Jeff Fisher spent 22 years as an NFL head coach, and one conversation with Jim Schwartz still resonates.
It happened in January 2009 when Schwartz walked into Fisher’s Tennessee Titans office to tell his boss he had just been hired to direct the Detroit Lions.
Schwartz thought back to his days as a college and pro scout with the Browns from 1993-95, starting as an unpaid intern and rising to a meager $20,000 salary. Schwartz scrounged for food and outfitted his little-used apartment from the dumpster and a couch gifted from a dissatisfied customer’s return to Dante Lavelli’s furniture store.
Fisher brought in Schwartz in 1999 and says he received some grief when he promoted the unproven Schwartz, then 35, to defensive coordinator in 2001.
“He was extremely emotional and excited,” Fisher says. “He referenced the first time he walked into my office, he had come from a place where he was making dry cleaning runs and airport runs. I gave him this opportunity. He didn’t fast-track like they do now. It was amazing in his mind where he had come from. It was one of the favorite moments of my coaching career, that conversation I had with him.”
With Schwartz in his first season as Browns defensive coordinator, Fisher believes Schwartz cherishes his journey that began under coach Bill Belichick, who called Fisher to recommend his former gopher in Cleveland. Among Schwartz’s seven NFL stops (two in Tennessee), he went 29-51 with the Lions, including a 10-6 campaign and a wild card playoff berth in 2011, and won a Super Bowl as the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator in 2018. He spent the past two seasons as a senior defensive assistant under Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
“What’s missing (now) is the grassroots stuff,” Fisher says. “If we need to cut the grass and the greenskeeper’s over at the stadium, do it yourself. I relocated a franchise (from Houston) and Jim comes in there on the heels of all that. There was a lot of stuff we had to do ourselves. Our philosophy was always, ‘No task is too good or should you be above.’ They used to have soda machines in the hallway. If you put a quarter in there and the thing doesn’t come out, you don’t say, ‘Dang Oiler Coke machine.’ Fix it. Jim saw that.”
Hired by Browns coach Kevin Stefanski in January, Schwartz, 57, is taxed with fixing a defense led by four-time Pro Bowler Myles Garrett that failed to communicate in three years under former coordinator Joe Woods. Those watching from a distance believe Schwartz has the right demeanor to transform an underachieving unit.
“I think Jim Schwartz is probably a guy that was a missing factor. How many games did the Cleveland Browns lose a year ago when you saw guys running wide open into the secondary?” former Steelers coach and CBS Sports analyst Bill Cowher says. “He brings a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s kind of got that way about him. They’re going to play fast, they’re going to play loose, they’re going to play with a lot of confidence. I think Jim Schwartz was a very, very big pickup for Kevin Stefanski. They needed a little bit of a swagger on the defensive side of the ball.”
Fellow CBS Sports NFL analyst Phil Simms shares Cowher’s sentiment.
“Jim Schwartz, we know he’s a good X and O guy, not afraid to take chances,” Simms says. “But I think his personality and the vibe he gives off. … I always thought there was a certain energy to him that can definitely help any team he’s coaching.”
Dave McGinnis, who worked five years under Schwartz with the Titans, has no doubt Schwartz will succeed in his crucial role.
“The guy is brilliant, and his organizational skills are second to none,” says McGinnis, now the Titans’ radio analyst. “His install days were impeccable. Breaking down film with him, putting game plans together with him and his attention to detail, his preparation, that’s what made us really special. I was his eyes in the press box. His sideline adjustments are immaculate.”
McGinnis came to the Titans in 2004 off a 57-game stint as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He was ready to take over the job usually given to a quality control coach, that of drawing cards for each segment of practice so the offensive scout team would give the defense the correct look.
“I thought I was really good at it. It has to be precise,” McGinnis says. “I asked (Schwartz), ‘What cards do you want me to draw for practice?’ He said, ‘Coach Mac, I draw every card for every practice. I’m not bragging, but when you see my cards, they’re Rembrandts.’ You don’t know the time it takes to do that. They’ve got to be color-coded. The first time I saw the set of cards, I went, ‘I can’t touch that. That’s a Rembrandt. I look like a street painter.’”
Fisher and McGinnis acknowledged that the intense, demanding Schwartz can sometimes rub people the wrong way.
“People may say he may seem like he’s over and above some people. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time for a whole lot of nonsense,” McGinnis says.
During minicamp in May, Schwartz took the podium wearing sunglasses even though the interview was held on a shaded patio. He strode away when finished, offering no chance for conversation. Schwartz has spoken expansively when made available by the Browns but declined a one-on-one interview.
“He’s got this cold demeanor about him, a persona like ‘I’m a badass, don’t mess with me.’ But behind it there’s a lot of soft spots,” says Browns safety Rodney McLeod, who played under Schwartz for five seasons in Philadelphia, including the championship year.
McLeod knows Schwartz’s story well. One of nine children of Jim Sr., a police officer in Baltimore County, Maryland, for 32 years, and mother Pat, neither of whom attended college, Schwartz earned a degree in economics from Georgetown University. Now reunited, McLeod caught up with Schwartz during a training camp bus ride at The Greenbrier Resort and can still see the grunt mentality Schwartz honed in Cleveland.
“It still lives within him for sure,” McLeod says. “He respects the blue collar and the grind because that’s where he comes from. He’s also talked about his family and his upbringing, that’s deep-rooted in him. But it’s hard to not flaunt the money he’s been able to make over the years. He’s very fashion-forward. He’s a confident individual so he’s going to let you know that, and also brag at times about what he’s wearing.”
Told the story of Browns intern Schwartz eating the last turkey sandwich Belichick came looking for and fearing he’d be fired, McLeod says, “He probably made himself a nice sandwich, like ‘I deserve this.’”
As for Schwartz’s attention to detail, McLeod says, “That’s that Georgetown in him.”
Schwartz’s no-nonsense demeanor can mask his ability to reach people. McGinnis saw Schwartz develop the same kind of relationships that Hall of Famer Mike Singletary told McGinnis was key to earning players’ respect. McGinnis was hired by Mike Ditka in 1986 for a 10-year run as Chicago Bears linebackers coach.
“(Singletary) told me, ‘Always be honest with us and always tell us the truth. If you don’t know, just say you don’t know. But let us know no matter how tough it gets that you care for us as much as people as you do that number on our back.’ That’s what Schwartzie does,” McGinnis says. “Honesty can be harsh, especially in the NFL. But at the same time, they know he’s making them better.”
McGinnis took an example of how Schwartz operates from retired Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck’s speech when he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame this summer.
“He said, ‘Schwarzie used to be on me all the time about technique. When we had ball drills, catching the ball with two hands. I could catch a ball with one hand … but he instilled in me the discipline to do it right,’” McGinnis says.
For a Browns defense that, at times, has lacked discipline, McGinnis says, “They are getting ready to get a dose of it.”
McLeod says “the connection piece” is crucial to Schwartz’s motivational skills.
“Getting to know his guys, what makes not only us as individuals tick, but us as a collective,” McLeod says. “When you have a coach who’s had so much success as Jim, when he comes in you feel his dominant presence, I feel like it’s easy to really win over a room. You know everything he’s doing is very intentional and it all aligns to the common mission, which is to win a championship. He really allows guys to be themselves. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat or hold you back. He wants you to be who you truly are because that is going to help us win. If you’re a guy who’s very fiery and passionate or you’re a guy who leads by example, he accepts all.”
Schwartz put the Browns on notice at full squad minicamp when asked about cornerback Greg Newsome II not being thrilled about playing in the slot in 2022.
“My interactions with Greg have been awesome. He’s been willing to do whatever we’ve asked,” Schwartz says. “But the happiness of players is not my concern, and that’s not going to be the determining factor of how we play guys or anything else. We’re going to do what’s best for our team.”
Newsome spoke glowingly of Schwartz during training camp.
“I think my role is amazing,” Newsome says.
The change in the Browns’ camaraderie on defense has been evident since the Hall of Fame Game in Canton in early August. An interception with 40 seconds remaining sealed a 21-16 victory over the New York Jets and the wild celebration included some defenders not in uniform, drawing a penalty. Schwartz was more upset with the referees than his players.
That was an example of the new mantra of the Browns’ defense, which McLeod described as, “Swag, physicality and toughness.”
“Let ‘em know. ‘We just made a play and we’re going to embrace it and we’re all going to celebrate and you’re going to see it,’” McLeod says. “It’s contagious. Once one guy makes a play everybody rallies around, you want to feel that same love and passion. It really showcases the true meaning of team.”
McLeod says they go so far as to identify defensive teammates not showing proper enthusiasm on the sidelines.
“If you get caught not celebrating or (showing) swag, you get pointed out on film,” he says. “I think we caught one of the rookies in the Commanders game not cheering, so we teased him a little bit.”
Fisher says Schwartz can walk the fine line of being tough, honest and critical and still earn his players’ devotion. But Schwartz misses nothing. Fisher says Schwartz wants to know about confrontations and skirmishes at practice and tells video staffers to continue to film until the last player has left the field.
“Jim understands the importance of locker rooms. He's extremely smart. He communicates really well. He’s very organized. He will get upset, but that’s OK,” Fisher says. “You can yell at your kids every day and eventually they’ll just stop listening to you. But when on occasion you raise your voice, that’s mad. It’s the same approach when you have a bunch of high-energy players in the locker room. … Pick and choose, raise your voice; now be right, that’s the obvious challenge.”
Fisher says Schwartz learned much from his time in Detroit. The Lions went 0-16 the season before he arrived and rose to 10-6 and a wild-card playoff berth in 2011.
“You either learn how to do things or how not to do things,” Fisher said. “Jim is not one of those ‘I told you so.’ He’s going to try to avoid the speed bump around the corner. I’m sure he learned some of how not to do things from his experience with me. That sets him apart.”
Washington Commanders General Manager Martin Mayhew, who hired Schwartz when he was GM in Detroit, described Schwartz as “super sharp, hard-working” and “great at situational football.”
“He did an outstanding job for us. I don’t think that situation would have turned around if he hadn’t been the head coach,” Mayhew says.
Asked how Schwartz got the Lions back on track, Mayhew says, “I think it was encouraging guys to be their best selves. Being demanding of them and getting them to play their absolute best. You’ve got to know where we came from. We’d been beaten down for several years and we worked our way down, 0-16, it wasn’t good before that, either. He had to instill that confidence in themselves. He was able to do that.”
Mayhew says he’s seen other coaches, including Belichick, the late Gunther Cunningham and Mayhew’s former defensive coordinator at Florida State, Mickey Andrews, take a hard line and still get the most out of their players just as Schwartz does.
“They know he’s hard on them because he cares and because he wants to win. After he comes down on them, he puts his arm around them and loves ‘em up a little bit,” Mayhew says. “It's been my experience, players who are really motivated to be great can accept being coached hard.”
The prospect of Schwartz coaching Garrett, a revamped line with Za’Darius Smith on the opposite end and a secondary that includes Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward excites Schwartz’s former peers.
“I know what kind of players they’ve got on defense,” McGinnis says. “When he left here, I texted him and said, ‘Congrats, brother. Great move by Cleveland.’ It will be. Just sit and watch.”
Asked if he can imagine what Schwartz can do with a unit led by Garrett, Fisher said, “No. The message to the great fan base there is just stay tuned. They’re going to knock some quarterbacks down, and they’re going to get the ball back.
“Jim just becomes a bigger and bigger asset to the organization as he changes addresses.”
If McGinnis and Fisher are right and the Browns defense wreaks havoc under Schwartz, he could earn his second chance as an NFL head coach.
Mayhew says, “I hope he does. He deserves one.”