Todd Bowles' impromptu visit to the press room shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday seemed unusual, if for no other reason than the Jets' first-year coach usually doesn't meet with reporters until after practice is over much later in the afternoon. Bowles didn't show any outward signs of concern, and he actually joked with reporters about an exchange he'd had with them the day before.
So one reporter said to the coach about whatever information he was about to share with them, "So we don't need to record this?"
Bowles replied with a smile, "Oh, believe me, you're going to want to record this."
Then he dropped the bombshell that would reverberate around the league within a matter of minutes: Geno Smith and linebacker Ikemefuna Enempkali were involved in a fight in which the quarterback suffered a broken jaw.
"He got cold-cocked," the coach said. "Sucker-punched, whatever you want to call it."
Bowles announced that Smith would be out six to 10 weeks and that Enempkali had been released from the team.
And that was it. As calmly as he walked into the room, Bowles walked out and resumed his day. It was as if he'd come in to tell reporters about a minor roster transaction, not an incident that could very well derail the Jets' entire season.
But the moment spoke to Bowles' careful handling of the first major on-field crisis. There was no sense of panic, no deviation from his usually unflappable demeanor. He was the one determining the direction of the story, which had not leaked out in a locker room in which previous off-field incidents had surfaced publicly before damage control could begin. Bowles got out in front of the sequence of events, calmly announced what turned out to be a calamitous development, and that was that.
Bowles would not be as diplomatic with the team when he gathered his players before practice to bring them up to speed. He cursed several times in admonishing his players to make sure something like this never happened again, and he delivered a clear message that this was unacceptable behavior in his locker room.
The players listened in silence to the brief yet impassioned speech. Then they went about their first practice with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback.
If it hadn't been for the horde of additional reporters who quickly descended on the team's training facility after word broke (some reporters traveled from as far away as Philadelphia once news of the fight got out), you'd have thought this was just another ordinary training camp practice. Not the first practice after an unprecedented blow delivered to the team's starting quarterback.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that Bowles' handling of the situation was one of the positives to come out of it -- after all, this happened on his watch -- I believe there is something to be learned about what Bowles will be about during his run with the Jets. And something that his players can learn about a coach who will hold his players accountable, even if his public persona belies his inner anger.
In his post-practice news conference that day, Bowles blamed both players for not defusing the situation in a mature manner. "It takes two to tango," he said.
Bowles also indicated that he does not subscribe to the generally accepted premise that a player should not lose his job because of an injury. "If [Fitzpatrick] is playing well and the boat's going right, and there are no waves, and everything's going, and we're 4, 5, 6, 7-0? Yeah, you're not coming back to start," Bowles said, a direct shot at Smith.
Again, a clear, authoritative message from a no-nonsense coach who won't accept any excuses. It's a message similar to the one he delivered to Sheldon Richardson. The third-year defensive tackle was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and subsequently was arrested July 14 after being clocked going 143 miles per hour in his Bentley while racing another car on a highway near St. Louis.
Bowles' message about Richardson, who faces a possible additional suspension because of his arrest: We can win without you.
"This isn't gardening," Bowles said. "This is the life we chose, and we're going to deal with these things. And it's fine. I lost a lot of guys [to injuries] in Arizona last year. One guy's not going to make us any worse a team. We can win without one guy. Our players understand that. You're going to have body blows all season. Nobody gets to where they're going without a few mistakes along the way."
Now, you can argue that Bowles has a problem controlling his locker room because of these two incidents. But the culture in a locker room doesn't change overnight, and this will be a long process for the new coach and first-year general manager Mike Maccagnan. The team as currently constituted will look far different in the next year or two, and the coach/general manager tandem will identify who stays and who goes.
It's also important to note that not one of the players involved in these two high-profile incidents was drafted in the Bowles/Maccagnan era -- Smith, Enempkali and Richardson were part of the Rex Ryan/John Idzik regime.
If I know Bowles, who subscribes to the Bill Parcells school of bringing in the right players and setting the right tone for success, he will make a successful transformation as a head coach and calibrate his locker room accordingly.
Consider: Bowles wasted no time getting rid of Enempkali, who subsequently was picked up on waivers by Ryan's Bills. Bowles also warned that Smith might be out of a job when he recovers from his fractured jaw. And he has made no promises to Richardson once he returns, whenever that might be.
It is a long and complicated process to put together the right 53 players, something Bowles knows all too well from his long and distinguished apprenticeship as an NFL player, assistant coach and head coach. But I'll agree with the man who knows Bowles as well as anyone and is in as good a position to judge his future as a head coach.
"He was a rising star a long time ago," said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who coached Bowles at Temple in 1983. "He's going to do a fabulous job. He's the brightest football player and probably the brightest coach that I've ever been around."
This wasn't the kind of start that Bowles might have imagined when he first took the job. But the man knows football and he knows people, and that combination will prove invaluable as he navigates the difficult circumstances he now faces.