What is the secret to winning in football? Why have the Washington Redskins only won 34 percent of their games since 1993? Why have they started this season with three straight losses. How can they turn around decades of underachievement?
While reading a book these past few weeks, I found ideas they should consider to make the
franchise more successful. Titled When the Game Stands Tall, the book explores how and why De Le Salle High School of Concord, California became the greatest high school football program in American history. From 1992 through 2004 they won 151 straight games-doubling the all-time record--and seven national championships. The master who led this amazing success story was Coach Bob Ladouceur (nicknamed Lad), who retired earlier this year after 33 years. He won 93 percent of the game he coaches with a record of 399 wins, 25 losses and 3 ties.
While acknowledging that high school and professional football are different, emulating De La Salle's program would make the Redskins a much better franchise over the next several years. The De La Salle program has a formula for success that includes:
Focusing on technique
No doubt the Redskins focus on techniques when they practice. In reading this book, however,
I developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of offensive line blocking techniques. Lad believes if you get the technique right, you can dominate the other team even if you are smaller and less athletic.
The book's author, Neil Hayes, writes: "If there's one snapshot that best captures the De
La Salle program, it's the work ethic, the repetition, the precision. CoachLadouceur, the blocking sled, the crouching lineman, large beads of sweat dripping from the faces."
Considering how well it worked for De La Salle, the Redskins would be wise to emphasize
blocking techniques a lot more than they do--even if it means de-emphasizing other drills.
Over and over again the book pinpoints the De La Salle line play, especially their blocking
techniques and speed getting off the ball, as amazing and huge reasons for their success.
Said one opposing De La Salle coach: "They get off the ball so fast and hit it so quick
it's mind-boggling. You've got to get whacked by it a couple times before you even know what you're up against."
Not focusing on winning
It sounds alarming to advise the Redskins to stop focusing on wins. The NFL is all about
winning and if you don't, coaches get fired, players cut, and franchises wallow in ignominy. After losing their second game this season, coach Mike Shanahan said the third game was a "must win." They didn't win, falling to the Detroit Lions. The lesson learned from studying De La Salle is that winning is not what should be talked about because it distracts from all the important things that need to be done.
"We're not counting wins," said De La Salle's assistant varsity coach Terry Eidson. "We're
counting on [the players] improving every week. And that's how we have always approached it...It's about individual commitment and effort. Anybody who doesn't understand that doesn't understand our program. It's not results based...If it was about wins and losses, we would have lost a long time ago."
Holding yourself and teammates accountable
The Redskins players need to take football into their own hands and hold each other more accountable. They need to inspire each other more. There is too much focus on Robert Griffin
III. He takes the blame when they lose. But by doing so, he does not hold his teammates as accountable. Every guy on the team should take it upon himself to be held accountable for his play.
This is a central tenet of De La Salle football. The book describes one championship team
that embraced this to a new level:
The players took it upon themselves to ratchet up the intensity during off-season workouts,
pushing each other well beyond previously established limits, calling each other out when someone skipped a repetition in the weight room or coasted during sprints. Their dedication extended well beyond the field. Team leaders knew that three players violated the no-alcohol policy. The offending players were cornered in the weight room and told they could either match their teammates' commitment level or leave the team. When the three players wavered,
they were escorted out of the weight room.
Lad told his team before one game: "You guys are all going to have to individually...make a
decision tonight. The decision is, are you willing to play through the discomfort to play a great game tomorrow? Playing a great game individuallyisn't going to be easy. It isn't going to be comfortable."
Each Redskins player needs to search his soul and decide how much there are willing to commit
to making the Redskins a successful organization. If the answer is they're not willing to commit all that much but are playing primarily for the money, the Redskins will continue to be a losing franchise.
Baring your souls, focusing on love
It may sound like a stretch for professional athletes to get together once a week for closed
door meetings and talk about themselves and how much they care for each other. You could argue they are adults and, unlike De La Salle's high school kids who consistently did these rituals, they are too old to be doing this kind of team-bonding. But I disagree. Just like kids, adults can be inspired by each other and become closer as a team. The Redskins could do this and it would make them stronger, tougher to beat. Coach Shanahan needs to encourage more of these team soul-searching meetings where players open up to each other about their
feelings about each other and the team.
The author describes how this plays out at De La Salle:
Coach Ladouceur believes his teams win because they care-not about winning but about each
other. Most people spend their lives suppressing the power of raw emotion, choking it back whenever it bubbles to the surface. Ladouceur taps into the individual tributaries of his players and channels them into an unstoppable force. You can't play for Lad unless you're willing to stand in front of your teammates and bare your soul. You can't play unless you're willing to cry.
Patrick Walsh, a former De La Salle running back, said: "Lad creates an environment where you can cry in front of your teammates and tell them you love them...Love is the key to everything we do."
Being brutally honest with each other
During his retirement press conference this year, Lad said one key to his program's success is that his coaching staff has been brutally honest with the players, telling them their weaknesses, whether they thought they lacked heart, whatever they truly thought about the player. Redskins coaches need to be even more honest than they are now. If high school kids respond so well to being told the truth about themselves, professional athletes can do the same. De La Salle
proved it motivates people to over-achieve.
In the first two games of the Redskins season, you saw a defense that wasn't tough. Combining
the first halves of those games, they allowed a total of 50 points to be scored
Lad preaches toughness to his players and calls them out if he doesn't think they are. He
did so in a pre-game speech: "I think a lot of you are afraid of contact and mixing it up. I'm sorry, but this game requires that of its leaders. You can talk a great game, lift a corner of the weight room, run through the agility stations, but if you don't hit and you're not physical on that field, your leadership qualifications drop dramatically."
Playing with unmatched passion
I get the impression the Redskins are caught up in just being Redskins players and collecting a nice paycheck. They seem to feel they are the darlings of the Washington, D.C., era and should be admired even if they don't win often. To become great, they need to become less enamored with being pro football players and work harder. This is how De La Salle became unstoppable.
Said one opposing coach: "We match up with them talent-wise. Technically, they are so
skilled. Most of these kids are average athletes but they play with a passionthat is unmatched. That's the way the game is supposed to be played. It's impressive as hell."
Said another coach: "De La Salle doesn't give a flying fig about size and speed. They punch
the clock, go to work, kick your ****, and get on a plane and go home. They don't get caught up in the hoopla."
Creating a mystery to your success
Many great sports franchises have something they do that is different. It's hard to describe.
But they are successful and everyone knows it. The New England Patriots come to mind. How do they keep winning when they often have running backs and wide receivers that often are not well known? One answer is they have a great quarterback in Tom Brady and great coach in Bill Belichick. But they have a system that works year after year, and it's hard to identify exactly what that is.
To become great, the Redskins should create their own success in a way that is hard for
others to copy or understand. They should aspire to be like the De La Salle program that Lad encapsulated this way:
"There's only word to describe the reason for our success: mystery. The spirit that exists at
De La Salle is mysterious. You can't define it, box it, buy or sell it. You just allow it in, with all respect and humility. Our job is to allow the spirit within us to change our small corner
of the world-one play at a time, one relationship at a time, one love at a time, one child at a time-and when it's all said and done you'll understand that it begins with you."