Evolution in Thought; Football and War


A revolution in military affairs (RMA) is “the transformation of a military establishment’s strategies, doctrines, training, education, organization, equipment, and operations and tactics to achieve decisive military results in fundamentally new ways.”[i] Military history provides multiple examples of these RMAs. These examples include the development and use of the English Armies six-foot-long bow and the use of gun powder artillery in the 14th Century. The French use of levee en masse[ii] during the Napoleonic Wars, the German development of combined arms in the form of blitzkrieg during the Second World War, and the advent of nuclear weapons provide further examples.[iii] More recently, the development of precision guided munitions enables by military capabilities in space, stealth technology, and unmanned and autonomous systems serve as modern day examples.   

The concept of a revolution in military affairs easily translates to football. The past 70 years witnessed the development of new offensive and defensive systems (operations and tactics) that transformed the character of the game. These transformations began with the development and implementation of the forward pass, whose first large scale use enabled the Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School coached by Pop Warner to defeat the University of Pennsylvania in 1907. Six years later, in 1913, the forward pass helped Notre Dame defeat highly favored Army.[iv]

Other offensive innovations throughout the years include the West coast Offense, the Run-and-Shoot, the K-Gun Offense, and the read-option employed by the Super Bowl winning 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. Nevertheless, football has a lesson to teach concerning rapid changes that provide an advantage to one side of the field. Opponents quickly adapt to counter, or limit the advantages posed by new schemes.

Just as one nation transforms the character of their military and warfighting, other nations will respond with changes to counter said advantages. In football, rapid changes in offensive concepts drove changes to defensive systems. One example is Buddy Ryan’s ferocious 46 defense.[v] This was defensive system employed by both the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens, two of the greatest defenses of all time. A second example of defensive innovation is the zone blitz, designed to counter the Run-and-Shoot.  

The constant evolution and innovation swaying back and forth between offense and defense is similar to how the United States, and in large measure, the West thinks about military innovation. One side develops a new technology, weapon, or tactic, and the other side develops a counter technology to offset any tactical, operational, or strategic advantage. Indeed, this continual back and forth resembles chess more so than Eastern culture type games such as Wei. Teams consistently try to stay one-step ahead, on the field and off.[vi] Promises of technology or ideas that will change the nature of warfare and provide one nation a permanent advantage are often noting more than a fantasy.  

The U.S. military looks for advantages in more ways than technology alone. Improvements to training method and physical fitness are a cornerstone to combat preparedness. Changes to the football occur off the field too. Long gone are the days when professional athletes use training camp and the pre-season to get in shape. The advancement of fitness methods and technologies allow players to train throughout the year. Coinciding with fitness training is new understanding of diet combined with the use of supplements. The Steelers Dynasty of the 1970s had zero players over 300 pounds.[vii] Today, 300 pounds is the minimum weight to play as a lineman in the NFL.

From a military strategist perspective, the American military can learn a ton through the study on how the game of football evolved and transformed from the forward pass through today’s run pass option designs. The evolution in the game informs us how a culture rewards innovative thinkers whose concepts come into fruition on the football field.

[i] Michael Keane. 2005. Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD.

[ii] Levee en masse is the practice of universal conscription. First established in 1793, this method enabled France to fight 14 armies, an unheard of number at the time.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Jim Morrison. 2010. “The Early History of Football’s Forward Pass.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed 23 October 2018. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-early-history-of-footballs-forward-pass-78015237/)

[v] The 46 defense was named for the jersey number of Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank, and has nothing to do with the number of linemen, linebackers, or defensive backs on the field.

[vi] Ron Jaworski. 2010. The Games that Changed the Game. Random House Inc. New York. 

[vii] According to Pro Football Reference, the heaviest player on the 1976 Steelers was Joe Greene, who stood 6’4” and weighed 275 pounds. Compare to the 2018 New England Patriots Left Tackle, Trent Brown who stand 6”8” and weighs 380 pounds. (https://www.pro-football-reference.com/)