Digging deeper into the numbers (game)

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Whether it's fair or not, the "Moneyball" tag has chased new Detroit coach Jim Schwartz for most of the past five years. Ever since my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky wrote this story in a 2003 edition of The (Nashville) Tennessean, Schwartz has been as known for his reliance on statistical analysis as he has been for being the primary schemer of the Titans' perennially successful defense.

So on Friday I called Aaron Schatz, the president of Football Outsiders and one of main analysts Schwartz has worked with over the years. Is Schwartz some kind of computer nerd? Or is he a football coach looking for an edge?

"When people read that Jim has an economics degree from Georgetown," Schatz said, "I think they picture somebody like me walking around on the sideline. He's not me. He is a football coach. I've been there to visit him, and he is very much a classic coach. He screams at players when they need to be screamed at. He works on the sideline, instead of in the booth, because he wants to know their emotions.

"I've always thought of him as a coach who is also willing to include statistical analysis in his preparation," Schatz added. "He's open to it. That's all. He's just trying to be whole and consider everything."

Schatz, whose Football Outsiders work appears on ESPN.com, has also conducted studies for Schwartz on a consultant basis. Some of them, Schatz said, have been related to game management and directed toward the five head-coaching interviews Schwartz has had over the years.

What are the best times to go for it on fourth down? When should a penalty be declined? Where is the dividing line between too many and not enough carries for a running back?

Schatz's role is to find every example of a given scenario during a set time period -- say, every game of the previous season -- and determine which decision was the most successful. At the very least, the results give the coach a historical profile to help develop strategy.

Here's an example: Based on its analysis, Football Outsiders found that NFL teams throw too often in short-yardage situations. In 2004, for instance, Schatz looked at every third or fourth down in which the yardage to be gained was three or fewer yards. In every situation, teams converted more often by running than by throwing.

That even includes third-and-3, where teams passed 75 percent of the time in 2004. They converted 52 percent of those instances. But when NFL teams ran on third-and-3, their conversion rate jumped to 59.7.

Does that mean Schwartz will run on every short-yardage situation in Detroit? No. But he will be armed with this knowledge: In general, running plays are more successful in those situations.

One area that helped Schwartz in Tennessee: Football Outsiders' emphasis on the importance of third-down defense. Schwartz designed his practice schedule to maximize the amount of time his players worked on defenses they most often used in third-down situations.

Third-down defense is measured by percentage converted. Of the teams with the six lowest percentages in the NFL during 2008, five made the playoffs. (The 9-7 Chicago Bears were the only omission.) Nine of the top 11 teams in that category finished the season with a winning record. The Titans were ranked No. 6.

"There's not a football coach in the United States ... that doesn't use statistics to some degree," Schwartz said Friday at his introductory news conference in Detroit. "What we tried to do is to identify the important stats ... to try to find out what's meaningful. What correlates to wins?

"The biggest thing that it does is it gives us an idea how to best use your practice time."

So rest assured, Lions fans. While your new coach knows his way around a computer and understands numbers, it would be difficult to refer to him as a nasty name that rhymes with bird.