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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Lions' new coach Jim Schwartz: football pragmatist?

The Detroit Lions hired former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to be their new head coach. A daunting gig, to be sure: achieving success in Detroit might be beyond any coach's realistic hopes. But, insofar as they might have a shot, this is an excellent hire.

There are the obvious and ESPN-ready reasons to hire Schwartz: (a) that he has been defensive coordinator with the Titans under Jeff Fisher, running one of the league's best units there, and (b) that he has worked with Bill Belichick, which come NFL hiring time is like holding a golden ticket.

But there's a better reason, and it is one that should give Lions fans at least a glimmer of legitimate hope: the guy has a brain. Yes, he has a degree from Georgetown, which puts him ahead of most NFL coaches, but more importantly he has proven that he has an inquisitive, analytical mind, which is all-too-often in short-supply in the NFL.

This past fall, the New York Times ran an article on Schwartz saying he was like the NFL's version of Billy Beane, the empirically minded general manager of the Oakland A's made famous (and in some circles, infamous) in Michael Lewis' great book, Moneyball. Beane, as you may remember, helped revolutionize baseball by favoring detailed statistical analysis to aid him in determining his draft picks, batting order, and pitchers. It famously led him to pick up and use guys no one else had any interest in or had even heard of.

(A running theme in Moneyball was Beane's repeated failed attempts to trade for some then-unknown minor league player for the Red Sox that he nicknamed the "Greek God of Walks" for the player's ability to repeatedly get walked more than just about anybody, while also driving up the pitch-count and consistently getting on base. He even had trouble getting him because the then Red Sox's front-office couldn't even remember that he was on their roster. That player? 2008 All-Star Kevin Youkilis.)

The other thing Beane did was win against the odds. The A's repeatedly made the playoffs despite having a payroll a mere fraction not only of juggernauts like the Yankees, but most other teams in their division and around the league. Lewis' answer to the question "How was Beane doing it?" was that Beane was outsmarting his opponents. It was not necessarily that he was smarter, but his approach was: the A's were willing to do away with "common wisdom" and even the kind of impressions most scouts give regarding a prospect: "Wow, look at the guns on him. He just looks like a baseball player." As a result, the A's routinely beat teams with payrolls twice theirs. And, now, the so-called sabermetric revolution has almost entirely swept through baseball. Even teams that don't rely on it as heavily as the A's still have some guys with laptops and Ivy League degrees slipping around their front offices these days. (The Red Sox too are now somewhat considered a Moneyball based organization, though one with a rather large payroll.)

But football is a different animal. On the one hand, football coaches and aficionados were engaged with advanced statistics long before baseball. Virgil Carter, former quarterback under Bill Walsh, actually computed the "expected value" of field position back in the 1960s. (He actually did it while enrolled part time in Northwestern's MBA program while also a player with the Chicago Bears.) Yet, as I have previously written, football is the most complex sport of all. You cannot model the game as a series of one-on-one battles as you can with baseball; indeed, the goal for both offense and defense is often to get two on one or three on two. But that has led far too many coaches, fans, and commentators -- maybe it is the machismo, maybe it is just the complexity -- to denounce and deride statistics out of hand, without basis.

Enter Schwartz. As the New York Times reported:

Schwartz, now the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, had an economics degree from Georgetown University, an abiding fascination with statistics and a preference for watching game film over television. That made him a kindred spirit with his first N.F.L. boss, Bill Belichick. But when Schwartz told Belichick his findings from an early N.F.L. research project almost 15 years ago, Belichick said he did not believe him.

“Fumbles are a random occurrence,” Schwartz said he told Belichick. “Being able to get interceptions or not throw interceptions has a high correlation with good teams. But over the course of a year, good teams don’t fumble any more or less than bad teams. Bill didn’t agree. He said, ‘No, good teams don’t fumble the ball.’ But actually, they fumble just as often as bad teams.”

With the Titans, Schwartz once encouraged the former offensive coordinator Norm Chow to run more on third-and-short because his research indicated that it was more effective than passing.

Unorthodox thinking like that has earned Schwartz, 42, a reputation as one of the N.F.L.’s leading practitioners of statistical analysis — “Moneyball” for the shoulder-pad set — using them in coaching the defense for the league’s only unbeaten team . . . . Belichick regards Schwartz as one of the smartest coaches he has been around.

As the Times points out, however, in the NFL, being known for your analytical skills is, strangely enough, not always a plus:

But being known as a “stats guy” is not necessarily a compliment, because statistics do not hold the romantic place in football that they do in baseball. Although every coach uses plenty of data — the Titans’ Jeff Fisher tracks how long his team takes to break the huddle — football is unlikely to bestow statistics-driven celebrity on anyone the way the baseball book “Moneyball” did on Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics.

(Of course, as Salon's King Kaufman points out in his article "Ignorance is not a sportswriting skill," baseball isn't always that enlightened either.)

In a previous article I discussed the anti-stats view, which I said can be described as nothing but neanderthal in nature. But sometimes it is just inertia and an unwillingness to be beholden to anything that doesn't seem "up front" or real; to these people, they feel like they have the experience and perception to "just know" -- Hey, it's common sense. But as Lord Keynes warned, what many call "common sense" is often just some past blowhard's own shoddy analysis or comment preserved and repeated over time, without examination.

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. " - John Maynard Keynes

Think of the myriad examples, like "balance," play-calling, spiking the ball, or going for it on fourth-down. This is why Schwartz offers some hope. He may not succeed in Detroit, but, to me, he appears more likely to do so than anyone else. He will no doubt attempt to go in there and put together the best possible plan, not just a collection of truisms and cliches: Orwell's advice about writing can be applied to putting together a football team and organization; he discusses reading a writer who, in his opening paragraph, appears to have something important to say. But the rest of the writer's piece collapses because whatever fresh thought he began with was quickly replaced with a series of tired cliches and overused metaphors. The final product was thus imprecise, impersonal, and banal.

The analogy works for coaches. You might be talented and have a vision, but if all you can say is that we're going to "outwork our opponents," "we're going to have balance," "we will establish the run," or "we will be more disciplined than our opponents," then you're in trouble. All those are worthy goals (mostly), but they aren't always particularly constructive. Indeed, although in high school, maybe you can do these things because you might know the game more and be better organized, the NFL is a different animal. In the NFL, if a guy doesn't work he's cut; if a coach doesn't win he's fired. Rod Marinelli's Lions rarely lacked effort. They simply lacked wins.

In gleaning other hints about Schwartz's mindset and approach, I saw his name arise in the context of another Michael Lewis piece, this one about Texas Tech's Mike Leach:

At least one N.F.L. defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz of the Tennessee Titans, had stumbled upon Texas Tech accidentally and said, Oh, my. The surprise runner-up in the search earlier this year for a new San Francisco 49ers head coach, Schwartz had scrambled to answer a question: if he got the 49ers job, whom should he hire? He was just in his mid-30's, and his football career stopped at Georgetown (where he graduated with honors in economics), so he really hadn't thought about this before.

The 49ers had not bothered to interview college coaches for the head-coaching job in part because its front-office analysis found that most of the college coaches hired in the past 20 years to run N.F.L. teams had failed. But in Schwartz's view, college coaches tended to fail in the N.F.L. mainly because the pros hired the famous coaches from the old-money schools, on the premise that those who won the most games were the best coaches. But was this smart? Notre Dame might have a good football team, but how much of its success came from the desire of every Catholic in the country to play for Notre Dame?

Looking for fresh coaching talent, Schwartz analyzed the offensive and defensive statistics of what he called the "midlevel schools" in search of any that had enjoyed success out of proportion to their stature. On offense, Texas Tech's numbers leapt out as positively freakish: a midlevel school, playing against the toughest football schools in the country, with the nation's highest scoring offense. Mike Leach had become the Texas Tech head coach before the 2000 season, and from that moment its quarterbacks were transformed into superstars. In Leach's first three seasons, he played a quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, who wound up passing for more yards than all but three quarterbacks in the history of major college football. When Kingsbury graduated (he is now with the New York Jets), he was replaced by a fifth-year senior named B.J. Symons, who threw 52 touchdown passes and set a single-season college record for passing yards (5,833). The next year, Symons graduated and was succeeded by another senior - like Symons, a fifth-year senior, meaning he had sat out a season. The new quarterback, who had seldom played at Tech before then, was Sonny Cumbie, and Cumbie's 4,742 passing yards in 2004 was the sixth-best year in N.C.A.A. history.

... Whoever played quarterback for the Texas Tech Red Raiders was sure to create so much offense that he couldn't be ignored.

Schwartz had an N.F.L. coach's perspective on talent, and from his point of view, the players Leach was using to rack up points and yards were no talent at all. None of them had been identified by N.F.L. scouts or even college recruiters as first-rate material. . . . Either the market for quarterbacks was screwy - that is, the schools with the recruiting edge, and N.F.L. scouts, were missing big talent - or (much more likely, in Schwartz's view) Leach was finding new and better ways to extract value from his players. "They weren't scoring all these touchdowns because they had the best players," Schwartz told me recently. "They were doing it because they were smarter. Leach had found a way to make it work."

. . . This offense was, in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game. Schwartz didn't know if Leach's system would work in the N.F.L., where they had bigger staffs, better players and a lot more time to prepare for whatever confusion the offense cooked up. On the other hand, he wasn't sure it wouldn't.

The takeaway is not that Schwartz will be hiring Mike Leach as offensive coordinator. (In fact, he has hired Scott Linehan, which -- despite some outcry -- is generally a good choice. Many coaches, including Urban Meyer, still think Linehan is a bright, bright guy, and as a coordinator his offenses always put up points.) But the fact that he'd even consider back then should be heartening: it means Schwartz is looking for results backed up by the numbers, appearances and cliches be damned. Leach's offense looks screwy: the linemen are linemen split out wide, four receivers line-up on nearly every play, yet it gets results, and results with inferior talent at that. Beane was derided and mocked when he'd pick up a pitcher with a funky sidearm delivery where the ball was released only a few inches from the ground -- a release no scout could ever condone. Yet the derision would fade when they realized that few hitters could hit that crazy delivery, at least for a time. Beane was shopping for discounts.

Schwartz, as head coach of a struggling team, no doubt will be looking at the bottom line, and he too will have to shop for discounts. Traditional or different, he wants results. He appears to be a pragmatist. In that job, he'll have to be.

Winning football games on Mondays through Saturdays

One part of the Times piece on Schwartz particularly struck me:

"Sometimes, [being statistics-driven is] an easy thing for people in the media to use against you,” Schwartz said. “ ‘Oh, yeah, he can’t adjust; he’s just a stats guy. They don’t really understand the game.’ That’s why sometimes, the whole stats thing is a dirty word.

“If you ask me, Would you rather have a great fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy on Sunday, a guy who can dial up plays and he’d be the best in league, or a guy who is best in the league from Monday to Saturday preparing, I respect the guy who prepares. You’re not always going to be rolling 7, 7, 7 and be hot every week. But if you prepare well during the week, you’ll be consistent from week to week.”

This exact sentiment formed the gravamen of Walsh's west coast offense. Quotes from Walsh:

I have been afforded the experience that allowed us to conceive an offense, a defense, and a system of football that is basically a matter of rehearsing what we do prior to the game. . . .

What we have finally done is rehearse the opening part of the game, almost the entire first half, by planning the game before it even starts. . . .

Now why would you do such a thing? I know this, your ability to think concisely, your ability to make good judgments is much easier on Thursday night than during the heat of the game. So we prefer to make our decisions related to the game almost clinically, before the game is ever played. We've scouted our opponent, we have looked at films, we know our opponent well. . . . To be honest, [in the heat of the game] you are in a state of stress, sometimes you are in a state of desperation and you are asked to make very calculated decisions. It is rarely done in warfare and certainly not in football; so your decisions made during the week are the ones that make sense. In the final analysis, after a lot of time and thought and a lot of planning, and some practice, I will isolate myself prior to the game and put together the first 25 plays for the game. They are related to certain things.

...But whatever you have, if you have planned it and fail, you can't blame yourself for losing your poise. You can't blame yourself for panicking if you have planned these things and they fail. You may really search yourself for the kinds of decisions you made on Thursday night, but you certainly can't make the decision during the game. As a coach, one of the things you are always fighting during the game is the stress factor, breaking your will. The stress factor will affect your thinking. I have been in situations where I could not even begin to think what to do. From that point on, I knew that I had better rehearse everything.

And, too, you can add in analysis that there is no time to do during the game. You analyze the probabilities, you remove the irrational choices like going for certain field goals on certain fourth and shorts.

A few years ago I wrote about the idea that gameplanning and weekday work is advantageous both because you can be meticulous but also because you gain important self-restraint capabilities. I drew on a lecture given by Nobel Laureate in Economics, Thomas Schelling (yes I know, it is not exactly the same as a Nobel Prize as established by Alfred Nobel). To illustrate, Schelling used a story about Captain Ahab; you can read it here.

But a similar story with the self-constraints that gameplanning puts on the coach (as compared with the seat-of-the-pants approach favored by so many) is the story of Odysseus (or Ulysesses) and the Sirens: when Odysseus's boat approached the sirens -- whose sweet singing had lured many sailors to their deaths -- he first put wax in his sailors' ears to block out the music, then had his crew tie him to the mast, thus making him powerless. In the moment, when his boat went by the sirens, he was irrational, and wanted nothing more than to steer the boat to him. But his rational self had already judged this, decided against it, and denied his later, weaker self the same choice.

Although not nearly so dramatic, gameplanning and the script often works the same way (though with slightly more flexibility than one has tied to the mast). Hopefully, for Lions fans, it is this methodical, analytical approach that Jim Schwartz offers.

Moreover, this story highlights the interdependent role that head and assistant coaches must have: they must take turns as Odyssesus and the crew, tying each other up, making the plans in advance, and even, sometimes, in the heat of the moment, entirely ignored, as Odysseus was.

As noted above, gameplans should nevertheless be contingency based; they must be flexible enough to respond to what an opponent does. But of course gameplans are based on this: those who reject scripting because they are too wooden just really don't understand what scripting is. But, a well crafted gameplan can still handle these scenarios and be created in a detached setting.

Moreover, the other important factor is that some information simply cannot be processed merely in-game; answers will only be yielded by careful study through the week. You simply don't have time to crunch all the numbers, assemble data on all the fronts and schemes, nor run down the variety of contingent scenarios. But if you do that, and then combine it with what you learn during a game, you have a chance to win. And, through your study, you might see options -- like maybe what Mike Leach does, the wildcat, or some other forward thinker -- that traditional football intertia blinds you to. As I wrote a few weeks back:

[F]rom Peter Bernstein's book, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

The story that I have to tell is marked all the way through by a persistent tension between those who assert that the best decisions are based on quantification and numbers, determined by the patterns of the past, and those who base their decisions on more subjective degrees of belief about the uncertain future. This is a controversy that has never been resolved.

And it will remain controversial . . . because the future will be paved by numbers and judgment, marching, somewhat awkwardly, hand in hand.

Good luck to Jim Schwartz.


Anonymous said...

Nice article as always. So, you're using this as precursor into a very awesome, detailed post on scripting...right? :D

Walk On Boy said...

Wow. Absolutely blown away. In the world of sporting cliches and recycled not-exactly-knowledge writing of your caliber enforces my feeling that sport {more specifically football} can be a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. The time between posts is most definitely worth the wait. Intelligent, innovative {from a writer's perspective} and insightful.

zlionsfan said...

Very nice article.

On the one hand, I'd almost hoped Schwartz wouldn't get the job, because I'm not sure anyone can succeed in Detroit as long as Ford Sr. runs the team. (Of course later I remembered that Wayne Fontes did exactly that - success being a relative term, of course, but the '90s would certainly count as success for the Lions.) I also believe Schwartz has potential, and I didn't want to see him tagged as a failure after being unable to wash the stench from Ford Field.

On the other hand, after reading this, I'm almost tempted to hope. Maybe the Lions might actually turn out to be decent under his watch ... or better.

Anonymous said...

The football world needs more Bill Walshes and fewer Marinelli/Singletary blowhard types. Here's wishing Jim Schwartz, Martin Mayhew et al all the best in Detroit.

Anonymous said...

Chris great job as always. I know Walsh was big on scripting, but I would like to hear your thoughts on how it could apply to defense. My (very rudimentary) understanding is offensively you want to show certain looks or plays to see how a defense will react.

Could defensive coordinators achieve the same idea? Meaning, could a defense script certain fronts/stunts (in the initial series, or situations) to discourage an offense from running their best plays? Or would it be better to call plays based off of an offenses down/distance, field position, and personnel tendencies?

Anonymous said...

this blog repeatedly shows why it is the best. well done.

that said, how smart can a guy be who was called by the Lions and said yes? (ok, can't help it, long time Lion fan here)

A more real question: when is the smart football book going to come out? It will sell.

Anonymous said...

Counterpoint: The hiring of Gunther Cunningham.

Anonymous said...

The item you overlook entirely, that in my opinion drives the results you proclaim, is one overlooked fact.

Bill Walsh is left handed. Those attributes often indicate creativity.
Steve Young, his great left handed quarterback, would agree.


Ted Seay said...

Chris: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. " - John Maynard Keynes

I consider it irony of the highest order that the "defunct economist" these days is Lord Keynes...