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When Todd Bowles Meets Bruce Arians

Posted Oct 12, 2016

Former Cardinals defensive coordinator finally faces long-time mentor with both as head coaches

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians (right) and Jets coach Todd Bowles meet up during the NFL Scouting combine in 2015 (photo courtesy Mark Dalton).

When Todd Bowles was still playing in college at Temple for head coach Bruce Arians, Arians already thought at that point his star safety would make a good coach.

Unfortunately, he also told his protégé he should probably give up on his dream of playing in the NFL.

“I actually told him, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be making it in the pros, so you ought to start coaching,’ ” Arians recalled Wednesday. “He only played for about 11 years and got two Super Bowl rings.”

Bowles remembered being upset at the time – “You never want to be told you can’t play” – but there is nothing but love between Arians and Bowles, who face each other as head coaches for the first time Monday night when Bowles’ New York Jets visit University of Phoenix Stadium.

This was a game everyone noticed when the schedule came out, after Bowles served as Arians’ defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014. But beyond their Cardinals’ ties, Arians and Bowles have a 30-year relationship that injects high emotion into “Monday Night Football.”

“With a guy who taught me almost half my football life, you try not to let him down, and in order not to let him down, I have to win the game,” Bowles said with a laugh while on a conference call.

Arians’ decision to hire Bowles in 2013 was met with some raised eyebrows. Bowles was coming off a rough stint as interim defensive coordinator at the tail end of Andy Reid’s Philadelphia tenure. The Cardinals still had defensive coordinator Ray Horton under contract when Arians was hired as head coach.

But Arians knew that Bowles would be his choice as DC when and if he ever got a head coaching job, and Bowles was his pick. Bowles paid that off, constructing an aggressive defense that helped the Cards to 10- and 11-win seasons during his two years in the desert.

The Jets hired him as head coach in 2015.

“I work hard as best I can not to make him out to be a liar for giving me an opportunity (in Arizona) and then giving me this opportunity,” Bowles said. “He’s like my uncle, my big brother. He taught me so much in life and in football, words can’t describe how I feel for him.”

Bowles also made his own impact in the Cardinals’ locker room.

“He was one of those coaches who really understood the personnel,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “It’ll be different going against him but it should be fun at the same time.

“We were pretty cool. He was a straight-up guy, he shot me straight, and obviously he always put me in position to make plays so any coach that does that, you tend to have a special place in your heart for them.”

Bowles isn’t the only ex-Cardinal coach on the Jets’ staff. Former inside linebacker coach Mike Caldwell and one-time interns Marcel Shipp, David Diaz-Infante and Daylon McCutcheon were all hired by Bowles.

That makes Arians proud as he tries to get young coaches opportunities for advancement.

“I got help when I was young and guys need help,” Arians said.

There is a strategic side to the Arians-Bowles matchup. The two know each other so well, coaching philosophy and scheme isn’t a mystery. The two teams run similar defenses. And Bowles understands Arians the playcaller.

Bowles shrugs it off, saying he’s been gone so long, it won’t impact the game. Arians said the Cardinals are wary of Bowles’ knowledge, but that you can’t suddenly start asking players to do things they aren’t good at doing. But the defensive players who played under Bowles smile at the idea Bowles will be able to give the Jets’ offense pointers.

“Everyone in this room that got to play with him, we love Todd,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Todd is going to be tweaking his offense for us, so we have to be on our toes. It’ll be pretty fun.”

Arians and Bowles still text often (as do their wives), and Bowles came to Arians’ offseason golf tournament in Georgia while the families hung out. It’s a relationship that will also go well beyond football.

Both want to win Monday, although they both understand it will come down to their players.

“He and I don’t get to play,” Arians said. “He’d kick my ass if we did.”

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