Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is America’s sport. Indeed, football represents strength and power, the current hallmarks of American foreign policy. George Carlin communicated the football and baseball dichotomy with his famous comedy bit comparing the two sports. The football analogies expand when we look at the archetypes of NFL quarterbacks and general officers.
Military units, just like football teams rely on the cumulative talent and skills of every player on the team. However, generals, like quarterbacks are the face of their organizations and represent the success or failure of their units and teams. With this in mind, I offer a breakdown of the types of officers that we see through the lens of the various types of quarterbacks.
The Tom Brady GOAT Division. After winning five Super Bowls (as of 2018), appearing in 8, winning a dozen division titles, and three most valuable player (MVP) awards, Tom Brady is generally regarded at the greatest quarterback of all time. There are a handful of American generals that fall into this category. This includes Generals George Washington, U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and George Marshal.
The Peyton Manning Division. This is the category of hall of fame caliber generals who fall just short of falling into the greatest of all time arguments. Generals in the Peyton Manning Division include Nathaniel Greene, Phillip Sheridan and George Patton.
The Dan Marino Division. Dan Marino was the most prolific passer of his time. Marino put up passing statistics that nobody would match until the character and rules of football changed. Marino won a ton of games in regular season, but alas never won a Super Bowl. The military equivalent to this division are generals who win tactical level battles, but fail to turn their tactical success into operational or strategic victory. Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee fit this mold.
The Joe Flacco Division. This division is reserved for generals who, like Joe Flacco can’t decide if they are elite, run of the mill, or not so good. Flacco had an amazing playoff run back in 2012, but has since been about average since. It is a clear case of regression to the mean, yet the debate continues. I put generals such as Mark W. Clark in this division. He had his great victory in Italy (despite Monte Casino), which would be overshadowed by the Normandy invasion.
The Trent Dilfer Division. In 2000, Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2001, Dilfer was playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Deservedly or not, Dilfer earned the reputation as a game manager. Game mangers are quarterbacks are those who succeed thanks to other aspects of the team. A strong defense or rushing attack enables game managers to rack up victories in despite having average talent. There are general officers and senior leaders who succeed in large thanks to the supporting team around them. They may have a strong staff, a terrific XO, or phenomenal NCOs that make up for their many faults.
The Alex Smith Division. Some quarterbacks succeed by the design of the system they play in. Alex Smith, over the course of his career has succeeded due to coaches designing offenses that fit his skill set. Scharnhorst, the creator of the Prussian Staff designed a system that did not rely on individual talent. Indeed, the lesson Scharnhorst learned from the Napoleonic Wars was that Prussia could not afford to wait for a version of Napoleon to rise in the ranks. Scharnhorst then created the Prussian General Staff system along with the famous Kriegsacademie. In the modern era, the United States follows this mold, creating dozens of GOFOs every year through our system of assignments and professional education. In reality, everyone who rises to the top of the ranks can be replaced by the next cohort of officers.
The Ryan Leaf Division. Ryan Leaf was a star in college. Looking back, it’s comical that in 1998 people debated whether he should be drafted ahead of Peyton Manning. Ryan Leaf was unable to handle the pressure and commitments of life in the National Football League. In short order, Leaf would find himself out of football and serving time for numerous drug related offenses. Just like professional sports, there are men and women who are selected for battalion and brigade command or promote to general officer, but were clearly not ready. Some not only should have never promoted to GOFO, but belong in jail for their respective ethical and moral lapses. Former brigadier general (now retired lieutenant colonel) Sinclair falls into this category. One can find dozens of other examples that often appear on the front page of Army, Navy, and Air Force Times.
The Frank Reich / Nick Foles Division. In the early 1990s, Frank Reich was a back up to Jim Kelly on the Buffalo Bills. In the 1993 playoffs, Reich led the Bills to a 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers, the largest comeback in NFL history. More recently, in 2017, Nick Foles took over the play calling from Carsen Weintz to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory. Back-up quarterbacks rarely have the skill set of the starting quarterback, but must be prepared to step in at any time. Not every general officer gets the chance to command. Many spend their time as J-Code or G-Code directors and assistant directors. However, their work in these key positions is paramount to the success of their respective organization. When called upon to lead in the commander’s absence, they step up to the plate. Think about Brig. Gen. McAuliffe in his role as assistant division commander of the 101st in World War II as an example of a GOFO in this division.
The Mark Fitzpatrick Division. These are the generals that show up to an organization with the intent to make some serious and much needed change. Everyone in the command is excited after some early success, but give up hope after the general leaves for a more senior position after only nine months.
The Gary Kubiak Division. Gary Kubiak was a long-term back-up under John Elway. He never achieved fame as a quarterback at the tactical level, but used his time as a backup to enhance his thinking and coaching abilities. Later in life, Kubiak would win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Denver Broncos. This goes to show that some people perform better at the operational and strategic level rather than the tactical level. Colin Powell never commanded a division, and Eisenhower did not command above battalion.
The Warren Moon / Joe Montana Division. Both of these quarterbacks had hall of fame careers. They put up statistics unmatched in their respective eras. However, critical to their success was the offensive system they led. Warren Moon played in the Run and Shoot Offense, Montana in the West Coast Offense. Over the years, our military produced numerous systems generals who could succeed in one type of warfare but could not prove their worth in others. Some do very well in maneuver warfare, but fail in a counterinsurgency environment. The talents required in one do not always apply to another. Further, as General Petraeus discovered, what works in Iraq does not translate to success in Afghanistan.
The Vince Young Division. Vince Young earned the Heisman and won a national championship while playing for Texas. However, his professional success would never match what he acheived in college (Ditto for his Rose Bowl opponent Matt Leinart). These are the generals that succeeded at the lower ranks, and enjoyed some success as junior general officers, but failed spectacularly at the highest level of command. Think General Hooker at Chancellorsville, or Westmoreland in Vietnam.