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Todd Bowles leads Jets against friends, mentor in Arizona

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles looks on

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles looks on during pregame warmups before the NFL week 12 regular season football game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 in Seattle. The Seahawks won the game 19-3. Photo Credit: AP / Paul Spinelli

PHOENIX, Ariz.

After all these years, Amos Jones still can picture the 14-foot chain-link fence that once surrounded the Temple practice facility. The last drill of that summer practice. And the moment a freak injury threatened to end Todd Bowles’ playing career before his senior season began.

After leaping to knock the ball away on the final play of their workout, Bowles tried to brace his fall with his left hand. He instead rolled on top of his wrist.

And as he clutched the injured joint during that Friday practice in late August 1985, the Owls’ coaching staff tried to comprehend a season without its brightest star.

“We probably ended practice after he got hurt because we were devastated,” Jones said by phone Thursday while taking a break from game prep with the rest of the Arizona Cardinals’ coaches.

Bowles suffered six dislocated bones, and pins had to be inserted into his wrist to hold everything in place. The glue that held Temple’s defense together was told by doctors — and coach Bruce Arians — that his playing career was over. But the native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, had never been scared off by a challenge before, and this setback would be no different.

Bowles returned during his senior season and played with a cast on his wrist. The injury resulted in his going undrafted, but he again defied the odds, becoming an NFL safety and a Super Bowl champion with the 1987 Redskins before working his way up the coaching ranks to become the Jets’ head coach last year.

And Monday night, Bowles will come face-to-face with his past. In more ways than one.

TEMPLE TOUGH

The Jets (1-4) boarded a plane Saturday desperate for a win. And when they arrive at the University of Phoenix Stadium hours before kickoff against the Arizona Cardinals, Bowles, 52, will be met by more than 30 years of friendships on the opposing sideline.

“I’mma hug him. Tell him, ‘Good luck next week.’ And ‘See you after the game,’ ” said Jones, the Cardinals’ special- teams coordinator, in a distinct Alabama drawl. “He’ll have so many people that are trying to pat him on the back and shake his hand, who knows. For Todd and I, it might be a simple hand gesture. It ain’t necessary to have a conversation with Todd to know that we care about him and vice versa.

“As you know, he’s not a talkative guy anyway,” added Jones, 56. “Most of the time, it’s elevator music if somebody’s trying to talk to him too much. Because he ain’t listening anyway.”

To understand the depths of the bonds that exist between Bowles and the Cardinals’ coaching staff, one must go way back, well beyond the two seasons he spent in Arizona as a defensive coordinator under Arians, his longtime mentor and trusted friend.

The roots of these long-standing relationships date to the early 1980s, when Arians was a first-time head coach in North Philadelphia trying to chart his own way.

“He taught me at Temple just to keep fighting,” said Bowles, who was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2001. “ . . . No matter what happens, you have to keep swinging. And the more injured you get, the more you keep swinging.”

Bowles was the player whom coaches trusted implicitly. Cornerback Kevin Ross, a New Jersey native and future Pro Bowler, was another Temple team captain. Jones coached the tight ends, defensive line and special teams starting in 1983 after spending two seasons with Arians on Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama staff. And Nick Rapone was the Owls’ secondary coach and defensive coordinator from 1983-88.

All of them serve on Arians’ Arizona staff — except Bowles, who joined the Cardinals in 2013 and was named the first-ever Assistant Coach of the Year by The Associated Press two weeks after accepting the Jets’ job in January 2015.

“When I met him at Temple, he was one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen,” said Arians, 64. “ . . . I always felt like I would be working for him, because I thought he would start long before I ever got to be a head coach.”

Rapone had an inkling that Bowles — a player with “off-the-charts” intelligence — was “head coach-caliber.”

“I knew Todd Bowles would be a success. He just happened to choose football,” said the Cardinals’ defensive backs coach.

FRIENDSHIP GOES

OUT THE WINDOW

The teacher and the pupil will square off for the first time on Monday Night Football as Bowles and Arians try to lead their teams to victory. The coaches usually text one another every week or two, or “if I feel like he needs a phone call, I’ll see if he’s doing OK and he’ll do the same for me,” Arians said. But this past week was different.

Asked if he’ll talk to Arians before the game, Bowles said dryly: “Probably not.”

He credits several mentors with helping to mold him into the coach he is today: Bill Parcells, Doug Williams, Andy Reid, Joe Gibbs and, of course, Arians.

Their bond dates to 1983, when Bowles was a redshirt sophomore at Temple.

“I can’t say enough about the man,” he said of Arians, who served as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator from 2001-03 when Bowles was the Browns’ secondary coach. “He’s like my big brother. It went from father-son to uncle-nephew to we’re almost like brothers now. Anything that he can help me with, he does. Anything I can help him with, I do.”

But despite their deep connection, Bowles remained stoic as he spoke of facing his former team and one of his most loyal confidants.

“We need to win a ballgame. It just happens to be Arizona,” he said. “I know a lot of people over there, a lot of good friends, but we’ll shake hands after the game. During the game, we’re going to try to kill them and they’re going to try to kill us.”

UNWAVERING BELIEF

Bowles and Arians’ long-established relationship will serve as the backdrop for this prime-time affair. But for a couple of hours, friendships will fall by the wayside.

The Jets are mired in a three-game losing streak and the Cardinals have lost two of their past three games. Each is in need of a winning streak.

Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (who was cleared this week from the concussion protocol) gave his former defensive coordinator an edge because “we haven’t changed offenses since he left.”

But Bowles’ stamp is on the defense he left behind, too.

“Half of this defense is what Todd put in,” Rapone said. “The new coordinator [James Bettcher] has expanded it a little bit and put his twist on it a little bit. But the foundation is Todd.”

Bowles developed a reputation for bringing the blitz “eight out of 10 snaps” and using seven defensive backs on third down, Rapone said, adding: “That’s the thing Todd started here, and we still do that.”

In Arizona, Bowles cemented his reputation as a defensive mastermind, guiding a unit that allowed only 18.7 points a game, fifth-best in the NFL, despite losing several key stars in 2014. Arizona advanced to the NFC wild-card round that year despite losing Palmer and No. 2 quarterback Drew Stanton to injury.

Bowles’ football I.Q. and no-nonsense approach were heralded as trademarks of a coach capable of turning around a wayward Jets franchise. But the feel-good vibes coming off last season’s 10-6 finish have been replaced by angst and anger among Jets fans. Bowles’ mettle and game-day management have been called into question as erratic play, missed assignments and questionable coaching decisions have led to a sorry start to the 2016 season. Even more glaring: His defense is ranked second-to-last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (303.0).

But Bowles hasn’t lost faith in his players or his staff. And his former coaches still believe in him deeply.

“There ain’t any wavering in what Bruce Arians is going to do here, and there ain’t any wavering, I promise you, in New York with what Todd Bowles is going to do there,” Jones said. “Both of them are very capable of righting the ship and producing wins. I’ve known both of them long enough, been in a foxhole with both of them long enough, to know that they’ll come out on the other side.”

‘SIZZLE’ VS. ‘SUBSTANCE’

As the former liaison between Temple’s coaching staff and the NFL, Jones often watched tape of his college players with scouts and league executives. Even now, he still remembers former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard and assistant GM Charley Casserly sitting in his office looking at footage of Bowles and “trying to figure out why not to take this guy as a free agent.” (Three decades later, Jets owner Woody Johnson hired Casserly as an adviser during the organization’s head-coaching search, which ultimately led them to Bowles.)

The crux of Bowles’ tell-it-like-it-is approach can be traced back to the late 1970s and early ’80s. Jones, a former running back and safety at Alabama, started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bryant in 1981. That same year, Arians coached the Crimson Tide running backs. The legendary, larger-than-life Bryant preached discipline, execution and aggressive defense from underneath the brim of his trademark hounds tooth fedora. And Arians and Jones followed his example when they teamed up at Temple.

Years later, so did Bowles.

“You need to trust him,” Jones said of Bowles before highlighting Arizona’s slow start after finishing 13-3 in 2015. “They’ve got the right guy in New York — in the green-color uniform. I know that. I trust what Todd is doing there.”

Rapone’s support for his former player and “dear, dear friend” hasn’t wavered either. “All you have to do is be around the man and you’ll realize it,” he said. “The guy doesn’t panic. He doesn’t waste words. He’s all about teaching and getting his team better.”

Rapone’s belief in Bowles is derived from 30-plus years of friendship. But his conviction is rooted in something much deeper.

“I believe that based on the caliber of the man,” he said. “There’s two things: sizzle and substance. Sizzle is everybody talking. Substance is just getting it done. Todd’s all about substance. He’s not going to back down. He’s not going to change who he is. He has a plan. Todd Bowles is going to be just fine.”

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