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TDG Football Seminar: What is a strategy?

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NCAA Football: Buffalo at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to TDG’s Football Seminar. This week, we get philosophical about the nature of our subject.

In 1832 Marie Von Bruhl published posthumously Carl von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege. For those of us that do not speak German, you know this book as On War. Today On War has plummeted into the rare echelon of books that everyone selectively quotes from and no one actually reads. “War is the continuation of politics by other means” comes from this work, though likely not in that pithy form. Clausewitz’s intended for his work to be a scientific study of war, rooted in reality.

Surprisingly then, for all the words in the tome, of which there are many (too many to be honest once you get to Book IV), there is shockingly little about the actual practice of war. For example, Clausewitz devotes no words to navies, which have tended to play a rather important part in wars over human history.

Naturally two questions may be coming to mind. One, this is a sports blog, why are you prattling on about military verbiage? Two, isn’t this supposed to be about Minnesota football? Both fair. They each have the same answer. A substantial portion of the fanbase is confusing the operational and strategic components of running a football program.

What the heck is strategy?

Every head coach needs a strategy. What then is a strategy? Good question. Strategy to paraphrase Potter Stewart is something that one knows when one sees.

To help set definitions, I suggest that we follow Lawrence Freedman who defines the concept, strategy is “about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.” Each head coach begins with a state of affairs and then looks to improve upon that foundation. These state of affairs look very different. Alabama has different requirements than Army. From there strategy has two prongs, a short-term and a long-term. Short-term is the goals of the day or the week. Each practice has a strategy. Long-term are more general. Taking a team from 1-11 to 13-0 is a long-term strategy.

If you happen to be a head coach, which one should you focus on? This is not a trick question. Both have their merits and downsides. For Minnesota, P.J. Fleck has clearly made the decision to focus his efforts on the long-term strategy, the strategic side. He works on bringing the Row the Boat culture to Minnesota, emphasizing the process of winning at a high level. F.A.M.I.L.Y., HYPRR, and “Changing Your Best” are all general strategy. All of these are high level and big picture concepts.

One consequence of publicly claiming to be a big picture guy is that media and fans have taken him at his word that he does not understand X’s and O’s, when that is not his point. Fleck’s point is that he has delegated operational responsibility to his coordinators and position coaches. P.J. Fleck can diagram any play in the Gophers playbook without difficulty and explain what each player’s assignment is supposed to be, much in the same way that a general can describe in great detail what the tactical responsibility of a unit will be in a battle. In the same way that we do not want generals buried in operational minutia, we do not want Fleck to be micromanaging every aspect of his game plan. That’s why we pay Robb Smith and Kirk Ciarrocca and by extension, why there are position coaches.

Strategy dictates operations. When operations dictate strategy an organization runs into trouble. The Gophers’ objective is to win a national championship. The strategy is the Row the Boat culture. The implementation of that is what we see on Saturday. From a purely football perspective, Fleck’s strategy is to control the ball, avoid turnovers, and find ways to get their best players in space. Operationally, that means that the offense bases around a zone blocking scheme with inside zone as their main running play. They run a no-huddle but not uptempo offense with checks and audibles after getting set, and use either a max protect or three wide receiver formation the majority of the time.

Grading a strategy

Being a military man, General Maxwell Taylor defined Strategy as an equation. Strategy is the sum of the ends, ways, and means. The ends are the objectives you strive for, the ways are the tactics you use, and the means are what you have at your disposal. People tend to grade strategy using this kind of mental map. If Minnesota wins 17-16 instead of losing 31-17, then the strategy worked because the whole point of the operation is to win the football game. Fleck thinks about this differently (and not tremendously dissimilar to Jerry Kill). When Fleck says he does not care about winning he’s not saying he wants to lose. He is saying that he cares about how a team wins. For sabermetricians, this point is obvious. For non-saber heads the phrase “they didn’t deserve to lose” sums up the point.

Are the Gophers better than the record? No. They’re arguably worse because they benefited from playing a depleted Middle Tennessee State. At the same time, the Gophers are not a static entity. The means at Fleck’s disposal have changed. His defense is without their best player and much of the secondary. His offense is without multiple starting offensive lineman, several receivers, and a quarterback. When compared to preseason expectations, this may look like failing, but the means have changed. The operational element therefore must change to acknowledge that reality, and so judging the new operation like the old one is ill founded.

Even in the new environment Fleck and his coaching staff are attempting to follow their strategy. Against Purdue, Minnesota played their best four skill position players for the majority of snaps. The Gophers utilized a formation with two tight ends, two wide receivers, and one running back. One wide receiver was Tyler Johnson. The other was Shannon Brooks, who went in motion on a jet sweep. Broadly, each play had three potential outcomes. Rhoda could hand the ball off to Brooks on the sweep, hand the ball to Smith on an inside zone dive, or pass the ball to an eligible receiver.

Seeing the past through rose colored glasses

A final point about strategy is that people often learn the wrong lessons from history. Military strategists frequently lament how every military strategy is really just fighting the last war better. Through five games, there’s been a similar phenomenon among our fanbase to return to the supposed glory days of the different and better executed strategy of the Kill and Claeys era. On defense, that may be laudable, though the defense was never beset by the depth and experience problems of the current regime, and the previous regime did give up 32 points to Rutgers.

The offense is a different story. For one, tactically the current Gophers run many of the same concepts as the previous regime (for example Jay Johnson ran a zone blocking scheme). For another, the previous regimes offenses were rather putrid at their supposed bread and butter. Minnesota averaged 72nd in the country overall in Rushing S&P+ and frequently finished in the bottom tier of Power Five teams. Even if the Gophers had a lot of rushing yards, they were not efficient at gaining them. For a third, Minnesota’s offensive strategy was both predictable and incoherent. It was predictable because the Gophers recruited poorly on the offensive line. It was incoherent because it claimed to be multiple and based on each opponent and ended up being the same 30 plays give or take 4 every game.

Where to next?

Minnesota’s new general has not been able to execute his strategy to perfection right now, and it is reasonably clear that he is sacrificing short-term gains in the hope of reaping long-term benefits. Bad news for fans. None of these issues are going to be solved in the upcoming weeks. They will be solved through an infusion of talent at key positions and experience.

For the football seminar, our next session will be to look at how the Gophers are trying to mask current weaknesses on the team.