James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Wishbone and Military Groupthink

Fresh off my Nebraska Cornhusker's thrashing of Southern Mississippi, the Big Ten Network went to the final minutes of the Navy-Indiana game. Navy was up, 41-35, and managed to close the game with that score.

They did so by running the same attack I remember Navy running since I've been knowledgeable enough to know what it is: the wishbone.

Army and Air Force also run it.

But first, something should be said about all three schools, that isn't immediately obvious to the casual college football fan:

  • "Army" means the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
  • "Navy" means the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
  • "Air Force" means the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, CO.
All three are accredited four-year universities. The twist is, their students get a free ride, and graduates must serve a four-year commitment as a commissioned officer in the armed forces. And THAT makes a living as a pro athlete, post-service, quite rare.

Over the past 30 years, Army, Navy, and Air Force football teams have all experienced some success at times, especially Air Force, despite the long odds of their players moving on to the NFL. Much of it has to do with them retaining the wishbone offense.

The fact that they did so while almost all the rest of major college football "moved on" to more elaborate schemes placed the service academies, ironically, at a strategic advantage. Without going into the details of it, the wishbone is based on:

  • execution
  • deception
  • instinctual reads
All of which are the result of repetition. Discipline. Practice.

But there is a predictability about it, if you're accustomed to playing against it. Most teams are not. That's why they are often frustrated by it.

That's why each service academy has had good years from time to time.

But I wonder if their reliance on the wishbone is also reflective of the mentality of the Pentagon as a whole. It probably remains the best offense for an undermanned, underdog offense, but the U.S. armed forces are never undermanned or an underdog. And the repetition and indoctrination of this one way of succeeding in football may reflect similar repetition and indoctrination in military strategy. There has to be groupthink for a service academy football team to succeed, or for any member of the team to advance their roster placement. And I wonder if similar groupthink is necessary for a commissioned officer to advance in his career:
  • Since the wishbone worked against Indiana, it should work against Alabama.
  • In the same way, what worked in the past will work in the future.
  • Never mind that the circumstances may be very different.
 The problem is, what the wishbone lacks is sophistication. No progression reads from the passer (and there's not much passing at all). There's room for instinct, but not much for improvisation: if A, do B or C. In the post-Bill Walsh era, the way football works among the big boys is, "If A, do B, C, D, E, or F."

In the current age, the service academies get credit for being competitive whenever they are, and for being "true student athletes" with no realistic pro ambitions. But I think they'd be better served if they abandoned the wishbone and trained their players to think broadly and creatively on the field. Perhaps they'd have more imagination on the football field and on the battlefield.

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