Todd Bowles has snuck under the radar for quite some time. While I've attempted to profile all serious candidates, I found myself finding reasons to put Bowles's piece off. It's strange, because there ISN'T a good reason to. He's a position coach with 'assistant head coach' appended to his title, which seems to mostly be a device for to keep other teams from hiring good coaches away. He's known as an excellent motivator and teacher. He comes from a great coaching pedigree, one that has spawned many excellent coordinators and skippers.
Oh wait, I know why I've mentally marginalized him: he's got Rod Marinelli's resume. He seems to be cut from almost exactly the same cloth, a 'star' position coach with a great track record of making players and units he coaches better--but no coordinator experience at the NFL level, and not much at the college level either. Like first interviewee Jerry Gray, Bowles played with Martin Mayhew in Washington, so it's been tempting to think the Lions interest in Bowles is on a similarly superficial level.
So what was Todd Bowles doing in Allen Park, addressing the media from the Lions' podium? Yes, just like Jim Schwartz--the only other candidate to be invited back to meet with Big Willie Style--Bowles did a pre-interview presser to introduce himself to the media, as well as lift up a corner on the sheet covering his plan for turning the Lions around. Bowles spoke energetically, explaining why he'd have it all under control:
"I've done this before. I know the blueprint of turning a team around," Bowles said. "The blueprint we have is to change the culture. The first thing you have to do is condition. You have to condition the players mentally. They have to buy into the system.
It's astounding; he really does seem to be channeling Marinelli with this quote. It would be hilarious--if he hadn't just done it on the field. He is a vital part of the Tuna-picked staff that came over from the Cowboys, and turned the Miami Dolphins from a team that needed an overtime miracle to avoid pulling an 0-fer themselves, to an 11-5 squad that wrested the AFC East crown from the preseason darling Patriots, Jets, and Bills. Lions fans have already marveled at how perennial disappointment Andre Goodman has metamorphosized into a solid starting cornerback--well Bowles presumably played a big part in that. In fact, the Fins started Goodman and Will Allen at corner this year--two players that were written off and released by the teams that drafted them. Goodman and Allen each got every opportunity to start in Detroit and New York, both were high draft picks at positions of need, yet both were sent packing after their original team just couldn't get starter production out of them. Under Bowles, however the secondary was decent even with those two guys starting. The obligatory rundown:
* The Dolphins were the NFL's 9th-ranked scoring defense, and 15th-ranked yardage defense.
* The Dolphins picked off opposing quarterbacks 18 times, 8th best in the NFL.
* Despite losing Jason Taylor, the Fins still managed 40 sacks, also 8th best in the NFL.
* QBs facing the Dolphins posted a passer efficiency rating of just 77.0--to put this into perspective, opposing QBs facing the Fins played like Jamarcus Russell this year (77.1), whereas QBs facing the Lions played like Steve Young in his prime (average of 110.9).
* Despite that, the Fins were ranked only 25th in passing yardage defense, allowing 3,644 yards through the air. I was curious how opposing QBs could be rated so poorly, and yet move the ball well against the defense. Part of the answer is that the Fins were susceptible to the deep pass, allowing 49 20+ yard pass plays--tied for fifth worst in the NFL.
It sounds like the Fins' DBs managed to hold down the fort very well from within 20 yards, forcing bad throws, picking them off, getting coverage sacks, and defending passes. However, I don't know if it's corners getting beat or bad safety play, but the Dolphins secondary DID give up a lot of big plays.
To be perfectly frank, there's not a lot of information on Bowles. He's obviously well respected around the League: he also interviewed for the Broncos gig. He has the Parcells stamp of approval--witness this quote from his presser:
“From the time I got to the Jets, he told me I’d be a head coach in this league, and he taught me accordingly. I mean, he kept me by his side. He taught me step-by-step the structure of how to put a team in place and keep a team in place and not be a one-hit wonder. … Parcells has taught me more about, from the first guy on the roster to the last guy on the roster, how he fits in the system, why he fits in the system, why we want him on this team, why we do not want him on this team, and he taught me how to learn players.”
Taught him how to learn players, he did. Like Candidate 1A and the Grandmaster, Bowles spent a year as a scout before getting into coaching. In his case, he worked under Ron Wolf and the Packers for the '95-'96 season. Out of curiosity, I looked up how the Pack drafted in 1996. In the first round, they selected OT John Michels--he made the all All-Rookie team, but his career was devastated by injury. Mike Flanagan, the stalwart center, came in the third, and they picked up Marco Rivera, the future-HoF guard, in the sixth. If the Lions could duplicate that kind of success for this draft, a worst-to-first turnaround wouldn't be so farfetched.
“My philosophy on offense is to first run the ball, especially in the NFC North, when it gets cold in the wintertime. Although two of you have domes, you have to run the ball because that keeps the defense off the field, that gets time of possession correct, that makes us wear the other team down, and that wins ballgames. Passing game looks nice. Calvin’s a great receiver. You have to get him the ball. You have to have a great complementary passing game, but at the same time, you must be able to run the ball in this league to get by.”
This philosophy is exactly the kind of team that Lions fans would love to root for: punish them with a grinder like Kevin Smith, then kill them with Calvin Johnson over the top. And what about the defense?
“Defensively, I come from a 3-4 scheme. I’ve been in a 4-3 scheme. You want to have the personnel to kind of fit what you do. If you don’t, you can have a hybrid version of a 4-3 until you can get a 3-4 scheme in place. … If Ernie (Sims) or (Cliff) Avril or those guys don’t fit a 3-4, we’ll play a 4-3. . . . I would be working towards [a 3-4] as long as I have the personnel. … Without having the defense in place here, you have to see what the personnel looks like on the other side of the ball, and you have to draft and do free agency accordingly.”
I've said before that the transition to the 3-4 is going to take a pretty huge roster overhaul. We have the bodies for the 3-4 defensive ends, and a perfect 3-4 pass-rushing OLB in Cliff Avril. However, the other linebackers are all all about 25 to 30 pounds too light to play in the 3-4, and we lack the centerpiece of the 3-4, the lynchpin, the key at the point of attack: the nose tackle. A 3-4 NEEDS a physically dominating two-gap nose tackle--and not only are they really hard to come by in general, there's only one to be had in this draft: Boston College's B.J. Raji. He might be available with the 20th pick . . . but even with him, you are looking at a two- or three-year reclamation project before this defense is even 'good', let alone 'great'. Would Bowles have that long?
It all remains to be seen. Bowles has been brushed under the rug by those talking Lions football, but as of right now he is one of two candidates to have met with Big Willie Style himself, and as of right now there are no others scheduled. There are a lot of positive indicators around Bowles, but I'm not convinced that he's ready, or that now is the right time. If Bowles is the hire, I will definitely be biting my nails until I see his Lions take the field in September.