FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — If he didn’t quite grasp it before, Todd Bowles knows he’s definitely in the club now. He’s a full-fledged NFL head coach, with all the accompanying headaches and out-of-left-field challenges that come with the job. That much is apparent after just two days of his first New York Jets training camp, where Bowles, the team’s rookie head coach, has been forced to deal head on with the fount of bad news that third-year Jets star defensive end Sheldon Richardson has become.
Every new head coach looks for opportunities to put their own stamp on their team, but for Bowles, this first big test of the 2015 season came with lightning speed, and represented a teachable moment in the form of a major unforeseen problem. Late Thursday afternoon, news broke that Richardson, already suspended by the league for the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, had been arrested near St. Louis on July 14 and charged with resisting arrest. In less than two weeks, Richardson had twice embarrassed the organization and himself, and this time the details were almost mind-boggling:
Clocked driving as fast as 143 mph in a 2014 Bentley, Richardson had a collection of family members in the car with him, including a 12-year old. Police said the car reeked of marijuana—though none was found—and that at one point Richardson briefly lost control of the car at a high speed. He narrowly avoided child endangerment charges, but in all likelihood will be punished further by the league under its rather malleable personal conduct policy.
Richardson unwisely didn’t bother to tell the Jets about his arrest, and let the club be blindsided by the news when the story broke Thursday. Then again, Richardson admitted Friday afternoon that he told no one of the incident, not even his parents. But Bowles looked and sounded anything but bowled over by Richardson’s swift downturn when I spoke with him early Friday afternoon, keeping the same measured, steady-as-she-goes approach that he has long been known for.
“This isn’t gardening,” Bowles said, with a smile. “This is the life we chose, and we’re going to deal with these things. And it’s fine. I lost a lot of guys (to injuries) in Arizona last year. One guy’s not going to make us any worse a team. We can win without one guy. Our players understand that. They know that. They knew that even before training camp. You’re going to have body blows all season. Nobody gets to where they’re going without a few mistakes along the way.”
Don’t for a minute think Bowles sees Richardson’s lapse of judgment as primarily a football problem, and thus an obstacle for his team to overcome. As he made clear a number of times, the issue here is that Richardson the person has lost his way, and with that comes the reality that his status on the roster is secondary.
“I mean it surprised me,” said Bowles, of the latest round of bad news from Richardson. “It’s upsetting. It’s disappointing that it’s back-to-back. But he has to live with that. There’s no way around that. You can’t defend that, nor am I trying to. I just hope he gets better as a person. I’m more worried about the man than the player.”
A lot of coaches know when to drop in a line like that. I just don’t happen to believe that many of them really mean it when they do. But I do when Bowles says it. The NFL is a what-have-you-done-lately-for-me kind of league, and the train keeps moving, always moving, no matter who has to jump off for a while. But who Bowles is and how he’s going to coach the Jets—make that lead the Jets—seemed to be clearly on display Friday in his reaction to the Richardson development. There was no ducking the issue, or equivocation. Just the steadiness and directness that Bowles has made his name on.
“It’s hard to say a guy’s a good guy when two things like this happen,” Bowles said. “But (Richardson’s) a good guy. But good guys don’t always do the right things. As a young man you don’t get too many chances to turn your life around, and right now he’s going down a spiraling road. And he understands, or needs to understand, that he needs to turn his life around. And this has nothing to do with football.”
Rest assured no one was watching Bowles closer on Friday than Richardson’s teammates. How would adversity change the equation with their rookie head coach? Would he alter his easy-going style when trouble hit? Would he tighten up under the pressure of the franchise’s latest challenge? If there’s a nascent Bowles Effect already in play in New York’s locker room, it seemed to show a coach who won’t blink or lose focus when curveballs get thrown his way.
“He has a calm demeanor about him as he goes about his business,” said veteran Jets center Nick Mangold. “But at the same time, you can tell different levels of excitement or frustration are there, without him having to yell. I think that’s just who he is. Football is like a rollercoaster. You have your highs and your lows, and if you do your best to make that a flat ride, you’ll do pretty well. I appreciate that balance, and I think he’s handling it well. It [the reaction to the Richardson news] seems to be going the way he wants it to go. There’s no wishy-washy to it.”
This story, of course, has a long way to go before any resolution surfaces. Richardson might well have put his Jets career in great jeopardy with the double whammy of bad news in July, and Bowles acknowledged as much, answering “I have no idea” when asked if he believes Richardson will play for New York this season. At different points in meeting with the media on Friday, Bowles described Richardson as “clearly he has a problem,” and “clearly he needs some help.”
But the onus going forward, Bowles said, will be on Richardson, who has now sacrificed the trust of his teammates and the organization.
“You lose a lot of trust,” Bowles said. “As I said, actions speak louder than words and as a man you have to own up to what you’ve done and not only own up to it, but you have to show change through actions. People are not going to believe anything you say in that regard, just like your children, you’re going to be disappointed. Over time you have to show progress. You’re not just going to take anybody’s word for it any more. He has to face his teammates. He has to face the coaching staff. He has to face his family.
“That’s up to him. It all depends on the next couple weeks, months and days that go by, and whether he gets the message and how it turns his life around. We’re here for him and we are trying to help him out ... only time will tell to see if he changes his life around.”
For his part, Richardson sounded like he had a long way to go until the message and meaning of this month’s travails have sunk in and done their work in helping him mature. Still 24, Richardson copped only to the tepid-sounding “bad decision-making” on the night of July 14, saying, “that was just one bad night after my suspension. I thought it would be fun to show my family members something. I never rode in a car like that before.” He didn’t tell anyone about the arrest, he said, because he “didn’t think it would come out as soon as it did.”
The Jets may wind up being without the talents of their 2014 leading sacker, for a good bit or maybe even all of this season. But Bowles is determined to not let Richardson’s failures set the tone of his club’s season. The first real test of his tenure in New York has arrived, but the rookie head coach has already passed it without flinching.