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Jim Schwartz and fourth downs

3/30/2011

In researching the Detroit Lions' decision to hire coach Jim Schwartz two years ago, I came across more than a few stories detailing his interest and reliance on economics-style statistical analysis. Fair or not, Schwartz was known as much for that aspect of his background than for his role as the primary schemer of the Tennessee Titans' successful defense.

So it's been interesting to watch Schwartz's compliance -- or lack thereof -- with one of the central tenets of this arena. Ever since University of California professor David Romer's groundbreaking paper on the topic, statistical analysts have urged NFL coaches to be more aggressive on fourth down. Put simply, Romer demonstrated that teams had a higher probability of winning if they went for it on fourth down more often than if they routinely punted or even kicked field goals in those situations.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has followed that philosophy more than any other current coach, even to the extreme of his well-publicized and ultimately unsuccessful 2009 decision against the Indianapolis Colts. Schwartz got his NFL coaching start under Belichick, has an economics degree from Georgetown and seemingly fit a similar profile.

In reality, however, Schwartz has not stepped out from NFL norms on this issue. Our friends over at Football Outsiders, whom Schwartz has consulted with over the years, have developed a statistical category known as "Aggressiveness Index" (AI). It measures how often a coach has gone for it on fourth down while excluding obvious instances such as a large deficit in the fourth quarter.

Schwartz was the 11th-most aggressive coach based on AI in 2009, but last season he ranked No. 29. Overall, Schwartz decided to go for it on fourth down four times in 42 opportunities.

I offer this information more or less without comment. Regular readers know I often rely on Football Outsiders and ESPN Stats & Information to help explain or point out trends. But my (decidedly unanalytic) opinion is that context should always trump research when it comes to making football decisions.

What I think this tells us is that Schwartz, as promised, isn't married to statistical analysis any more than he is devoted to the blitz. He'll use it when he deems it appropriate, but he won't be the robot that some people might have feared the Lions were getting when his interest in research was first publicized.

What I think Romer's work has told us is that coaches should be less worried about the implications of a failed fourth-down attempt than they are otherwise wired to be. It gives them more reason to stop and think about going for it. But as with any knowledge tool, coaches would be mistaken to follow Romer's advice as a rule. Context, instincts and matchups are all factors that must be accounted for as well.

For those interested, here is where the rest of the NFC North coaches ranked in 2010. (Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is omitted because he didn't have enough opportunities to make it a fair comparison.)

18. Mike McCarthy (Green Bay Packers)

29. Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions)

30. Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears)