It's a numbers game for new Lions coach
Back when I covered the Titans and the NFL for The Tennessean I found myself in a conversation with Jim Schwartz -- then Tennessee's coordinator, now Detroit's new coach -- about the concepts of Michael Lewis' best-selling "Moneyball." That started me on a path to this piece about how Schwartz views statistics as a tool, which may offer a lot of hints as to how he'll approach some of his new work. It ran on Sept. 12, 2003 in The Tennessean.
The game analyzer
Schwartz is using his background in economics to help prepare his defensive game plan
By Paul Kuharsky
September 12, 2003
Throw an economics major into the world of pro football and chances are he's a front office salary-cap guru or a smart player who knows how to manage his money.
But Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been putting his economic degree from Georgetown to use in a different way.
Inspired by Moneyball, a book by Michael Lewis detailing the unique management and personnel decision style of Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, Schwartz farmed out some analytical work to statistic-minded friends.
The yet-to-be-completed results of those studies will have a direct bearing on some of his decision-making this season and help him prepare his defense each game week.
"Does it change tackling, rushing, pass coverage? No. But it gives you the best idea of how to manage a game, and of where the game is now. That's the whole idea," Schwartz said.
"I asked, 'What are the highest correlating factors to points allowed, rather than wins.' I came up with an equation that tells me the determining factors."
What those factors are remains a secret.
"I don't want anybody to poach my stuff for free," he said.
Schwartz's boss, Coach Jeff Fisher, said preparation and feel dictate calling a game above all else. But he said Schwartz's use and understanding of detailed stats "may carry over into the way he manages a game from a play-calling standpoint."
Schwartz said he's looking to challenge conventional wisdom about what's most important in a football game, the way the A's have with baseball.
In scouting and signing talent, Oakland has strayed from traditional presumptions about statistics, de-emphasizing certain categories (like batting average) and looking at others (like on-base percentage) with much wider eyes.
"You want to stay ahead of where football is going," Schwartz said. "Everyone says it's important to run the football. How important? The saying is that pitching and fielding is 90% of baseball. The A's said, 'Says who?' They did their reasoning to find out what percentage."
Schwartz is also examining regressions, the same sort of predictive formulas used in economic and weather forecasting.
Meteorologists predict today's chance of rain by plugging factors into a regression equation. Looking at temperature and wind, humidity and barometric pressure, the equation reveals the percentage of time it's rained when those factors came together.
Schwartz looks at similar equations as they relate to scoring defense, since his primary mission is to limit points.
He takes his unit's third-down percentage, red-zone percentage, run average and pass average and gets an answer as to "how many points you're expected to give up over the course of a season based on what's happened in the past" around the league.
"If we improve our third-down percentage five percent, it should translate into this many less points," he said. "If we can increase our red zone effectiveness by 10 percent, it translates to X points."
To reduce some of his research to a friendlier scale, Schwartz decided to break games into smaller pieces. Trends are clearer when he looks at approximately 192 defensive series over a season as opposed to 16 games.
He's also assigned a value to each yard on the field. If an opponent has the ball on its own 25, or the "minus-25" as the Titans would call it, Schwartz knows the expected point total of a drive starting there.
"I can look on a chart and add up the expected value. I can say in an average NFL drive over the last few years they gave up this many points," Schwartz said. "Did we do better or worse than that?"
Schwartz doesn't overload his players with statistical information. Free safety Lance Schulters, a former 49er, said San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora referred to stats the same way Schwartz does in meetings. Cornerback Andre Dyson, who's played for no other NFL coordinator, said he is sometimes surprised by Schwartz.
"He does like his stats," Dyson said. "He comes up with some crazy stuff, like how fast the ball will come out [of the quarterback's hand] when they run a certain play, some stuff you wouldn't think a coach would pay attention to."
Schwartz does not cast himself as an innovator, however. Plenty of coaches around the league will arrive at similar conclusions, he said, though some will probably use alternate roads to get there.
Nevertheless, he is confident plotting all the curves will help the Titans stay ahead of the curve.
"We need to know what's making the difference," he said. "It's planning, management of a game, how best to use our resources, when to be aggressive rather than, 'What's the best way to beat an opponent?' "
It might not stop there. Schwartz may be willing to offer statistical evidence that could aid General Manager Floyd Reese in decisions about which players to sign.
"It's a monster process, but you can quantify how important a corner is compared to a defensive tackle," Schwartz said. "And that can give you direction not only coaching-wise, but maybe personnel-wise."