Jim Schwartz will sometimes walk by his players in the NovaCare Complex hallways without saying a word.
“He kind of has this walk where he’s just looking at the ground,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “Sometimes he may not say anything to you, but I think being with him for two years now you don’t take any offense to it. You understand that he’s thinking about something and it probably has to do with football.”
Schwartz has long fought the perception that he’s a statistical genius, but many of the Eagles defensive coordinator’s players point to his detailed use of analytics as one reason for their success. Cornerback Jalen Mills and linebacker Nigel Bradham call him a guru, which conjures the image of mathematical equations swirling above Schwartz’s head during his strolls, as in A Beautiful Mind.
“He’s in his head,” Mills said. “You see him pacing and pacing and you’re just like, ‘Oh, God, he’s thinking about something else.’ ”
Analytics, of course, are just one tool for NFL teams, and among the reasons for playing winning football less integral, according to Schwartz. If he cares about any number, as he likes to note during his weekly news conferences, it’s the final score.
But Schwartz is, if anything, a preparation wonk. Practice, film study, and fitness are central to laying that groundwork, but with the additional resources organizations provide coaching staffs, Schwartz’s use of analytics is exhaustive. If he can’t be on the field, he wants his players to at least be as prepared.
“He’s the best at involving his players in analytics,” Watkins said. “A lot of coaches know the situations and maybe not say anything to the players in meetings, but only right before the situation. We all have a general understanding in case I don’t speak to him before say, the final 14 seconds. I can look at the clock and get my own understanding and I know what he’s thinking, too.”
Said Mills: “I talk to a lot of guys around the league and they don’t get that type of information.”
Every detail and every second counts, as the Eagles’ divisional playoff victory over the Falcons, and more dramatically, the Vikings’ last-second win over the Saints can attest. If the Carson Wentz-less Eagles are to reach Super Bowl LII, they’ll likely need a repeat performance from Schwartz’s defense in the NFC championship game Sunday against Minnesota.
If points are the only numbers that ultimately matter, then it should be noted that the 10 points the Eagles surrendered to the Falcons last week would have been the lowest amount in the previous 12 NFC title games. The last time a defense held an offense to as many points: the 2004 season, when the Eagles beat Atlanta, 27-10, to advance to their last Super Bowl appearance.
The Coaching Carousel
Typically, the author of that kind of defensive prowess would receive consideration for head-coaching jobs. And while Schwartz was reportedly set to interview with the New York Giants, that meeting was canceled, and now, for whatever the reasons, he will likely have to wait at least another year to become a head coach again.
If being the smartest guy in the room was the only prerequisite for being a head coach, then Schwartz, who helmed the Lions from 2009 to 2013, would have gotten another chance by now. But the 51-year-old coordinator has a certain arrogance that might not appeal to modern owners looking for emotionally intelligent coaches.
Schwartz may at times be socially detached, but his swagger and toughness do appeal to many defensive players. And if it doesn’t, there’s an analytical approach that veterans like Corey Graham, Rodney McLeod, and Bradham, who have played for other coordinators, said is as comprehensive as any they’ve seen.
“That’s all I’ve ever done,” Schwartz said, “so I can’t really comment on other teams.”
A statistical approach
Schwartz, an economics major at Georgetown, was an early proponent of statistical analysis dating back to his grunt work days with the Browns under mentor Bill Belichick. When he got to Tennessee and became the Titans coordinator, he had developed a reputation for being the NFL’s version of Billy Beane.
He had invited Aaron Schatz, the brains behind the numbers-crunching website Footballoutsiders.com, to Nashville, and had sat down with developers of a computer program to analyze play-calling decisions, according to a New York Times story from a decade ago.
Schwartz distanced himself from the Moneyball label in the story, noting the obvious difference in number of games between baseball and football, and it’s a characterization he continues to diminish.
“I think when it’s all said and done, percentages and numbers and stuff like that, they are important,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “But it means a lot less than guys knowing what to do and guys playing with some personality and tackling well and having speed and playing fast and all those things.
“I think those things probably rank ahead of statistics and analytics for us.”
But when Schwartz met with his defense Tuesday and one of the topics was how they would have defended the Vikings’ last-second touchdown against the Saints, Watkins said he was confident the Eagles would have won the game because of the amount of statistical work they’ve done on end-of-half, end-of-game situations.
Each week there’s a PowerPoint presentation on how many possible plays an offense can run based on time, number of timeouts, and a kicker’s maximum field goal length.
“That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that and I think it amazes all of us as we watch every game and guys don’t know situations or how much time is on the clock,” Watkins said. “I feel like had we been in [the Saints’ situation] we would have discussed as a group before that play.”
Drilling it down
Many teams use the data and some coaches pass it along to their players, but Schwartz’s daily presentations — first and second down on Wednesday, third down on Thursday, and red zone and two-minute on Friday — are detailed down to the yard, personnel, formation, and more.
“He presents you with everything possible you could think of,” Graham said. “But as a player you have to digest it as you see fit. You can’t try and memorize and think of every little thing. You have to think of the things that pertain to your position. But there have been times when you’ve been out there — say it’s third and 3-6 [yards] — and they come out in a formation and you have a good idea of what they’re going to do based on the percentages.”
The Eagles stopped Atlanta on its last-gasp pass on fourth-and-2 because, first and foremost, they have players with talent and football intelligence. They had also practiced against the play during red zone drills and watched it during film study. But Mills and McLeod said that when the Falcons came out in a two-back formation and the tight end motioned, they narrowed the possibilities down, in part, because of their statistical preparation.
“Based on the formation and the situation there were only one or two plays they would probably run. It’s one of their favorite concepts,” McLeod said. “But those are the things that [Schwartz] points out consistently week to week that give us an edge.”
Watkins said that Schwartz’s heat charts are valuable tools. The color-coded graphics may show a quarterback’s tendencies in his drops — by step or distance. There are also heat charts for quarterbacks’ throwing propensities.
“You can literally look at the chart and all the deep balls are to the right side and then you go and watch film and you’re like, [shoot],” Watkins said. “And then you go and play the game and you get deep balls on the right side.”
As for Schwartz’s hallway habits, Watkins and other players say they now know what to expect when they walk past their coach.
“He’s been doing that for as long as I’ve known him,” said Bradham, who also played for Schwartz in Buffalo. “It could be rude to some people depending upon where you’re from. But you got to understand him. … And then there are times when he’ll walk past you and he’ll go, ‘Good morning, Nig’, right after he passes. You never know what you’re going to get.”
But the Eagles are prepared for every possibility.
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.