FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The narrative dominating the Jets’ offseason has centered almost exclusively on the two players who haven’t stepped foot on the practice field because of contentious contract negotiations. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick or defensive end Mo Wilkerson, take your pick. Both remain unsigned, and the likelihood is high that neither will be in uniform when the Jets open training camp the final week of July.
But for the man who must figure out a way to potentially live without either player on his roster, at least for the time being, there is a serenity about coach Todd Bowles’ countenance that belies the smoldering controversy that continues to linger. There is little that can rattle the soft-spoken coach, and the team’s twin contractual dilemmas barely registers on his list of things to obsess over.
“I’ve been on teams where we’re waiting for our star player to come back, and then he gets hurt and we lose him for the rest of the year,” said the Jets’ second-year head coach, a veteran of eight NFL seasons as a player and 19 years as a college or pro coach. “It’s just next man up, and you have to find different ways to win.”
It’s not as if Bowles hasn’t already experienced the unexpected in his brief run with the Jets. Last year, he dealt not only with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s four-game suspension for marijuana use, but with Richardson’s arrest for driving 143 miles per hour and resisting arrest during an incident near his hometown outside St. Louis. Later in training camp, he lost presumptive starter Geno Smith after the quarterback was punched in the jaw by linebacker IK Enemkpali in the locker room.
But in a masterful display of remaining calm in the face of what appeared to be a season-changing development and potential locker-room meltdown, Bowles turned to Fitzpatrick as his starter and the Jets went 10-6. There was not a hint of team chemistry disruption.
And with the uncertainty of Fitzpatrick’s and Wilkerson’s contract stalemates now threatening his team’s prospects heading into a season that features a vastly more difficult schedule than last year, Bowles’ demeanor is unflappable, not flustered.
“If you have to tweak things, you tweak ’em, but it still comes down to coaching and the players on the field playing, no matter how important the position,” Bowles said. “If Brandon [Marshall] gets hurt, if [Eric] Decker gets hurt, we still got to go out and play on Sunday. You have to figure out ways to win, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Though Bowles’ head coaching career is still in its infancy, his unique combination of football intellect and his cool, calm and collected demeanor augurs well for what I expect will be a long and productive tenure in New York. It doesn’t mean he’ll be able to overcome the very real threats of not having two of his best players to begin a tough schedule, nor does it mean that the team as currently constituted will be going on a Super Bowl run in the next two or three years.
But there is a deep-rootedness to Bowles’ personality, a confidence borne of his playing and coaching experiences under Hall of Famers such as Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, as well as Bruce Arians. Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who was involved in the hiring process that eventually landed Bowles with the Jets, swears by the coach, calling him one of the best head coaching prospects he’s ever come across.
Bowles doesn’t draw attention to himself like many coaches, particularly his predecessor with the Jets. But that’s a good thing, because Rex Ryan became too much about himself after a promising start with back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances. Bowles is much more of an old soul who has the temperament to last in a market that routinely proves too difficult for coaches to survive very long.
Here’s how Bowles approaches his role as a coach in a league and a city where distractions are commonplace and often become overwhelming. It is a few minutes after a mini-camp practice last Tuesday, and Bowles, sitting on a table just outside the team’s cafeteria, joins his hands together and forms a tight circle with his fingers, leaving an opening of about six inches or so.
“This is football,” he says of the inside of the circle. “Everything else outside of this, you talk about it and let it go.”
He recalled the controversy surrounding Smith as an example.
“That wasn’t football,” he said. “It was an incident that happened at the football facility, but you still had to move on and let it go after that.”
The roles of Smith and Fitzpatrick may well be reversed this year, with Smith serving as the No. 1 quarterback until — or unless — Fitzpatrick can come to terms on a contract. He understands Smith going into the season as the starter won’t be a popular choice among many, if not most, Jets fans.
“Popularity comes with winning,” Bowles said. “At the end of the day, it’s not a beauty pageant. [Smith] is not going to walk out there and get applause for singing or anything like that. He gets judged the way he plays football, and football takes care of itself. You have to go into enemy territory sometimes, and sometimes your home crowd boos you. That’s just part of the game.”
Bowles heeds the lessons he learned from Gibbs, Parcells and Arians as he goes about the task of molding his team. With a personality that differs from those three — especially the gruff and outspoken Parcells and Arians — Bowles has made an imprint on his group.
“As volatile as Bill and Bruce can be, they were just as understanding,” Bowles said. “They could understand and see a situation and take care of it. When you think they’re going to yell at you, they put their arm around you. When you think they’re going to put their arm around you, they’re going to yell at you. They never settled for anything, but they knew how to talk to certain people. Even as a coach, you can’t treat everybody the same. Personality-wise, you have to get to know your guys.”
In some ways, Bowles is the polar opposite of his more boisterous mentors. He rarely offers anything more than clipped answers during news conferences, but behind closed doors, he’s demonstrative and outspoken when necessary.
“Just because I don’t yell doesn’t mean I’m not dangerous. I’m a psychopath,” he says, laughing loudly. “I have my days. You give the players leeway, but if it happens more than once, it kind of simmers and boils, and then it blows. I have my days. I do all my yelling in practice, and on game day, I’m calm. On the outside, anyway. On the inside, I’m worrying about everything.”
As he prepares for Year 2, Bowles has become a respected, and sometimes revered, presence in the locker room.
“I love coach Todd,” third-year safety Calvin Pryor said. “That’s one of the main reasons I was able to get on track [last season]. He believed in me, and I believed in him. We see eye to eye on some things, with him playing the safety position. He’s always telling me, ‘Just be a football player. Believe in yourself that you can get the job done.’ ”
Veteran running back Matt Forte, signed as a free agent from the Bears, said Bowles’ NFL experience adds to his credibility.
“He has a great rapport with everybody, because he has a football player’s mentality,” Forte said. “He knows how we have to go about our days, and he’s not going to let guys mess around and do silly stuff. When you’re in the building, it’s time to work.”
Right tackle Breno Giacomini calls Bowles’ ability to relate differently to different players “the art of coaching. He has mastered that. One of the hardest thing to do as a coach is to be able to adapt to your players, and he’s done a great job. With him playing eight years in the NFL, he understands a lot. You just can’t teach that. There’s a lot of respect there. He knows this market. He’s from the area [Elizabeth, N.J.] and it’s not a bad thing to be calm and cool.”
Said Richardson, who faces a potential suspension because of last year’s speeding incident: “He knows how to relate to us as players. He demands a lot, but he doesn’t pressure you. He lets guys make mistakes.”
In fact, Richardson said, Bowles puts his players in position to actually make mistakes in practice.
“He wants to see you make mistakes, because he wants to see how you make them,” Richardson said. “He puts us in bad situations on certain plays, where the offense will have the upper hand. Say we have stunts on the outside, where both of the tackles are going outside, then he’ll have the offense run a draw play [up the middle]. He wants to see how you adjust in situations like that.”
Richardson recalled a time last year when Bowles pulled him aside after watching him try a certain technique.
“He said, ‘Sheldon, why are you sitting here trying to do new stuff? Do what you’ve been doing. Stop trying to be creative. Just do it.’ That’s how he is.”
He’s good enough to command the attention of his locker room and give you the sense that he is in this for the long haul. He understands the impatience of the New York market, but with a personality built for perseverance, there’s no reason he can’t stick around here for an extended run.