As an avid reader, it's not a surprise that Jim Schwartz makes a book reference in talking about the humble beginnings of his NFL career.
That came in 1993 as an unpaid intern with the Cleveland Browns under coach Bill Belichick. Some of Schwartz's tasks included driving players and scouts to the airport and going on cigarette runs for the coaching staff.
“Everyone goes through that 10,000 hours of learning, and those were mine,” he said, making a reference to the theory – which was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book, Outliers – that it takes that long to become an expert in a field. “I don't want to discount the stuff I learned before or stuff I learned after, but those experiences were really the start of my career.”
From that start, the 48-year-old Schwartz has carved out a career that's entering its 22nd year in the NFL, and first as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.
“With Bill Belichick, you get to learn the whole operation from the bottom all the way up,” Schwartz said. “Scouting, coaching, personnel – all of it was important to Bill, and that was a great place to learn football. There was a very distinct style of preparation. He was such a good role model and mentor in terms of leaving no stone unturned.”
Those lessons have guided Schwartz during a successful eight-year stint as defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, from 2001 to 2008, and more recently as the head coach of the Detroit Lions, from 2009 to 2013. Under Schwartz's leadership, the Lions made the playoffs in 2011, ending an 11-year postseason drought that at the time was tied with the Bills for the NFL's longest. But Detroit could not build on that – going 11-21 the next two years – and Schwartz was fired the day after the 2013 season ended.
The Bills moved quickly to bring him in after defensive coordinator Mike Pettine accepted the Browns' head coaching job in January. Buffalo's brain trust of President Russ Brandon, General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone flew from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., to Detroit to approach Schwartz about the job, with Marrone saying later the Bills were “very fortunate” to get their man.
“There was never a question of getting back on the horse, so to speak,” Schwartz said of joining the Bills. “It was just making sure that the opportunity was the right one. I am very confident that this is it.”
In his blood
“I always identified more with the coach or the manager than I did with the players,” he said. “Growing up in Baltimore with a guy like Earl Weaver, even though he's not a football mentor, that was a guy that I looked up to. And I think a lot of it was my own self-awareness of my playing ability. Even though I played in college, I knew I wasn't going to be a professional football player, but I was always interested in the strategy of the game.”
Schwartz is the second of nine children. His father, also Jim, worked 32 years as a Baltimore County cop while his mother, Pat, raised two boys and seven girls. She passed away suddenly just before Christmas in 1994 at the age of 53, and Schwartz has a tattoo above his right ankle he got to remind him of the loss.
In college, Schwartz was a four-year letter winner as a linebacker at Georgetown, where he received distinguished economics graduate honors. In 1988, he served as team captain for the Hoyas and was named an All-American.
“Later on in my college career, I started looking into coaching. I went to Georgetown – not exactly the cradle of coaching – but I wanted to combine something I loved to do with my profession,” he said. “Nobody's going to pay to hear me sing, or pay to see me play golf or read books, so coaching was a way to stay involved in the game.”
Schwartz lived a transient existence in his early coaching days. He had one-year stops at both Maryland (1989) and Minnesota (1990) as a graduate assistant, then spent one year each at North Carolina Central and Colgate, coaching the secondary and linebackers, respectively.
Then came the opportunity in Cleveland. Although the Browns went just 36-44 under Belichick in five years, including 23-25 in the three years Schwartz was there, the staff's collective brainpower is remarkable in the rear-view mirror. Members included Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, Ozzie Newsome, Scott Pioli, Mike Lombardi and Eric Mangini – all of whom have gone on to become head coaches or general managers in the NFL or major college football.
“One thing we took from Bill is everything that touches the team is important to the coach,” Schwartz said. “We all have a passion for this game. We all enjoy going to work. I've been at it for 25 years now, and I've never felt I've worked a day in my life. Even though we're here 100 hours a week and everything else, it's not a sacrifice because it's what I do for fun. I love the game. I love being around the game. I love every aspect of it.”
When he's not in the office, which admittedly is not that often, Schwartz has a diverse set of interests. He once spent an hour on a Detroit rock station discussing his affinity for heavy metal. He loves to fish and golf – although he wondered after the miserable winter and spring Western New York endured if he'd ever get the chance to do either here.
But his favorite hobby is spending time with his kids. He and his wife, Kathy, have twins Christian and Allison and a younger daughter, Maria.
“Any time I'm spending outside of here is going to be with them,” he said. “I don't have a whole lot of time to do a whole lot else. That's why you have to really enjoy what you do here. If you're counting hours, if you're looking forward to doing something else, you're in the wrong business. You've got to keep your edge and your passion for it. I think I've maintained that.”
In his comfort zone
Thus, the transition back to coordinator has been seamless.
“I've done this job before and I've been in the NFL a long time. I know what I have to do,” he said. “You have to produce in this business whether you're a player or a coach.”
The demands of a head coach in the NFL can easily wear a person down. When Schwartz was asked a question this spring about being without troubled defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, he was all too happy to defer to Marrone.
No longer does he have to worry about media or other outside responsibilities. It's all football – just how he likes it. “I'm not one for a whole lot of opening statements or anything,” was the first line of his introductory news conference in January.
After a minicamp practice, Schwartz waited for television cameras to get set up before giving an interview.
“Don't say anything interesting yet,” a reporter joked.
“Oh, I won't say anything interesting the whole time,” Schwartz shot back without missing a beat.
During the spring, Schwartz would frequently hold one-on-one talks with players at the conclusion of practice – often with veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
“It's been good. It's a lot of bouncing ideas off one another – what do you think about this or that? We'd just talk about different viewpoints,” Williams said. “He's obviously been with this defense a long time. I feel like it can be really good, not only for me, but all the guys on this team.”
Schwartz brings with him a base 4-3 scheme that at least on paper is different from the 3-4 the Bills used last season. But Williams said far too much is made of that.
“That doesn't matter to me. I can put my hand on the ground and go play football. I'm fine,” he said. “There's really no difference. Everybody said we were a 3-4 last year. Well, Marcell Dareus played the one-technique, I played the three and Mario Williams was a defensive end who never dropped into coverage. Just because he was standing up doesn't make him a linebacker. So that gets overblown a little bit.”
Williams says he sees a lot of similarities in terms of personality between Pettine and Schwartz.
“They're both pretty fiery guys,” he said. “They're attacking and aggressive. You might see some coverage differences in what we're doing compared to last year, but that's all schematic things and that's going to change no matter who the coach is.”
From the day he was hired, Schwartz has avoided labeling his defense in any way.
“You don't want to fit square pegs in round holes. You have to be adaptable. I've had times where I've had playoff teams that blitzed almost 40 percent of the time, and I've had playoff teams where we blitzed less than 10 percent of the time,” he said. “So to go into it with some sort of set idea is not what we did.”
Schwartz, who is the Bills' fourth different defensive coordinator in as many seasons, said some of the terminology from last season's defense has carried over, which helped players get up to speed quicker.
“There are some things we'll do a little bit different and some things we'll do almost the same, but how we'll play will really develop as we go through training camp, go through the preseason games and get to the regular season,” he said. “That's really our challenge as coaches, to put these guys in the best position so we can help the team be successful.”
Inside the numbers
While the Bills made several statistical improvements in one year under Pettine, there are areas that need to be shored up. They finished 28th in the NFL against the run in 2013 and although they were 10th in yards allowed, they finished 20th in points per game against, at 24.3 per game.
“I think when you're good against the run, it affects all other areas of your defense. If you're good against the run, you're going to generally be better on third down, because they're going to have longer third-down distances to get,” Schwartz said. “You're good in the red zone. The best teams in the red zone every year are the teams that can run the ball and stop the run.”
Not coincidentally, the Lions were particularly good in those two categories last season. Detroit led the NFL in third-down defense, allowing first downs just 30.3 percent of the time, and finished second in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage, allowing opponents to reach the end zone just 38.1 percent of the time. Only the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks were better, at 36.1 percent.
One area the Lions struggled defensively was creating turnovers. Their 22 was tied for 21st in the league. The Bills, though, tied for the sixth-most takeaways in 2013, with 30, including 23 interceptions, second most in the NFL.
“When it's all said and done, the hallmark of any defense is not how many rush yards you give up or how many pass yards you give up, it's your ability to limit points. If we can limit points, then we've done our job,” he said. “We've got to keep them off the board and do our very best to keep the score down.”
Schwartz said every player has a clean slate with him – just as he does with the Bills.
“We have some guys that have come from other teams, and they have to prove themselves all over again,” he said. “Prove themselves to Western New York and a new fan base. I'm in the same boat. I think that's what keeps us all fresh. I've got to prove myself all over again. That's exciting. I think that'll bring out the best in players and the best in coaches.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for a defensive coach. I think there are some real positives here that we can build on.”