Schwartz Was Winning Numbers Game Before Most Were Playing

Newest Titans assistant coach relied on analytics nearly 20 years ago when he was the defensive coordinator.
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Jim Schwartz was crunching the numbers well before it was cool to do so.

He was the first coach I encountered to use analytics, and he did so even before they were called “analytics” or at least before the term was part of the general sports vernacular. Then it was just numbers and percentages that seemed to be more like one man’s obsession than a trend that eventually would dictate decision-making of every game.

It was early in his tenure as Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator, which ran from 2001-08. One day, Schwartz and I crossed paths in the media relations office, and we struck up a conversation in which he talked about the degree to which one forced turnover improved a team’s chances of victory and how those percentages increased with two and three takeaways. From there he moved into the likelihood that an offense would score when it started a drive inside its own 25 versus when it started at its 35 or beyond. The feeling was that he could have gone on forever such was his enthusiasm for the information.

If anyone would be quick to recognize the value of analytics, it makes sense that it was Schwartz. He was a Division III Academic All-American at Georgetown, where he earned an undergraduate degree and graduate honors in economics – and he banked on the fact that mathematics could and would make him a better coach.

Eventually, his approach and the Titans’ personnel combined to great effect. In 2007, his defense finished fifth in the NFL in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed. The next season his unit finished seventh and second, respectively, in those areas.

It is an important bit of history now that Schwartz is back on Tennessee’s staff as a senior defensive assistant.

Typically, an old hand serves as a voice of wisdom based on all the game situations he has encountered. That was the thinking when Mike Munchak added Gregg Williams to his staff in 2013 to work with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and when Ken Whisenhunt brought in Dick LeBeau in 2015 to work with Ray Horton. Neither of those decisions produced the desired results.

This is different. Schwartz, at 54, is not an old man, but he has as much – or more – experience with the numbers game as anyone in the NFL.

For a relatively young defensive staff – only Jim Haslett has been an NFL coach for at least a decade, and that includes head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen – Schwartz can provide guidance on how to use the numbers that are so prevalent in today’s NFL.

After all, it is one thing to have the information at hand – and there is seemingly no limit to today’s analytics – it is something else to make good use of all that data. It is not difficult to believe that coaches whose careers began in the analytics age can get lost in the numbers and lose sight of the fact that they still have to be applied to players – human beings – who are far less predictable than the numbers.

Schwartz’s success in those early days of mathematical game management make him one of the gurus in this regard. His career began before the integer invasion and has thrived since (he also had top five defenses in Buffalo and Philadelphia), and he has been a part of it every step of the way.

Vrabel has not said specifically what Schwartz’s responsibilities will be in his return to the Titans. You can bet, though, that he was not brought back just to look back on what he has done and try to keep the rest of the staff from repeating his mistakes.

He will be looking at the numbers – as he always has – and trying to help Bowen et. al. use them to get the most out of a defense that allowed yards and points to add up way too high last season.