The black Fitbit tracker on Todd Bowles’ wrist measures his every step, while his eyes dart from one position group to the next.
His hulking 6-2 frame moves with purpose on the practice field as he surveys the entire landscape. And just when his players think he hasn’t been watching, they hear his voice and more instruction.
“You’ll be jogging to the next station,” Jets safety Rontez Miles said with a smile, “and he’ll be like, ‘I saw that. If you’d stop playing and run it this way, you would have been fine.’ And he’s talking about special teams. I’m like, ‘Oh, [shoot]. Yes, sir.’ ”
He’s the watcher, the listener, the motivator.
And it’s that accountability, that frankness, that attention to detail that Bowles’ more inexperienced players crave. He’s the father some of them never had — or in Miles’ case, never met until he turned 18. And for others, he’s akin to an uncle who’s adept at delivering tough love packaged in playfulness.
How quickly the Jets’ recent draft picks and young players develop will determine how much success the team has in 2016 and beyond. They finished 10-6 last season, one win shy of the playoffs. And this year, the stakes are significantly higher.
But while Bowles aims to build a playoff contender in Year 2, he’s equally committed to molding strong young men outside of the building, too.
“It comes with the job,” he said.
“Obviously, you teach football. But it’s equally important to teach young men because they’re not going to play this game forever. And when you spend a bunch of hours every day around the same guys, day in and day out, you feel a sense of responsibility of teaching them pointers about life here and there as they go through things. Just like I’ve gone through things.”
Leader of men
On game days, he’s a defensive mastermind who blitzes quarterbacks for sport. But behind closed doors at 1 Jets Drive, he serves as a psychologist who just happens to sport a baseball cap and Nike shorts during his office hours.
“I don’t think a lot of people really realize about Coach,” said 11-year veteran Brandon Marshall, who was with the Dolphins during Bowles’ 2011 stint as an interim head coach in Miami. “He understands the culture of the locker room. He was a player before. So he always knows the pulse of the team.
“I’ve sat back and watched his approach to different guys. He does a great job of being able to sit down with anybody, wherever you’re from. That’s what makes him special. He’s able to meet guys where they’re at. And that’s how you lead.”
Rookie receiver Jalin Marshall was surprised that his early conversations with Bowles were about life outside of football. “A lot of coaches don’t do that,” said the Jets’ new return man. “ ‘How’s your day going?’ ‘What’s going on with your life?’ Just stuff beyond football. Me being an undrafted free agent, usually you don’t think the head coach will come up to you and just start a conversation and make sure you feel like you belong.”
Bowles inherited a wayward franchise and a fractured locker room when he accepted the job in January 2015. But the culture change was quick as he instilled a work ethic and a level of accountability that hadn’t been seen during the Rex Ryan era. And the players say it’s what they all needed.
“You’re expected to act like a pro,” Miles said. “And just by following his rules, you don’t even notice it, but you’re becoming a pro each day. It’s just who he is, it’s in his character.”
“He’s a guy who played in the Super Bowl, won one, played for a long time. So he knows what it takes to be here.”
‘I’m pretty psychotic’
Tardiness. Laziness. Loafing.
Those are just a few transgressions Bowles can’t abide.
“Stupid penalties” are another.
“They know what I will put up with and what I won’t put up with. Just not being smart,” he said with irritation in his voice. “If you get corrected 50 million different ways and you’re still doing it, there’s a problem.”
He paused briefly to consider other items on his list of “don’ts.”
“Thinking you’re better than anybody else on the team. Walking in a big room thinking I won’t talk about you — Oh, I’m going to talk about you,” Bowles said, laughing. “I won’t say anything behind your back.”
And when he addresses one player in front of the entire team, he does it “in a way where everybody hears the message and feels it,” Marshall said.
Bowles doesn’t mince words, especially with the young guys. And they respect him more for it. “In order to be great, you have to have that discipline,” third-year safety Calvin Pryor said. “He knows what it takes. He’s been to places that we’ve never been before. And that’s why guys respect him so much, because he doesn’t do the most to get your attention. He just goes about his business the right way.”
But Bowles’ calm demeanor gives way to animated emotion — and profanities — in team meeting rooms, far from the media glare. “I’m pretty psychotic, but you don’t see that side. So I’m OK with that,” he said, belly-laughing.
“There’s not a day when I’m not psychotic. You just don’t see it. Ya’ll get me for 12 minutes [in news conferences] and you want me to be Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.”
Formula for success
His wisecracks are typically reserved for his coaches and players, but there’s a time for work and a time for fun. And the tone of Bowles’ voice signals what time it is.
“I have seen him flip out a few times about the intensity of practice,” Pryor said.
But that transparency is welcomed by Bowles’ players — even when the message stings. “I’d rather go home knowing that I [messed] up the whole day, because you feel like you have to make up for it the next day,” Miles said.
Pryor, Miles and cornerback Dexter McDougle — all drafted under the Ryan-John Idzik regime — witnessed the locker room shift firsthand and watched as Bowles transformed their misguided team with tutelage and tough love. And all three say they’re better professionals because of him.
“He doesn’t have to say much to get through to me,” said McDougle, who likened Bowles to his “Pops.” “But when he does say something, I’m listening.”
Said Pryor: “He’s always talking to the young guys. He motivates you. He has told me what type of player I need to be and I have to reach those expectations. And he’s given me all the confidence in the world to be that player.”