He was never the fastest player, nor was he the strongest. But when Todd Bowles walked onto a football field, there was nobody smarter.
So says Hall of Fame defensive back Darrell Green, who was Bowles' teammate for seven years in the Washington Redskins' secondary. Green told Newsday that the same football savvy that helped the undrafted Bowles secure the starting free safety spot with Washington is going to be what makes him succeed in his new job as Jets coach.
"He was a coach on the field," Green said. "Here he was this kid right out of Temple and he was the smartest, most efficient leader that you could find for a young man. To tell you the truth, there were a ton of guys on our team that if it weren't for him, would never have lined up where they needed to be. Some wouldn't have played a down of football without him."
Bowles, 51, was named the Jets' coach on Tuesday, succeeding Rex Ryan, who went 4-12 and was fired a day after the season ended.
A New Jersey guy who grew up in an Elizabeth housing project, Bowles is described by those who know him as the antithesis of Ryan, the glib, backslapping coach's son. Serious and quiet, Bowles isn't going to treat his players like buddies. He's not going to approach his news conferences like a standup comedy act, either.
But that doesn't mean Bowles doesn't know how to take control of a room and a team.
"Let's just say he's soft-spoken, but that doesn't mean he can't get people's attention," said former NFL running back Paul Palmer, who has been friends with Bowles since they played together at Temple in the 1980s. "Sometimes when you have people who are quiet, it can be a little scary. Because when they finally do raise their voice, it gets people's attention."
Bowles has been getting people's attention since he was a star athlete at Elizabeth High School in the 1980s. In addition to playing football, Bowles was an accomplished lefthanded pitcher. Ray Korn, who coached the Elizabeth baseball team and also served as the school's athletic director, said Bowles had one of the best pick-off moves in the state. "Nobody stole a base on him," Korn said.
Nicknamed Ty-D-Bol by Korn because that's what his name sounded like when said quickly, Bowles was a serious student who, with a group of like-minded friends, helped establish football and baseball programs at Elizabeth, which had just built a new high school.
Bowles, 6-2 and 195 pounds when he was in high school, played free safety and tailback, though it was on defense where he truly excelled. Though his team went only 5-4 his senior year, his play earned him a scholarship to Temple.
He started all four seasons for the Owls. After his first year, the football program was taken over by a young coach named Bruce Arians, now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. The two established a relationship that has lasted three decades, and Bowles spent the last two seasons as Arians' defensive coordinator.
Nevertheless, despite a standout career at Temple, Bowles went undrafted after breaking several bones in his hand when he fell during a practice.
Green, already a superstar defensive back when Bowles came to his first Washington training camp, was quickly impressed by Bowles' attitude.
"He made plays, he was smart, he knew what he was doing," Green said. "He did everything right. Sometimes you meet a kid and they're a little bit older than their real age. He was that way."
Green said no one who played with Bowles is surprised that he ended up a head coach. In fact, the only thing that surprises Green is that it took Bowles so long. "I thought he would have been a head coach already," Green said.
Bowles spent 15 years as an NFL assistant, working for some of the biggest names in the game, including Bill Parcells and Andy Reid. Bowles interviewed for seven NFL head-coaching jobs during the previous six offseasons, but his only stint as a head coach came in 2011, when he went 2-1 as an interim coach with the Miami Dolphins.
"Sometimes people who aren't that animated get overlooked, and that's maybe what happened with Todd," Palmer said. "You know, it's the squeaky wheel gets the grease sort of thing. A lot of people are loud, loud, loud. But that doesn't mean they are good.
"Todd is good and he's going to do a great job with the Jets. Maybe this is the job he was always supposed to get all along. People like playing with Todd and people like playing for him and they play hard. If the Jets respond to him like everyone else has responded to him, it's going to be a great situation for everyone."