Clausewitz and Football


Any serious discussion of strategy necessarily begins with Carl Von Clausewitz. Indeed, Clausewitz along with his western contemporaries identify with a western and American way of war. While eastern concepts of warfare focus on defeating an adversary through deception, and winning without fighting,[i] Clausewitz and western theories of war recognize the inevitability of battle. Eventually military forces will fight on the battlefield and influence the outcome of war to the advantage of one side. Football, unlike Weiqi or Go, follows the western way of war. While the eastern way of war highlights winning without bloodshed as the highest form of skill, the western way emphasizes violence. Teams or armies meet on the field to determine the outcome.

            In his seminal work On War, Clausewitz compared war to a wrestling contest where two opponents grappled and maneuvered to get the other to submit. Had he been a 21st Century American, and not a 19th Century Prussian, Clausewitz would have made the football analogy in lieu of wrestling. The analogy works as in war, one does not plan or fight against an inanimate object. Rather, one plans and fights against a living and thinking adversary. Clausewitz termed this reciprocal action.[ii] Both military leaders and football coaches and players must constantly adapt to conditions on the battlefield and football field respectively. 

            Relying on the weakness, incompetence, or lack of preparation of an enemy team or force is a quick path to failure. No matter how well prepared a team may have been on the practice field, or in the gym, there is an adversary doing the same thing. Adversaries plan to win, put in time at the gym, and adjust their game plan on every series. Success belongs to those who can stay one-step ahead. In a similar vein, understanding that adversaries adapt leads to the wisdom of never underestimating an opponent. A head coach may watch all the game film he wants, but there is another head coach on the other sideline developing a strategy of his own. Perhaps it is a trick play, or the exposure of a weakness on a team that never knew it existed.

            Identifying an opponent’s source of strength and exploiting an opponent’s weakness stems of the Clausewitzian concept of the center of gravity. A center of gravity, according to Clausewitz is the “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point which all our energies should be directed.”[iii] American military doctrine defines it as “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”[iv] Military planners spend countless hours analyzing and identifying enemy COGs. Further, military planners devise strategies and plans to expose and attack what they believe are an enemy’s center of gravity.[v] Witness the opening strike in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, where the U.S. Air Force attempted (and failed) to kill Saddam Hussain on the opening night of the war. Planners believed Hussain was the Center of Gravity of the Iraqi Government. As the war evolved into an insurgency, the center of gravity switched to the will and support of the population.

            Football games and the game planning beforehand use the same center of gravity concepts found in U.S. military doctrine. Coaches and teams continually attempt to identify what an opposing team does best, and take that capability away. Indeed, this concept is central to coaching great Bill Belichick’s coaching philosophy.[vi] This can be done through pressure on the quarterback or overloading an area of the field with defenders to take away parts of the run game. On offense, teams look to limit the opponents best pass rushers through blocking schemes, or expose weak pass coverage by continually passing in the direction of a lesser talented cornerbacks.

            Clausewitz defined war and broke it down into its sub-units for the great captains of history. The old Prussian’s thoughts on fog, friction, and chance are among the most useful takeaways from his Magnum Opus. Fog is the uncertainty in war, friction is the countless minor incidents that make the simple very difficult, and chance is the unpredictable circumstances that consistently occur in war.[vii] This concept easily translates to the gridiron. The outcome of a football game and war are dependent on the interplay of skill and luck.

            The fog in a football game is the uncertainty of an opposing teams play call, or when a quarterback is blindsided during the chaos of blitzing safeties. We see friction when a head coach’s headset loses communications with the quarterback, or when a referee makes a bad call. And we see chance when a 70-yard scoring play gets called back due to a holding penalty on the opposite side of the field, wholly unrelated to the play. We see chance in who is sitting on the injured reserve list. Each game, indeed each play (not to mention off-field events) has the potential to eliminate the essential players of a team.

            Football can bring in all three elements of fog, friction, and chance, often on the same play. In this sense, football offers a glimpse into complexity. A missed block or coverage assignment can lead to a sack and fumble or a 90-yard touchdown. On the other hand, a blown coverage may have zero impact on the game if the quarterback overthrows, or simply fails to recognize an open receiver. The outcome of every play and every game is dependent on the interaction of all 22 players on the field, and like war, uncertain in outcome.

[i] Sun Zsu. 2007. The Art of War. Filiquarian Publishing. Las Vegas NV.

[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3.

[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 595-596.

[iv] Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Planning. 16 June 2017. Washington, DC: The Joint Staff. Pg GL-6.

[v] In U.S. military doctrine, a Center of Gravity contains subordinate elements of Critical Capabilities, Critical Requirements, and Critical Vulnerabilities. After identifying an enemy and friendly COG, planners look for these elements to attack the enemy COG and protect their own COG.

[vi] Ron Jaworski. 2010. The Games that Changed the Game. ESPN books. New York.

[vii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 6.