With his eventful five-year tenure as Detroit’s head coach over after the Lions’ disappointing 7-9 season in 2013, Jim Schwartz is now in Buffalo as the Bills’ new defensive coordinator, replacing the departed Mike Pettine on second-year head coach Doug Marrone’s staff. Schwartz, 48, went 29-51 with the Lions, but led Detroit to a 2011 playoff berth, just three years after Rod Marinelli’s sad-sack Lions became the league’s first team to finish a season 0-16. Detroit had missed the playoffs for 11 consecutive years before qualifying in 2011, and Schwartz's latest challenge is to now join a Bills franchise that is seeking to end its NFL-high 14-year postseason streak. SI.com spoke with Schwartz on Saturday, from Buffalo’s training camp at St. John Fisher College in the Rochester-area suburb of Pittsford, N.Y.:
SI.com: Having MarcellDareus back on your defensive line starting with Friday night’s practice had to be a sight for sore eyes. Did you need that kind of boost given the loss of safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso to an offseason injury?
Schwartz: “Yeah, he definitely had fresh legs and was moving around out there. But that’s Marcell. Marcell’s a big man, but he can run. It’s taken a little while getting him on the field, but when he was able to get on the field, he was ready for it. That’s the bottom line. But that is a strong defensive front we have. We had three guys in the Pro Bowl up there and the fourth guy, Jerry Hughes, was a double-digit sacker. So we do have strength up front, but we have good players at all three levels of our defense. We did lose Kiko to injury at linebacker, but we added a veteran in Keith Rivers, and a really good rookie in (third-rounder) Preston Brown, and we added another quality veteran in Brandon Spikes. So at least with Kiko getting injured when he did, it gave us time to sort that position out.’’
SI.com: Is that the case with Byrd’s departure as well, that you’ve had time to sort the safety position out?
Schwartz: “You mentioned the strength of this defense being up front, but I think we’re also very strong in the secondary. Our corners, with Stephon Gilmore and LeodisMcKelvin, then signing Corey Graham, that’s been a big addition for us. But (safety) Aaron Williams is a guy who’s really ready to take that next step. Gilmore in a way has already done that, now he just needs to stay healthy and put it together. But Aaron is really now the undisputed leader of the back end. He’s a take charge guy back there. Yes, we lost Bryd, and we have good competition at that other safety, but some of that slack is picked up by Aaron Williams.’’
SI.com: How big of an addition was Brandon Spikes for you at linebacker and does his run defense and tackling skills help make up for the loss of Alonso?
Schwartz: Well, that’s yet to be seen, how that all works out. But he’s a good strong inside run player and you look at us last year, we were really good at creating turnovers, scoring on defense, things like that. But we gave up a few too many rushing yards. Too many big plays. But a linebacker like Spikes can help us settle that down. He’s been a good addition. Rivers has been a very good addition. Same with Preston Brown. (Rookie linebacker, seventh-round pick) Randell Johnson just got back, and he was impressive during OTAs.
“But probably a couple guys at linebacker who are more improved than anybody we’ve had has been (third-year veteran) Nigel Bradham and (second-year man) Ty Powell. Both of those guys are really on the come. Bradham played a little bit last year, but since the first day of our offseason program he’s shown a maturity and seriousness about it, even when he was running behind Kiko Alonso. You could tell we were going to be able to count on him when his time came, and maybe his time has been accelerated also.’’
SI.com: From the sound of your scratchy voice, you’re back coaching with your well-known sense of intensity. How has the transition back to defensive coordinator gone for you?
Schwartz: “The job’s really no different than what I’ve done before. The only difference now as opposed to the recent past for me is now my 100 hours a week is focused totally on this defense and the opponent’s offense. I’m excited about this job. It’s something I’m enjoying.’’
SI.com: You have, of course, experience with a franchise snapping its long playoff drought, having gotten the Lions to the playoffs in 2011. But what was the most appealing thing about coming to Buffalo, a franchise that has not made the postseason since 1999, the league’s longest such streak?
Schwartz: “There’s talent here, and I had a strong feeling for Coach Marrone. I never worked with him. I just knew him a little bit when he was at Syracuse and he came over to Detroit a couple times. But he worked for the Jets as the offensive line coach when Mike Heimerdinger was their offensive coordinator, and “Dinger’’ and I worked together for eight or nine years in Tennessee. So I knew how much respect Dinger had for him, and we talked about the job and I thought it was a good fit. I’m really excited and I think we have some pieces defensively that give us the ability to play the game we need to play it. We’ve got corners who can cover, we’ve got guys up front who can win and it’s an exciting opportunity.’’
SI.com: Are you a better coach today for having been a head coach, and did you miss the hands-on coaching, or the teaching, that you don’t have time to do as a head coach?
Schwartz: “I don’t know that I ever got too far away from it. Obviously your time’s divided when you’re a head coach. But I think anything you do, with experience you get better. I think whether you’re selling insurance or writing articles or you’re coaching football, every experience is going to add to it and it’s going to help you. So yeah, I am. But I didn’t get too far away from the teaching aspect, the hands-on coaching in Detroit. So I wouldn’t say I missed it, because I never got too far away from it.’’
SI.com: Being the first team to report this summer, the Bills are in training camp in Pittsford for a full month this year. How long has it been since you slept in a dorm room for a stretch like that?
Schwartz: “Yeah, and it might even be longer than a month, I think. In the last 15 years I’ve only had one experience away from a team’s home training facility for camp, and that with Tennessee I think in 2006, we went to Austin Peay for only two weeks. The whole other time in Tennessee we trained at home and in Detroit we were at home as well.
“But this is a great set-up here. It’s a short walk for players. A lot of times when you’re on college campuses, there’s a lot of walking and you have to walk far to go to meetings. This is a really compact layout and the players aren’t very far from their dorms, not very far from the cafeteria, not very far from the practice fields and the locker rooms. We’ve got good fan support, which is always good because it helps players push through some of the dog days. I don’t know that you can find a nicer, slash, better training camp set-up than what we have here.’’
SI.com: With former head coaches like Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee), Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay), Jim Caldwell (Detroit), Andy Reid (Kansas City) and John Fox (Denver) getting a second head coaching opportunity in recent years, is it your goal to get that same chance some day?
Schwartz: “You know the answer to that. You don’t worry about stuff like that. You go do the job that you have. I’m not looking at anything other than this day. We just got done with a walk-through and that took a bit of my energy, and now it’s time to rest up and come back for a night practice and have some energy there. No matter what level you are, not just in the NFL, but any business, you’ve got to do a good job of what you’ve been given. You can’t live in the past and you also can’t look too far in the future. I think if our players do that, and our coaches do that, and if I do that, then we’ll be successful here.’’