Todd Bowles stood before his players and spoke the truth as he saw it.
In a despondent visitors’ locker room at Houston’s NRG Stadium, the Jets’ first-year head coach told his team to make a choice.
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He didn’t scream. He didn’t overturn chairs. He didn’t hurl expletives. But his anger was evident.
“It’s not like a yell, it’s like a stern talking to. Like, you know he means business,” defensive lineman Stephen Bowen said.
“When Bowles is getting the message across, it’s powerful,” Skrine added. “When you hear a little bass in his voice, he’s for real.”
The Jets must have heard the message. They haven’t lost since.
That Nov. 22 defeat seems like ancient history now that the Jets (10-5) are on the doorstep of postseason play with a win-and-in playoff scenario Sunday in Buffalo against former coach Rex Ryan.
But as they prepared for their biggest game of the season, players opened up to Newsday about the vibe that has permeated their locker room since that 24-17 loss to the Texans and how Bowles’ postgame speech shifted the course of their season.
“I don’t think the players had really seen him like that,” defensive lineman Leger Douzable said. “Him getting after us a little bit, I think that woke everybody up.”
Bowles’ message was simple and to the point. But those words have had a lasting impact.
“He just told everybody to look themselves in the mirror and understand that you’re playing for a purpose,” safety Calvin Pryor said.
“That was the turning point, man,” said Bowen, a Hofstra alum. “If we wanted to stay in it, we knew we were in one-game playoffs every week. We had to come with it.”
And they have.
A year after finishing 4-12 under Ryan, the Jets are one win away from clinching a playoff spot for the first time since 2010. But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
Bowles’ locker-room speech in Houston was a watershed moment for his players and possibly the franchise. But in his eyes, it was simply the continuation of a message he’s been trying to instill since training camp.
“You can’t be a .500 team,” he said. “You either have to tread water and get worse, or you can get better as a team.”
His players proudly say they’re closer now than ever before and that they’re collectively focused on one goal: a playoff berth.
Stronger bonds behind closed doors have translated to hard-fought victories and a five-game winning streak.
“It’s like a vibe I really can’t explain,” safety Rontez Miles said. “ . . . Just how confident we are in our offense now. Just like they’re confident in us. It’s unexplainable, man. It’s like a feeling in this locker room that’s different to me. The vibe just feels so right.”
It remains to be seen if they can harness the magic for another week. But Bowles’ players say they’re in it together.
The Jets had made it look so easy.
Their 4-1 start had signaled a new day. And then they faltered.
A midseason collapse featuring losses to the Patriots, Raiders, Bills and Texans in a span of five games threatened to undo all of the progress they had made and keep them out of the postseason. But unlike past years, their locker room did not fracture. Even with a 5-5 record in late November.
“I think it’s because a lot of guys didn’t point any fingers,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “The coaches didn’t point any fingers. And I think that goes a long way when you don’t do that. Because I’ve been in situations where, if you’re losing a bunch of games, the coaches pick certain players out and take a stab at them; players taking stabs at coaches about play-calling. And it’s all bad.”
(He declined to say whether he was referring to his first stint with the Jets (2007-12) or his 2013 season with the Buccaneers, when Tampa Bay finished 4-12.)
“I think this year,” Revis said, “we responded very well in those situations.”
Without those “rough times,” Miles said, they wouldn’t still be fighting to make the playoffs. “You won’t see people’s true colors until things are going wrong,’’ he said. “And we were able to bend and not break. We rally around each other now. We’re different now than when we took those ‘Ls.’ ”
Some coaches say the right things, but Bowles is respected because his words are followed by actions.
Twenty-four hours after their Houston loss, the Jets waived former first-round pick Quinton Coples. Two weeks later, Bowles benched star defensive Muhammad Wilkerson for the first quarter of their 23-20 overtime win over the Giants and reportedly fined and warned him for being late to a meeting. Wilkerson, who has remained tight-lipped about the topic, had three sacks the following week against the Titans.
“The saying in the locker room is: Nobody’s safe,” Pryor said, smiling. “He makes sure you’re doing the right thing no matter who you are.”
Said Miles, “That type of stuff will wake you up.”
Bowles said Coples’ release wasn’t about “sending a message,” adding: “We’re just trying to play good football players.” But his players knew better.
Said Skrine, “Everything he does, he has a reason behind it.”
Bowles is a man of few words, but players “know where they stand with me,” he said.
And they respect him for it.
“You want to be able to trust your coaches,” said Wesley Johnson, who replaced center Nick Mangold (hand injury) during the Texans game. “And I think we can.”
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Bowles’ even-keeled nature has seeped through the drywall at 1 Jets Drive, permeating the locker room.
“I think I’ve embraced it. I think my interviews are pretty dry now,” Sheldon Richardson quipped.
But is being bland a good thing?
“I mean, we’re winning, so it’s got to be a good thing,” the defensive tackle said, grinning.
Bowles doesn’t mind players with personality. But he cares far more about production than prattle.
“I don’t want to say everybody speaks like Coach, but we understand what he wants done. It’s very blunt,” Revis said, laughing.
Bowles is not loud, nor is he flashy. But “his X’s and O’s are second to none,” Douzable said.
On that fateful day in Houston, the coach lit “a fire in guys,” Bowen said. And since then, they’ve heeded his message.
Now they’ve reached the finish line of the regular season and a wild-card spot is in sight. Just as Bowles promised.
“Everything he said is coming true,” Skrine said. “We are a team that can get into the playoffs in the first year. You see everything that he talks about coming true. I mean, you have no choice but to respect him.”