Jets’ Bowles prepared for any challenge

New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles watches his team play during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Credit: Seth Wenig

Credit: Seth Wenig

New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles watches his team play during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The day Todd Bowles was almost attacked while coming home from football practice, he was 8, maybe 9.

The boys were older and bigger, he said, and they had chains. When they jumped in front of Bowles in Elizabeth, N.J., his friends scattered, but he could not. Left to fend for himself, Bowles escaped when someone yelled at the boys to stop, and the police escorted him home.

No one in his family wanted him to go play again the next day, but he did anyway. He left the apartment carrying a baseball bat, just in case, and took the same route to the field and the same route back.

More than a decade later, when Bowles was a student at Temple, he was accosted again. Walking with his girlfriend in West Philadelphia, he said, Bowles was approached by a man eager to pick a fight. So Bowles obliged.

Upon returning to his dormitory that night, Bowles told his friends what had happened. At the end of the story, he laughed.

“He’s like, ‘Come on, man, my neighborhood is tougher than this. I can’t believe this guy tried me,’” said former NFL running back Paul Palmer, who played with Bowles at Temple. “Todd may be quiet, but he sure as hell ain’t passive.”

This reserved but steely side of Bowles has pervaded his first eight months coaching the Jets. Faced with the hurly-burly of their tabloid existence, Bowles has projected a calm but firm demeanor throughout a turbulent summer, reshaping their identity by leaving no doubt about who was running the team.

His emotions churned when he was told of two drug suspensions, the resisting-arrest charge that surfaced hours after the team’s first training-camp practice and the altercation that left the presumptive starting quarterback with a broken jaw.

But Bowles quelled his frustration and assessed each situation, just as he learned to do by growing up in a housing project rife with crime and drug abuse, or by decoding offensive formations in a nanosecond as an NFL free safety, or by devising such hellacious defensive game plans that mentors wondered how a modest man could unleash such fury on the field.

Billy Nagy, one of Bowles’ former football coaches at Elizabeth High, said that when he watched Bowles’ news conferences, he was reminded of the mature guy who played for him 35 years ago — same confidence, same composure.

Rodney Carter, one of Bowles’ lifelong friends, said: “In all my time knowing him, nothing’s ever really gotten to Todd. He was always in control. You know that commercial, ‘Never let them see you sweat’? That’s him.”

Instead of submitting to the temptations that suffused the Pioneer Homes project, Bowles, 51, inherited his resolve from his mother, who, after divorcing his father, raised four children while juggling jobs as a librarian and pharmaceutical lab assistant. He did not smoke or drink or do drugs. His lone vice, friends say, is Chips Ahoy cookies, which he would take to restaurants and eat, complemented by two glasses of milk.

Bowles abides by the adage “He who hesitates will be left,” spoken by Flip Wilson’s character in the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night.” The portrait of him that emerges from interviews with nearly 30 people who know him well is of a man who has been preparing most of his life for this moment, as a non-interim NFL head coach.

He has the can’t-surprise-me mettle of someone who not only witnessed a murder outside a pizza parlor but also had to adapt after being elevated twice during seasons to replace fired coaches. He has the humility of an eight-year NFL veteran who arrived at his first training camp scrapping for a roster spot and wound up retiring a Super Bowl champion. He has the credibility to relate to the emotions and insecurities that can undulate through a locker room.

“He’s like the quiet storm,” said Kenny Bowles, one of Todd’s two older brothers. “If you don’t watch out for him, he’s coming. Trust me, he’s coming.”

Taking after his mother

The day Todd Bowles’ best friend died, he was 45. His mother, Joan, succumbed to cancer in 2009. Among the four children, Kenny said, it is Todd, the youngest, who most takes after her.

Just as his mother expected fastidiousness from her children, who were tasked with laying out their clothes every night before bed, Bowles is so neat that in college he would fold his laundry before placing it in the hamper. And just as she would hum along to the doo-wop or Motown hits that wafted through the apartment, Bowles mastered the Temptations’ dance moves and fell asleep to a rhythm-and-blues radio station.

Joan Bowles had a rule: homework before sports. And Bowles loved sports, especially baseball (the Yankees, in particular) and football, which he and his friends would play at Jackson Park or Brophy Field or in one of the courtyards at the projects.

If he was playing quarterback, Bowles pretended he was Bert Jones. Running back? Chuck Foreman. His neighborhood teemed with great athletes, so Bowles had to prove himself daily.

“You got better,” Bowles said, “or you got beat down.”

By the 10th grade, he pitched for the varsity team, fooling base runners with a lethal pickoff move. At 6 feet 2 inches and 195 pounds, he played running back and tight end, cornerback and safety, thriving in the aggressive defense and nurturing environment of a new coach, Don Somma.

The day Somma accepted the job, he heard “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead on his car radio. That song became the team’s anthem, commemorated by T-shirts. He preached unity and respect and accountability. Players vacationed with coaches at the Jersey Shore and dressed up to eat with them at fancy restaurants.

A chart near the entrance of the weight room listed players’ grades and attendance, and their performance in each affected their standing on the depth chart. Not once, Somma said, did he have to worry about Bowles.

When scholarship offers arrived, with Bowles choosing Temple over Rutgers, the community rejoiced.

“He was the first guy that I could actually touch who was going to go to college,” said Anthony Rose, who grew up with Bowles in Pioneer Homes. “I said, ‘Whoa, if Todd can do this, then I can, too.’”

Overcoming a wrist injury

The day Todd Bowles was told he would never play football again, he was 21.

Summer practice at Temple had just ended, or so thought Bowles, a fifth-year senior. His coach, Bruce Arians, demanded one final goal-line session. Leaping to knock down the ball, Bowles did not hit anybody, or anything.

Extending his left hand — his dominant hand — to break his fall, Bowles landed on his wrist, rolling on top of it. He dislocated six bones. Three pins were inserted.

Doctors told him he would develop arthritis later in life. They also said his career was over.

Bowles, who taught himself to write with his right hand, thought otherwise. He missed the first half of the season and returned wearing a cast that looked like a club.

When he attended the NFL scouting combine, Bowles could not do a bench press or a push-up.

“Who’s going to want a one-arm safety?” he said.

Washington did, though not enough to spend one of its 11 draft picks on him. Bowles opted to sign with Washington because, at the time, the team had few safeties.

From the outset, Bowles impressed the coaching staff with his toughness and intelligence. Washington used multiple defensive schemes, and Bowles had to learn all of them, as well as the responsibilities for all 11 players.

In the defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon’s system, the free safety was tasked with relaying the defensive call in the huddle and then making any changes at the line of scrimmage. His teammates could afford flashes of mental paralysis, but Bowles could not.

“One thing about football players, you really can’t fool them,” Petitbon said. “They know who’s good and who’s bad, and Todd was flawless.”

Brad Edwards, who played two seasons with him in Washington, said Bowles would regularly question the team’s defensive strategy in position meetings, telling position coach Emmitt Thomas how a particular call left the defense vulnerable.

“There was always pushing in his mind,” said Thomas, who now coaches the Kansas City Chiefs’ secondary. “He was always a step ahead of defensive signals we were calling, wondering, ‘If we were doing this, what’s the counterpunch?’ He could almost feel it coming.”

Even as Bowles revealed an early penchant for dropping interceptions — doctors later discovered weakness in his left eye that affected his depth perception — coaches valued his acumen. At one point he started 65 consecutive games over five seasons with the Redskins, winning a Super Bowl in the 1987 season. He spent a year with San Francisco before finishing his career in Washington.

Bowles maximized his physical ability but recognized his football mortality. All that hitting — at practice daily, on special teams, on defense — produced nagging injuries. He was beaten up. He started slowing down. He was 30.

“Usually, when a coach tells you to run through a brick wall, you run through a brick wall,” Bowles said. “When you start counting the bricks, it’s time to retire. I started counting the bricks.”

Answering a plea

The day Bowles did what he never thought he would do and became a coach, he was 33. Thomas, his former position coach, advised him to take two years off from football, to see if he missed it.

Bowles spent those first two years of retirement owning a gym and a construction company, relishing how time away from football had helped his body heal. He then worked another two years as a scout for the Green Bay Packers.

Then came a plea from his former Washington teammate Doug Williams, who had been hired at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Williams knew he wanted Bowles to run his defense.

The team practiced in a park, about 5 miles from campus, and the coaches lined the field with chalk themselves.

“Like a penny with a hole in it,” Bowles said. “But we had fun. That taught me how to coach because there was nothing there. You got to learn how to coach. You got to learn people.”

Williams said: “You’re dealing with a lot of young African-American kids coming from single-parent homes that were looking for direction. We got the best out of those kids because of Todd Bowles. He understood who he was dealing with because he knew how.”

Bowles accompanied Williams to Grambling a year later, then after two seasons bolted to the NFL in 2000 to coach the Jets’ secondary. When coach Al Groh took the job at Virginia, Bowles headed to Cleveland, where, in charge of the Browns’ nickel packages, he engendered tremendous loyalty from the defensive backs.

When Bowles diagramed schemes on the overhead projector, Earl Little, a safety on those teams, would tell himself, “This is definitely going to work.” As the players stretched during practice, Bowles would pepper them with sports or movie trivia. He developed relationships through deep conversations about family. He further earned their trust by analyzing opponents’ offensive tendencies so thoroughly that he could predict interceptions before they happened.

Before Cleveland’s second game against Cincinnati in 2001, Bowles told the team’s nickel corner, Daylon McCutcheon, that if he ran to a certain spot on the field when the Bengals’ receivers ran a double dig, he would turn around and see the ball coming.

“It happened just like he said,” said McCutcheon, now the Jets’ assistant secondary coach.

During Bowles’ four seasons in Cleveland, the Browns intercepted 80 passes — including 33 in 2001, which remains the most in a single season since 1997. He would stalk the sideline looking for offensive tells, creeping onto the field in games against Pittsburgh, for instance, to remind players that the versatile receiver Antwaan Randle El was a threat to throw on a reverse.

“When we went into a game,” former Cleveland safety Robert Griffith said, “it was us and Todd.”

By then, Bowles ranked among the league’s sharpest young defensive minds, adapting his philosophy from Petitbon, who said he believed that the best way to beat the opposing quarterback is having him sit most of the time.

As Bowles’ profile soared, he zipped to Dallas, where for three years he tutored the Cowboys’ secondary, and then to Miami, where he finished his fourth and final year by going 2-1 as interim coach after Tony Sparano was fired.

“When he took over, there was no rah-rah speech or fancy PowerPoint presentation,” said Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who played two seasons in Miami when Bowles was there. “He just treats guys like men and expects you to do your job. He holds you accountable.”

The tumult in Miami prepared Bowles for his lone season in Philadelphia, in 2012, when coach Andy Reid dealt with the specter of being fired while still grieving the death of a son from a drug overdose.

Reid’s strength awed Bowles, who, in less dire circumstances two years later, projected the same unflappability last season to the Cardinals’ defense.

After losing critical players to injury (Darnell Dockett and John Abraham) and suspension (Daryl Washington), Bowles demanded more from those who remained. On third downs, he sent out seven or eight defensive backs. Arizona, which finished 11-5, ranked fifth in scoring defense.

“Todd understands that everything is not a crisis,” said the Cardinals’ secondary coach, Nick Rapone, who was Bowles’ position coach at Temple. “He will not panic, I’ll tell you. He has a plan for everything, believe me.”

A Shared History

The day Todd Bowles was hired to coach the Jets, he was 51. It was Jan. 13, and he was picked up at Newark Liberty International Airport by an intern and the team’s new general manager, Mike Maccagnan.

On the ride, they passed signs for Elizabeth, which is about 23 miles from the Jets’ site in Florham Park, and Maccagnan and Bowles chatted about their shared history. The two Garden State natives crossed paths 30 years back at Redskins camp, though they did not realize it until then.

Maccagnan at one point asked Bowles his playing weight. About 205, Bowles said. How about now? Maccagnan asked. About 250, Bowles said.

“I remember you were much smaller,” Maccagnan told him.

The men laughed.

“It was very comfortable,” Maccagnan said.

Whenever Bowles interviewed for head-coaching positions in the past — in Detroit, Denver, Dallas and elsewhere — but did not get the job, he did not sulk, friends said. They picked someone else, he would tell them, so let’s get back to work. This time, though, he had a feeling.

After a three-hour conversation with Maccagnan that focused on football, Bowles left the room. The owner, Woody Johnson, spoke briefly with Maccagnan, who gave his full endorsement.

“He’s not trying to copy somebody else,” Maccagnan said. “He’s his own man.”

Then Johnson extended Bowles the offer.

When Anthony Young, his former teammate and roommate at Temple, visited Bowles at training camp recently, he thought of Joan, who didn’t like to travel. How close she would have been to MetLife Stadium, where Bowles will guide the Jets in the first stage of their quest to make the postseason again.

Since taking over, Bowles has not visited Elizabeth much. His close friends and family are gone, and he barely recognizes his old neighborhood. Except, that is, for the White Castle, which he meant to patronize in June, when he spoke at the high school’s graduation.

He intends to be here for a while, so next time, Bowles said. Next time.