speaking of Seattle and deception, that fake field goal last week to score a TD got them back in the game versus Green Bay. Perfect timing for that play and perfect execution.

Belichick: Mmm…Yeah, we’re getting ready.

Sun Tzu:  On offense, defense, and special teams, really just about every play, I see some form of deception affecting the success of not just the individual play, but in terms of setting up other plays, and ultimately achieving victory...just like war.

Even the small gains, achieved through deception, are significant. Watching Tom Brady use a “hard count” to lure the defense off-sides is deception and gains ground/achieves an objective without ever making contact with the enemy. You’ll see this (out-thinking the enemy) regularly as a theme throughout my teachings.

I think you, more than any other coach, take advantage of the deception aspect of the game including, for example, religiously studying the rule book in terms of legal formations, eligible receivers and ways to confuse the opponent…effectively taking every opportunity to gain a competitive advantage, right?

Belichick: Well...Mmm.

Sun Tzu:  Studying the other team and knowing the best opportunities to use certain deception schemes and thoroughly preparing to do so, leads us to the next of my teachings.

Belichick: Mmm…could help us prepare for Seattle.

Sun Tzu:  Know the enemy, know yourself. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.
This teaching is typically referred to as Know the Enemy.
I believe no coach is more intent on studying the opponent and in relentlessly preparing his team based on everything there is to know about the opponent. Finding ways to take advantage of the opponent’s vulnerabilities and neutralize their strengths, just as in warfighting

Going to the extent of trying to steal their playbook, spying on them, or intercepting their play calling signals would not be beyond me…

Belichick: Mmm…well.

Sun Tzu: Now the second part, Know yourself is equally important. In war – integrating and employing the right weapons at the right time. In football, putting the right players into the right situations for them to flourish. Getting every player to do their job. In the case of a dominant weapon, an overpowering asset, say a Gronkowski, knowing this strength can be used directly as a weapon…or indirectly as a decoy. A weapon like Gronk is a distinct advantage directly or indirectly utilized.

Belichick:  Mmm...just glad he’s on our side.

Sun Tzu: Finally, in war - You have to believe in yourself and the related teaching Victorious warriors win first and then go to war.
On the gridiron, in terms of believing, I have to say I have not seen a better example than QB Russell Wilson last week in their comeback victory against Green Bay. In his mind, losing was not an option and I think it became contagious throughout the team. They had the look, the intensity of fiercely confident warriors out there.

Ballichick: Mmm…we’re getting ready

Sun Tzu:  Coach you are known for motivating and taking good players and making them great…and boosting their confidence, their belief in themselves. Maybe even helping a 6th round, 199th overall draft-pick QB rise to the level of possibly the greatest ever. 

Also, we know it’s imperative that the team believes in themselves collectively and more than playing together, they are playing for one another, relying on one another. Just as in war, they are fighting for the warrior next to them.

This is exemplified in your team’s confidence and your ability to adapt and succeed after the early season struggles (including a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs) this year. That ability and confidence to turn things around is exemplary in both football and warfighting. 

Belichick: Mmm…we have great players and coaching staff

Sun Tzu:  In war and football, even the best of plans can degrade rapidly.  You’ve paraphrased a General Dwight Eisenhower quote, saying: ‘Preparation is everything until the battle starts, and then it doesn’t mean anything.” 

However, maybe preparation can still carry the day if looked at from the perspective of preparing to adapt.
In war fighting terms - situational awareness and situational responsiveness – developed under extensive preparation can allow warfighters to rapidly assess, adapt and overcome.

In football, an audible by the fully prepared QB at the line of scrimmage, aware of the blitz, and responding with an immediate short pass, is a good example.  In terms of victorious warriors winning first, I’d say you have Brady more prepared than any QB to “win before the snap”. Extensive preparation and growing confidence facilitates this awareness and responsiveness…this ability to adapt and stay focused in the heat of battle.

There’s an adage; Anticipate, Learn, and Adapt…knowingly, or not, Coach it looks to me as though you are a master and teacher of this adage…in addition to everything else we’ve looked at on War and Football.

Coach Belichick I hope you’ve enjoyed this dialogue as much as I have. Can’t wait to see what you come up with against Seattle in the Super Bowl…I’ll be looking for “The Art of Football” and the Sun Tzu on two!

Belichick:  Mmm…Thanks General. Just gotta get ready for Seattle…