Titans Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's name has come up a lot lately. He was a finalist for the Redskins, Dolphins, and Falcons jobs last year, and was reportedly the runner-up to former San Francisco coach Mike Nolan several years ago. It's not surprising--the Titans have been a consistently good team despite having inconsistently good talent for over a decade. It's true that head coach Jeff Fisher deservedly gets a lot of credit for this--but while the Titans have cycled through offensive coordinators (Mike Heimerdinger, then Norm Chow, then Heimerdinger again), Jim Schwartz has been the DC in Nashville for the past six straight seasons, was the linebackers coach the year before, and a defensive assistant the year before that.
In researching Jim Schwartz, the first thing that struck me was not his consistent success, nor his impressive rise through the Browns/Ravens organization, nor his Honored Economics Graduate award from his alma mater, Georgetown. It wasn't his work as a scout and film analyst for the original Browns, under Bill Belichick. It wasn't even Schwartz’ unique and detailed approach to stats and analysis. No, it was the fact that he's an avid chess player.
Before I start this paragraph, go click that link about stats and analysis--it's an outstanding article by the New York Times' Judy Battista about Schwartz's Billy Beane-esque understanding of the game of football. Any attempt to summarize on my part would be wasting my time and yours.
Okay, have you finished reading? Great. If you are a Lions fan, you now probably want to see Schwartz roaming the sidelines at Ford Field at least half as badly as I do. Where was I? Oh yes--chess. Schwartz himself notes in that Times article that the frequent comparison of two football coaches' teams squaring off to a 'chess match' is a false one:
"People talk about the chess match between coaches and coordinators,” Schwartz said. “Anybody who plays chess knows your rook never falls down, your rook never stops one spot short. There’s human nature to football that will never make it into a game of numbers.”
Still, having known some very serious chess players in my life (my brother won the K-8th grade division Supernationals while in 5th grade), I can say with confidence that it takes a certain type of analytical, logical mind to not just 'play' chess or 'be good' at chess, but truly enjoy it and pursue it as a hobby. Schwartz shows through his research that he understands the game of football at a deeper level than most. Imagine going from a coach who has literally no idea why his team cannot win a game, to a coach whose understanding of how the game really works is so profound that he stands out wherever he goes, even while working for some of the most knowledgable coaches to ever wear a whistle?
How many times did Rod Marinelli say "I don't know, I don't have the answers. I just have to work harder, we just have to keep doing what we're doing"? Rod Marinelli truly believes that if you show up, execute fundamentals well, and leave it all on the field, then you are doing everything you can to win a football game. The fact that he and his staff were consistently outcoached in Xs and Os—on both sides of the ball—reflects this. Sure, I bet from his perspective, it seemed like the Buccaneers teams he coached could simply show up and play hard and win games--but consider the difference in scheming and playcalling ability between Jim Colletto and Jon Gruden. Consider the difference in scheming and playcalling ability between Joe Barry and Monte Kiffin. The great ones--Belichick, Parcells, Walsh--have always stood out, if not in pure darkroom-brainiac X-and-Os, than at least in preparation, gameplanning, and adjustments. Listen to how defensive end Kyle Vandenbosch explains (in the above Times piece) how Schwartz's preparation makes it much easier for him to be effective:
“Especially from a defensive lineman standpoint, we don’t usually pay attention to formations and down and distance. He has that broken down for us. We know what to expect out of certain formations, and what plays they can run. It’s unusual for a defensive line. But we have a quiz in front of the whole defense on Friday, and he expects everybody to know that."
This reminds me of Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, whose offensive system is designed to allow the quarterback to make a presnap decision based off of only one or two defensive keys. It allows the quarterback to worry less about decision-making and more about execution--which resulted in excellent college careers for a lot of quarterbacks who then had slow or difficult transitions into the NFL (Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, Aaron Rodgers, etc.). Taking the read-and-react burden off of the front seven could go a long way towards unleashing the effectiveness of some of the younger, more talented players on the Lions defense. Finally, Schwartz doesn't adhere to any kind of strict system--he appears to prefer a 4-3 to a 3-4, and prefers to get pressure from the front four alone, but isn't afraid to blitz when that isn't working. But beyond that, he seems to be highly adaptive to whatever the situation calls for.
Where I have been throwing out NFL rankings in yardage allowed as proof that Defense X or Defense Y is good, Schwartz understands that scoring defense is what matters--and furthermore doesn't just look at totals and averages, he accounts for garbage time and wasted efforts (like hail mary passes at the end of a half). Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let's look at how the Titans stack up on regular season defense:
So where does this leave us? Schwartz is definitely one of the frontrunners for the job--in fact Tom Kowalski said yesterday on WDFN that Schwartz is THE frontrunner. I think it would be an outstanding fit on paper, and yet--and yet, I wonder. Schwartz is obviously a veteran coach with a LOT of success, but I really wonder if his talents and style will be the best fit for a defense that desperately lacks direction. IMO, if Schwartz is the pick, he's going to need a defensive coordinator with a lot of fire and motivational ability. He needs to win over the locker room immediately, and I wonder if he can do that with a reputation as a 'stat guy'. Still, if Schwartz comes here, than the Lions will have gotten an oustanding football coach, and I will be thrilled.