In two years, Todd Bowles left an impressive wake in his time as Cardinals defensive coordinator, but on his way out the door, he made sure his replacement wasn't trying to be Bowles The Sequel.
"Just remember, this is your job," Bowles told James Bettcher, the outside linebackers coach Bruce Arians promoted last week to fill the spot Bowles vacated to become the Jets' head coach. "You're the coordinator now. I'm gone. This is you."
Aggressiveness will still be part of the defensive equation – "I look at playing defense as you're either getting dictated to or you're dictating," Bettcher said – as the Cardinals make the coordinator transition to youth. Bettcher doesn't turn 37 until May. He has just three years of NFL experience.
But he provides continuity for a defense that performed well under Bowles. The terminology and overall scheme will not change. Bettcher, who
has been part of the halftime adjustments Bowles made so successfully, has also shown a lot to the defensive players in the past.
"If you know what you're doing and I can respect your football mind, no matter how old you are, it's all about your football mind," Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I know 'Bettch' has a great football mind."
It was an energetic Bettcher who talked Wednesday, and a confident Arians who talked about him. Arians brought Bettcher with him from Indianapolis, where Bettcher served as a linebackers coach and right-hand man to head coach Chuck Pagano. When Arians took Bettcher with him to coach in Arizona, Arians said he got a text from Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis "pissed off" Bettcher was moving on.
"He said 'He made me a better player for the first time in four years,' " Arians said Mathis texted.
Arians, not surprisingly, shrugged off Bettcher's inexperience, noting Arians was named head coach at Temple when he was just 30.
"Age doesn't have (expletive) to do with it," Arians said, adding "it's easy to recognize shooting stars."
It's the way Bettcher already has shown he can command the room with players that got Arians' attention.
"He's passionate, he knows 'X's and 'O's, he cares about his players, he relates well," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "His biggest attribute, like Todd, is he's not about being right, he's about getting it right. He fits the scheme to his players. Not the other way around."
Bettcher, who has been in the booth during games with the Cardinals, said he will likely come down to the sideline for games – like Bowles – although nothing about how the staff will operate as newly constructed has been finalized.
Arians said the addition of Bob Sanders to the staff helps, since Sanders served as defensive coordinator of the Packers for three seasons. Sanders is also flexible enough to coach anywhere in the front seven on defense, which Arians said could come in handy depending on how he fills the final opening on the coaching staff. That hire is still to come depending on who Arians wants to bring in.
Alexander also likes the idea of Bettcher being able to lean on other current defensive coaches such as cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross and defensive line coach Brentson Buckner. Bettcher stressed the need for collaboration across the staff – "This isn't about me," Bettcher said. "This is the Cardinals defense, this is the Cardinals way."
Arians also said Bettcher's biggest challenge is rebuilding a defensive roster that must be fortified. The Cardinals have some key free agents (nose tackle Dan Williams, cornerback Antonio Cromartie), some difficult decisions (the $9.8 million cap number of defensive lineman Darnell Dockett) and some unknowns (linebacker Daryl Washington remains suspended until at least late May.)
Bettcher recalled when Bowles took over and in the first meeting, telling players they had played great defense under Ray Horton before Bowles arrived.
"He said it isn't about continuing to uphold the standard, it's about raising the bar," Bettcher said. "We're going to approach this the same way. We're going to find ways to raise the bar."
The Cardinals were the top rushing defense in the NFL in 2013 and they were fifth in scoring defense in 2014. The successes under Bowles were not few, and why Bowles is gone – and why Bettcher now gets his chance to put his imprint on the unit.
"Ultimately, it comes down to the players," Alexander said. "If we go out and execute and play at a high level, he's going to look great."
Black and white photos of the Cardinals during 2014 home games