Saturday, October 20, 2012

Jim Schwartz: Giving Courage Back to the Lions


One of the feel good stories of this past NFL season was the emergence of the Detroit Lions as an actual football team. They have, for the last 10 years at least, been the low water mark for every NFL team. Teams would have bad seasons but at least they weren’t the Lions.

This season was different. Everything was different. A team has risen from the state of Michigan with a belief and a purpose. A massive turnaround has taken place in the Motor City.

The reason this turnaround took place, I believe, is due to the coaching staff and specifically Jim Schwartz. Schwartz never played in the NFL but he did play four years as a linebacker at Maryland University whilst gaining a degree in Economics. On completion he became a Graduate Assistant for the football program at his alma mater before moving around the college football landscape with stints at Minnesota, North Carolina Central, and Colgate. From here he moved in to the NFL, working in the Personnel department of the Cleveland Browns between 1993 and 1995. He then became OLB and Quality control coach in Baltimore before finally moving to the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Schwartz started off as a Linebackers Coach and a 3rd Down Package Coordinator and over the next 9 seasons he rose to the position of Defensive Coordinator, working to create one of the most dominant defensive units in the league. He became Lions' Head Coach in 2009.

What, in my opinion, makes Schwartz’s story so interesting is the economics degree. Having started work in the NFL personnel in the personnel department Schwartz has developed an analytical and statistical approach to coaching.


An anecdote regarding Schwartz from his time under Bill Belichick, in the mid-nineties, is that he tried to convince his boss that fumbles are random occurrences. The idea was that over the course of the season all teams fumble roughly the same amount. Belichick didn’t agree, so Schwartz pulled out a statistical analysis he had prepared as part of his degree at Maryland.

Schwartz seems to approach football much as Billy Beane approaches Baseball. For those of you who don’t know Beane, check out this book. Schwartz tries to work to statistics, much as a blackjack player does, to turn the odds in his favour.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2008, Schwartz pleads his case for statistical coaching –

“If you ask me, Would you rather have a great fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy on Sunday, a guy who can dial up plays and he’d be the best in league, or a guy who is best in the league from Monday to Saturday preparing, I respect the guy who prepares. You’re not always going to be rolling 7, 7, 7 and be hot every week. But if you prepare well during the week, you’ll be consistent from week to week.”



When the Lions hired Schwartz they knew what they were getting. The second smartest thing the Lions did, after hiring him , was give him time. Schwartz went 2-14 and 6-10 in his first two seasons and some cases coaches have been fired for similar. Josh McDaniels and Mike Singletary come to mind. Schwartz has said all along that this is a rebuilding process and after the Matt Millen debacle in Detroit, the owners have given Schwartz the time he needs.

Schwartz clearly has a philosophy. Having served under Jeff Fisher, one of the best coaches of the last two decades, Schwartz saw that proper planning and a commitment to a philosophy, in Fisher’s case the West Coast Offense.

“Seeking talent based on what he commonly refers to as “multi-dimensional” players. Like his defenses in Tennessee, he firmly believes success is a product of the team’s ability to adapt, and all three phases of the game—offense, defense and special teams—are tailored on both personnel and particular game strategies.”

If you look at the players Schwartz has drafted over the last few seasons, Picks like Jahvid Best, who is a space player who can run and catch the ball, or Brandon Pettigrew, who can block and catch, they both show this commitment to adaptability.

However, Schwartz has changed more than the personnel of the Lions, he has changed the very mentality of the team; creating a consistent and stable base from which to build a successful team.

Under GM Matt Millen, a fantastic player but catastrophic front office manager, the team had no chemistry and constantly capitulated against teams they should have beaten. There was also no vision. A famous stat from Millen’s Lions is that in the first round they drafted four wide receivers in five years. Only one of those, Calvin Johnson, is still with the team.

Millen’s Lions would not have bounced back from a 24 point deficit like Schwartz and Co. did against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4. You can read my thoughts here on the game but suffice to say although Tony Romo did not have the best of games it was the never quit attitude of the Lions that ensure a magnificent comeback.

The Lions had a play-off season and seem poised to have a very successful few years, not just by Lions standard but by any standard you care to mention. I hope they do well and I hope Schwartz continues to employ his cerebral approach to football.

Lewis English is an NFL Fanatic and doesn't care for boxing, but if he did he would pay to see Harbaugh Vs Schwartz II in Las Vegas. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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