Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
05 Aug 2004
interviewed by Aaron Schatz
I first read about Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, about two months after starting Football Outsiders. While there are a number of teams in the NFL that use some kind of objective analysis, very few coaches are as open about it as Schwartz. I'm very lucky that I was able to get to know him once the season ended (thanks, Tom Curran) and share some of our work with him. He can talk about football for hours, he's filled with interesting ideas, he's the architect of one of 2003's best defenses, he's the only person besides my wife who knows the Georgetown football fight song, and he's the only coordinator in the league who can tell you what DVOA is -- at least, the only one we know of so far. You never know who could be reading. He took out some time from his busy pre-camp schedule to answer some questions for Football Outsiders readers.
Football Outsiders: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into coaching.
Schwartz: I was always interested in coaching. I remember listening to a Colts-Lions game on the radio, the Colts were up three points very late in game. They tried to punt against an 11-man rush and got the punt blocked for a touchdown. I was about 10 years old but still wondered, "Why didn't they just take a safety?" I didn't really think about doing it as a career until junior year at Georgetown. I knew a lot of people working on Wall Street, making a lot of money, but they were miserable because they hated their job, hated going to work. I decided that I would try to make a career out of the thing I liked the best, football, and since I wasn't good enough to play, I got into coaching. Spent time at University of Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina Central, and Colgate before getting an unpaid internship in 1993 with the Cleveland Browns. Moved with the team to Baltimore and then hooked on with Titans in 1999. After 10 years of struggling in the profession, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time, I finally was in the right place at the right time.
Football Outsiders: You are known generally as being one of the coaches in the NFL most open to statistical analysis. How do you use such analysis to make decisions with your defense on the field?
Schwartz: The statistical analysis probably comes into play more in preparation for games rather than during the actual game. I can focus practice time and emphasize areas that I know correlate to success.
Football Outsiders: How much of this type of analysis do you discuss with Jeff Fisher? How much did you discuss with previous head coaches that you worked under?
Schwartz: I share everything with Jeff - but I set my own course and do my own research. When I worked for Belichick in Cleveland, he used to assign me projects.
Football Outsiders: Who are some of the other coaches and front office people in the NFL who you think are on the vanguard when it comes to doing numbers-based statistical analysis?
Schwartz: Mike Martz, Mike Sherman, Bill Belichick, Brian Billick, Dick Vermeil, and Jim Haslett are the head coaches who I know pay attention to statistical analysis.
Football Outsiders: Do you coach from the press box or on the field, and why?
Schwartz: I'm on the field. You can see the game better from the box but, as a defensive play caller, it makes more sense for me to be closer to the field. Most of our calls depend on what the offense does (personnel - 3 WR, 4 WR, 2 TE, and so on). Therefore, I have to wait for them to substitute and then match their personnel and pull the trigger on a defensive call pretty quick. I also do most of my own signals in order to save time. I also want to be on the sideline to make adjustments myself, and also to be able to look in the players' eyes to get a feel for how they are doing.
Football Outsiders: What is the relationship like between you, as a coordinator, and the positional coaches that work under you? Also, I've had a couple readers who know that we talk ask me what Dave McGinnis' role is with this year's Titans.
Schwartz: I'm a big believer in giving good people the room to do their job. I am very results orientated - I tell them what I want/expect and then let the defensive assistants do it the best way that they see fit. There are times when I would have coached something a little different, but if they believe in it strongly, then they are going to teach/coach it better. We have a great defensive staff here - my role is to give them structure and direction, and then to make sure the final result is what I want. I make all the calls on game day, but the assistants all make contributions to the the game plan each week. If we have a difference of opinion on what we are going to do, it is up to me to make the final decision. Dave is awesome - very enthusiastic and contagious. He is really looking forward to actually getting his hands dirty and coaching a position again (linebackers).
Football Outsiders: How will the changes in the Titans' defensive personnel effect how you play defense this year? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your new players compared to the ones that left?
Schwartz: Every year our defense will be a little different - we do some things better and worse than the year before. The salary cap has prevented teams from having the same players every year, so I think the most important thing in coaching now is tweaking your system to take advantage of those strengths. I don't think you can be successful if you stubbornly stick to a system that you don't have the players for. The biggest mistake I made was my first year as a coordinator (2001). We were coming off a season rated #1 in total yards allowed (which is a ridiculous way to rank but that is another story) and I tried to do everything the exact same way that we had done it the year before. The only problem was that by Week 2, we had lost five of the top six defensive backs from 2001 either due to salary cap, free agency, or season-ending injury and weren't able to execute the things that gave us so much success the season before. By the time we had implemented our backup plan, it was too late.
Last year we didn't have to blitz very much because our four-man rush was so successful. Without Jevon Kearse, we may have to blitz more to keep the pressure on the QB. We drafted for depth this season, drafting five defensive linemen, a linebacker, and two defensive backs. I think most will contribute in some way and the law of averages says that one will be a surprise standout.
Football Outsiders: Is there any one type of offense that you find particularly difficult to prepare for?
Schwartz: Every offense runs slightly or drastically different schemes - each one presents a different challenge. Getting ready for Baltimore in the playoffs was a lot different than getting ready for Tampa Bay last game of the season. Tampa really put you under a lot of pressure with formations and motions. Baltimore just lined up and pounded you with the best RB in the league. The scheme itself really doesn't make a difference; it's the execution of the scheme that puts the pressure on the defense.
Football Outsiders: Is there any type of offense that you would particularly like to have your offensive coordinator run? In other words, as a defensive coordinator, would you rather have your offensive coordinator run a ball-control, conservative offense that keeps your defense off the field, or would you rather have your fellow coordinator run a Mike Martz-style offense that could get you a quick lead but also has risks putting your defense in more difficult situations?
Schwartz: Depends on what your offense is good at. In a perfect world for defensive coordinators, your own offense has 15-play drives, keeps the clock running by never having an incompletion or running out of bounds, and scores a TD or FG on nearly every drive, never turning the ball over or giving the opponent the ball with good field position. But that is pretty hard to do!
That was Baltimore's formula for winning the Super Bowl (except for the scoring every drive part). Defenses love it because it shortens the game (50-55 plays instead of 65+) and keeps them fresh with the long breaks while the offense is controlling the ball. There is not a defensive coordinator in the NFL that wouldn't love that scenario but the idea is to win the game, not to make the defensive stats look good. The idea is to score more points than the opponent. You have to do what you do best. So if you have a ton of offensive weapons and can score fast like the Rams did, do it. They would struggle to run an offense like the Ravens. But there is nothing worse for a defense than your offense trying to do something that it can't - like if Ravens tried to execute the Rams offense. Turnovers, mistakes, and lack of execution would put too much pressure on your defense.
We went on a six game tear last year, scoring 30+ points in each game. We were killing teams through 3 quarters but it made our defensive stats "look" bad because we would empty the bench in the 4th quarter and be willing to trade yards for time on the clock and a great defensive game would look different in the box score. That's why it is so ridiculous that the NFL ranks offenses and defenses on yards gained/allowed.
Football Outsiders: This next question is in the vein of the interview I did with you for my Super Bowl preview. I hope you can be just as open here since you won't play these teams in 2004. The NFC South is one of the most unpredictable divisions in the NFL this year. You played all four of these offenses last year -- although Atlanta did not have Vick at the time -- and I'm curious to get your thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses as you saw them.
Schwartz: Carolina has a good running game, a good running back, and a receiver who can make a big play. The ball control offense means there is not a lot of risk, and they want to control the clock for the defense. I'm not sure if Delhomme is a one-hit wonder or the real deal yet. Will this be the year that Davis hits the wall? There's a lot of age on some key offensive players.
With Atlanta, the 1-2 punch at RB can give you some problems because of the different styles of Dunn and Duckett. There's a Pro Bowl caliber TE in Crumpler and I think Peerless Price will be better in his second season with the team. They have THE MOST dynamic player in the NFL if Vick is healthy. He can be a one-man wrecking crew. But with Dunn coming back from injury as well as Vick, I don't know if they are 100 percent healthy, and there isn't much at wide receiver after Price. Plus, will the new system compliment Vick or will he take time to adjust?
Tampa Bay has a proven system, and Gruden always gets a lot out of a stable of backs. Garner can be very dangerous in a limited role. Gruden proved in Oakland that he knows how to play a guy to emphasize his strengths instead of his weaknesses, like Crockett. The offense is based on high percentage short throws, without a big play guy. Maybe Galloway fills this need for a big play guy but not many wide receivers come into a new system and have instant success. McCardell is a perfect fit but the holdout is a problem. There has been a lot of turnover at offensive line and this has not been a strength recently. Johnson is getting older and beat up a little, his mobility is lacking but he makes good decisions and throws accurate short passes.
The Saints have a big time multi-dimensional RB who can do it all. Brooks can be as good as anyone in NFL when he gets hot. There is a good stable of wideouts and if Stallworth can step up, they will be very dangerous when he is teamed with Horn. Most importantly, this might be the best offensive line in the division. The problem is that Brooks can be very inconsistent but this offense has a lot of talent and firepower.