Jim Schwartz's year-long sabbatical is helping to prepare him for what seems to be an inevitable return to NFL coaching in 2016.
The last time Jim Schwartz experienced a football season quite like this, without any coaching or scouting responsibilities, he was suiting up as a senior linebacker at Georgetown University in 1988. And since 1993, the start of his three-year stint as a Cleveland Browns scout, the NFL schedule had always dictated how his hours were spent.
But 2015 has been strangely different. The former Lions head coach and Bills defensive coordinator isn’t in the NFL this season, at least not on game days, and that reality has presented numerous opportunities to see the game from fresh perspectives. Like even from his couch, if he so desires.
“Honestly I get to enjoy the game a lot more, because when you’re working 100 hours a week to compete in a game on Sunday, it doesn’t leave much time for anything else,” said Schwartz by phone from his home in Nashville on Monday afternoon. “I’ve always been a fan of the NFL, but now you can pop some popcorn and enjoy a game without having to scout or work it. And this is the first year the baseball season lasted past July for me. I’m a big baseball fan, but whatever happened after I went to training camp, I never knew much about it because that was pretty much the end of baseball season.”
Despite a very successful one-year stint as the Bills defensive coordinator in 2014—one that is looking better all the time, given Buffalo’s recent struggles—it wasn’t a shock when Schwartz wasn’t retained on the staff of new head coach Rex Ryan, who has his own defensive pedigree. It also wasn’t a surprise when Schwartz opted to step away from the NFL for a year, following a path that veteran head coaches like Tom Coughlin, Mike Shanahan and Jeff Fisher have traveled in the fairly recent past, taking a one-year break before returning to the league.
And make no mistake, while Schwartz is enjoying life after football, this year of rejuvenation is also doubling as life before football. Because after his 2015 breather is finished, you can count on Schwartz being back in the NFL next year in some capacity, quite possibly as a head coach for the second time, following his five-season stint in Detroit from 2009-2013.
His Lions tenure was not without its missteps and missed opportunities, but he did take a long downtrodden franchise that had endured the NFL’s first 0-16 season in 2008 to the playoffs in his third year on the job, and by the end of his time in Motown, an expectation of winning had become the norm, after years of losing bred despair and disgust in Detroit. And Schwartz’s brief work in Buffalo was superb, leading a Bills defense that led the league in sacks (54), finished No. 4 in the league in yards allowed (312.2), No. 4 in points allowed (18.1), and third in takeaways (30).
It’s hardly an out-on-the-limb prediction to foresee Schwartz’s rebounding reputation earning him another head coaching opportunity next year. Look around the NFL as 2015’s midseason nears. There are a host of underachieving teams that could have head coaching openings at the end of the season, with perhaps as many as 10-12 candidates to get the Black Monday treatment in early January. With that much potential turnover, Schwartz’s chances for his career's second act should rise.
“Buffalo was good for my state of mind,” Schwartz said. “Nobody feels good when you’re fired, but after leaving Detroit I was able to get back on that horse pretty quickly and be able to have some success. Even though we didn’t make the playoffs, that was the first winning season (9-7) Buffalo had had in 10 years. It was good for me to go back to being a coordinator, where the only thing you were concentrating on was that one side of the ball.
“[Bills 2013 defensive coordinator] Mike Pettine did a really good job there, but it wasn’t like I was hired to continue his work. We went with a completely different scheme and we played without the two guys the previous defensive coaching staff graded their two best players, safety Jarius Byrd, who we lost in free agency, and linebacker Kiko Alonso, who we lost to an ACL in training camp. We were not only able to duplicate their success [of 2013], but improve on their success, and field a winning team. We were really good on defense there. Good gracious. The only time I ever won the NFC North was when I was gone [from Detroit], because we swept that division last year in Buffalo.’’
The trend of second-time-around, or re-tread head coaches comes and goes in the NFL, but the 2015 hiring season was fairly heavy on it. Ryan in Buffalo, Gary Kubiak in Denver, Jack Del Rio in Oakland and John Fox in Chicago all have held previous NFL head coaching posts, accounting for four of the league’s seven new coaches this season. In 2014, Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt, Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith and Detroit’s Jim Caldwell fit that same mold. Throw in Andy Reid and Fisher, and the recent results of the second-chance club has been mixed, at best. But it’s also instructive to remember that Bill Belichick was a poorly received re-tread hire once upon a time, Pete Carroll is on his third NFL team, and Coughlin has won a pair of Super Bowl rings in his 12-year stay with the Giants.
Where might Schwartz be a fit in 2016? It’s all premature speculation in late October, but it doesn’t take much projection to surmise that Tennessee could be a possible landing spot, if Whisenhunt can’t get the bleeding stopped for his 1-5 Titans, on the heels of last year’s 2-14 finish. Schwartz just moved his family back to Nashville from the Detroit area earlier this year, and he has a long and successful history with the organization, having spent 1999-2008 in Tennessee, most of that time as Jeff Fisher’s defensive coordinator.
The presence of a young, franchise quarterback like the Titans’ Marcus Mariota would make Tennessee appealing to most any coaching candidate, but other NFL jobs such as Indianapolis, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, San Francisco or even the Giants, should Coughlin retire or resign, would no doubt be among the more coveted potential openings.
“I have way too much respect for other coaches, for guys that I’ve walked in the same shoes they’ve walked in, to root against anybody,” Schwartz said. “I know what they all go through. I’ve gone through it myself.”
Schwartz was reportedly still owed $12 million over the course of the final two years (2014-15) of his Lions contract when he was fired after going 7-9 in the 2013 season, so he certainly can afford to be selective with his job options. But he admits he wants to return to NFL coaching in this coming hiring cycle, and to that end he spent time this year asking some of his coaching mentors what he should be most focused on in seeking that all-important second head coaching position? Schwartz said he was counseled by one long-time mentor to put together a list of criteria that he was looking for in his next head coaching job, and then have the discipline to stick to that list, passing on an opportunity if those key requirements aren’t met.
“What I’ve been afforded is the chance to make sure that any opportunity I take is the best choice,” Schwartz said. “Look at Tom Coughlin after Jacksonville. He was able to find a very good opportunity with the Giants. It’s easy to look around and point out some coaches in the past where their second opportunity came in a place that might not have been the most conducive for success, and for some of them, that’s the last you heard of them. You can get a second chance. You’re not going to get two more chances.”
Schwartz’s first fall away from coaching in 20 years has been far from football-free. Besides taking in weekly NFL action on television, he has attended numerous high school and college games, including his son’s 9th-grade games and practices in Nashville, and has made a tour of sorts designed to pick the brains of coaches across a spectrum of sports, including Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings, who has become a good friend. But Schwartz has also kept his hand in the NFL by serving as a coaching consultant to the league’s officiating department, spending almost two full days a week at the NFL’s office in New York, where he attempts to offer an unbiased coaching view of the calls game officials do and don’t make, as well as the review work and decision making of the NFL’s officiating supervisors.
It’s a position that has proved wildly beneficial, at least to him, Schwartz said.
“I think I’m able to provide the NFL with a little bit of benefit, but I’m receiving ten-fold what I give in terms of education,” Schwartz said. “It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, the more educated you are, the better you’re going to be, and that’s what it’s been for me, a really good education. I feel better about our officiating in the NFL as a result of doing this, without question.
“And I think I’ll be better coach as a result of the experience of hearing the officials’ views. Because when it’s all said and done, and I used to tell the players all the time, it doesn’t matter what I think, it doesn’t matter what the player thinks, it’s what the official thinks, and we have to adjust our play to that.”
With an eye toward the future, Schwartz has tried to use almost every minute in his year-long sabbatical from the NFL to help him take a step toward re-entering the league’s coaching ranks next season. And that has meant creating a certain necessary distance from the game.
“It gives you time to do retrospectives, or to look introspectively at things that you’ve done well, and things that you haven’t,” said Schwartz, who’ll turn 50 next June. “I talked a lot with (Saints head coach) Sean Payton when he ended up with that year off (due to league suspension in 2012), and the way he ended up using that, in what he called the ‘halftime of his career.’ Maybe there’s some adjustments you need to make at halftime.
“I think it’s a lot easier to learn from other people when you’re taking a step back and watching it, and you’re not in the fight every week. Now I can watch the games and I can see it a little differently, with a little different view.”
It’s not a view Schwartz is willing to take for long. He wants back in the game. And soon. But for now, he’s on a different sort of sideline. He’s open to enjoying this new perspective, and its benefits. Just as long as it doesn’t last.