KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.
“Sort of like when you’re a big underdog in the game,” Jim Young explains. “I was always into that sort of motivation.”
We’re talking about the writings of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist. Or, as Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith likes to call it, “samurai things.” The Tao of Bob.
“I don’t think you ever start out thinking you’re going to be this or you’re going to be that; it’s a process where you’re trying to stack these bricks,” says Bob Sutton, the Kansas City Chiefs’ venerated defensive coordinator. “It’s about finding some way to improve just a little bit.”
If Sutton is the Darth Vader of the Chiefs’ defense, then Young is its Emperor Palpatine, the man behind the man. They were comrades, off and on, for more than two decades, a relationship that started with Bo Schemblecher at the University of Michigan in the early ’70s and stretched all the way to West Point. Sutton was Young’s defensive coordinator at Army from 1983-90, then replaced him as head coach for the next nine seasons after that.
Young was a “zen thinker” before it was hip to be a “zen thinker,” having dabbled into Eastern philosophy, and Sun Tzu in particular. It also captivated Sutton, who adapted the old general’s “Art of War” into his own thinking and who still, to this day, makes a point to insert a quote from Sun Tzu into his weekly Chiefs game plans.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
“He’s a big samurai guy,” Smith says of Sutton. “Every week, he’s going to have a quote or something like that for us.
“And you’ve got to kind of sit there for a bit, for a while, and try to take it all in and say, ‘What is this guy talking about?’ But he’s a cool dude. We definitely know where he’s coming from.” Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
“He always has different quotes and different things and I keep them all because they’re always so good,” defensive lineman Mike DeVito says. “There’s a new one every week. So they’re always good.”
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
“He doesn’t talk a lot,” cornerback Brandon Flowers says. “So when he talks, we all listen.”
More than that, they trust. Going into Sunday’s tussle with San Diego, the Chiefs rank second in the NFL in sacks (36) and points allowed (13.8). Flowers describes a playbook that’s three inches deep in blitz looks, overload packages and funky formations such as the 1-4-6, the 1-3-7, the 2-3-6 and the 2-4-5. It’s a treatise of organized chaos, one that, even in lean times — The Andy Gang hasn’t recorded a sack in either of the last two games — the Chiefs continue to swear by.
The Tao works.
“The bottom line is, if you’re not going forward, you’re really going backward,” Sutton says. “That, to me, is a big part of the culture.
“They have done a really good job of learning the system, understanding the system, and I think our defensive coaches have done a fabulous job of getting them drilled down in those areas and getting them in that position. And now we have to keep going.”
Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.
“Does he still use that?” Young asks. Then he chuckles.
“That was our program. It was sort of natural at the academy to use all those things. He doesn’t pass out little cards, does he? We used to do that a lot. We had a saying of the week on there (that) we would get out after practice.”
Young was on Schembechler’s staff when he met Sutton, at the time a fresh-faced undergraduate at Eastern Michigan. The Chiefs’ assistant was then, as now, a details guy, a cerebral type, a free thinker and a deep thinker. Sun Tzu’s writings struck a chord, just as they had with Young.
“I’d (used) it in high school, and when I joined Bo, and I had those different ideas and they said, ‘Well, they may not work in college,'” Young says. “But they did.
“The college guys jumped on some of those different things they were doing back then. I would imagine it’s the same thing (in the NFL): if you have an idea or motivation, they work in any level, because the players will buy into it if they think it’s something that will help them be successful.”
The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.
“I’m not really into samurai things,” Smith says with a wicked grin. “I know what he’s trying to say, but at the same time, he goes right over my head with that one.”
There’s a madness to the method, but the Chiefs have bought in with heads and hearts. And even if they don’t always understand the message, they almost always get the point. You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.