Head coach Todd Bowles of the New York Jets undoubtedly deserves a new title. Because well, Professor Bowles is in the office.
I should admit up front that I was a fan of former head coach of the New York Jets and current Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan. He drew me in like a moth to a flame. He was likable in any number of ways, not the least of which was his openness in an age of paranoia. He was refreshing, brash and smart. Less noticed was the respect he often showed other coaches, the admiration he showered on opponents. Alas, however, the team went steadily downhill after two consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game.
Rex had three clear strengths: he admired talent and rightly so. Far too often we fail to comment on the outrageous show these athletes put on for us. Not Rex. He respected player talent and effort. In addition, Rex was a terrific x’s and o’s guy. Everyone in the building knew a blitz was coming; no one knew where it was coming from. Finally, he was a terrific motivator. Players wanted to give everything for Rex (with the exception of Mario Williams of course). They would run through the proverbial wall for him.
Unfortunately, some of Rex’s strengths were also his weaknesses. Rex’s recipe is a bit old school: find talent, sprinkle in creative schemes, mix in motivational speeches, stir and win. It sounds good and sounds like it should work. However, this NFL is different from his father’s and even different from when Rex coached in Baltimore.
The fundamental difference between the “old” NFL and the “new” NFL is turnover. Players come and go like wives of Henry VIII. This happens both through the endless shuffle known as free agency (in service to “parity”) and also through the war of attrition which is the NFL season.
Now, let’s leave the “next man up” cliché for the coaches.
They have to say this lest they give in to despair. When analysts repeat this mantra, however, they should be fired. There is a reason the first string is called the “first string.” They are better than the second string. If it didn’t matter who played, no one would get cut and everyone would win a participation trophy.
A third way in which the new NFL is different from the old is the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s severe limits on preseason practice time. This leads to the remarkable statement of many coaches that they do not truly know their team until about the fourth game. The fourth game! A quarter of the regular season!
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Well, in some ways the two are alike.
Bowles too never met a blitz he didn’t like.
Like Ryan, Bowles can get lost in the stratosphere of x’s and o’s.
He casually tosses off technical terms in press conferences that writers pretend to understand or blithely ignore.
To wit: Darron Lee needs to work on his “scraping.”
Fairly sure this had nothing to do with a skin condition, I duly looked it up. Nope, not a skin issue. It has to do with the linebacker’s movement along the line to take the right angle to a running back. Let’s use it in a sentence: “Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy learned that Lee had improved his scraping technique since training camp.”
Now they are dissimilar as well. At a superficial level, Rex seems to enjoy press conferences; Bowles treats them as a necessary evil, the equivalent of a proctology exam.
At a deeper level, Bowles seems to know something Ryan does not: The new NFL requires teachers as much or more than motivators and x’s and o’s guys.
Given the constant turnover, teaching becomes paramount.
Teaching all the way through the system: teaching the coaches what he wants; then patiently teaching the players, especially the young players and the new talent.
This means teaching in the film room, in the meetings, and on the field. Without teaching, all the x’s and o’s, natural talent and motivational rants will go for nothing because the players will not understand the principles behind what they’re doing. There are clear signs that Bowles gets this.
Now, by teaching here we are not talking about grammar school. Bowles does not suffer fools gladly. He is the college professor who informed you that your writing is not nearly as good as your mother led you to believe.
Aug 19, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles on looks on against the Washington Redskins during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
In fact, Bowles answers questions like a graduate professor. That is, he often changes the form of the question rather than allowing the form of the question dictating an answer. He consistently questions the assumptions or phrasing of the original question.
This helps reporters and players learn a different way to look at things. So, for example, before the Buffalo game a reporter asked whether cornerback Darrelle Revis would have safety help this time around after struggling against Sammy Watkins last year.
Bowles’ answer via the Media Relations Department of the Jets: “Who said he didn’t have help last time?” Exactly Professor. Now let’s go reexamine that film and perhaps gain a better sense of what was really going on there. Many of his answers will begin with some variation on the phrase, “Well, I wouldn’t say …” Listen carefully to what he would say; he’s holding class.
A second way that Bowles teaches is by refusing to elevate players to heights they cannot or have not reached.
His answers may seem noncommittal or withholding. But sending love letters to players is not his job. Analysis and teaching are.
A player might “flash” on one or two plays, but subtly fail his assignment on three others. That player, especially the young player, needs to understand that one great play does not a great game make. Consistently doing his job is what matters.
If he inflates egos before they have accomplished anything, players will be much less likely to hear constructive criticism. They need to hear this to develop. It does them no favors to play on their egos.
This is not limited to the young players. The team needs to understand Bowles’ most fundamental message: each week is an opportunity to improve at every aspect of the game. Premature congratulations and celebrations do not lend themselves to this message or its application.
This was all evident last year when after several games we could hear a consistency of message throughout the Jets locker room.
Jets players now routinely say things like, “well, it was a good game, but there are a lot of things to clean up,” or, “we can certainly improve our blocking and communication even if we did score a lot of points” or “we just want to get better for next week.” Bowles’ message resonates and, of course, winning helps any message go down easier.
I saw something in the third preseason game against the New York Giants that was an example of a player developing under Bowles. That player was safety Calvin Pryor.
Oct 18, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets strong safety Calvin Pryor (25) in his game against the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. The Jets won, 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Wide receiver Odell Beckham cut across the field right to left with Pryor bearing down in the opposite direction. Beckham played crocodile arms, the ball sailed by and Revis had an interception. Most important was what did not happen: Pryor did not follow through on the hit. He pulled up. Beckham did not get hurt; Pryor did not get hurt; Pryor did not get a penalty. Two years ago, Pryor lays him out, gets a penalty and one or both get injured.
The importance of teaching comes across too in words like “cohesion.” Bowles certainly wants the most talented athletes general manager Mike Maccagnan can find. However, all the talent and clever scheming in the world cannot make up for a lack of cohesion. Everyone needs to move together almost as a living organism; otherwise one has a talented, but losing team. In football, the whole is always greater than the parts.
Teaching is crucial to developing depth on the team.
Maccagnan has done a fine job finding talent in all the right places. The stunning wide receiver haul this year is just one example. How did they end up with wide receivers Charon Peake, Jalin Marshall and Robby Anderson all of whom were undrafted free agents? What were other teams doing?
Here lies whatever truth there is to the “next man up” saying. It only works if the next man up is a good player. And then, they need to be coached well on both the fundamentals and the system. If J. Marshall is a sign of things to come, the Jets are developing genuine depth to an extent I have not seen from them in my lifetime.
Another example of player development is the offensive line which was supposed to be weak this year. They are being well coached and succeeding beyond what Jets’ fans could have expected. This did not happen by getting big names for the right side of the line, but by developing the players they have. This is necessary for the age of free agency. No team will be able to get everyone they want at every position.
Finally, good teaching builds discipline and emotional stability.
The Bills, not the Jets, had terrible penalties in that second game including a twelve men on the field call. Jets fans recall this kind of thing all too well. This is not to say that they will not make mistakes (Bowles made a doozie himself) or have bad penalties, but they will win more games than they lose from the mental side of the game.
This team showed enormous maturity in the Bills game. It was a tough game, especially in the third quarter when the Bills rattled off fourteen straight points and took the lead. The Jets made mistakes. They blew coverages and coughed up the football. But they didn’t fold or lose composure. Instead, they stopped the bleeding with an 84-yard touchdown drive punctuated with one of Matt Forte’s three rushing touchdowns.
This was not the same old Jets. This was a team that has learned that winning in the age of parity is always a full-game affair and never comes easy. This is a team that follows the lead of its coach: Professor Bowles.