Doug Williams never knew the finer points of what it took to play safety in the NFL -- not that it really mattered. When he watched from the Washington sideline as Todd Bowles covered receivers in a 1987 season that would meet a historic end, Williams did not see a defensive back.
"I saw a quarterback," he said.
The first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl was quite familiar with the intricacies of that position. Having played under Hall of Famers Eddie Robinson (Grambling State) and Joe Gibbs (Washington), Williams had also spent enough quality time with natural-born coaches to know one when he saw one. So when Morehouse College made him a head coach for the first time in 1997, Williams had only one man in mind to run his defense.
But he didn't have Bowles at hello.
Williams had been a scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Bowles had been a scout for the Green Bay Packers. "Come coach with me," Williams told him.
"Man, I don't know," Bowles responded. "I don't think I want it."
"Come on, man," Williams said. "You can do this."
Williams ultimately talked Bowles into believing he had the requisite savvy and motivational skills to be a coach. They were together for one season at Morehouse and then for two at Grambling before the new head coach of the New York Jets, Al Groh, called Williams to ask for permission to speak with his defensive coordinator. Williams told Groh he didn't need permission.
"Just hire him," he said.
Fifteen long NFL years later, Bowles is the rookie head coach of the Jets, and he's already making a strong impression around the league. For starters, it only took Bowles four games to expedite the removal of one AFC East rival (Joe Philbin). He is 3-1 without a first-string quarterback to speak of, and he has already proven himself capable of managing multiple crises (the Sheldon Richardson suspension, the locker room punchout of Geno Smith) with a steady hand.
As a personnel executive with Washington, the Jets' next opponent, Williams has watched with considerable pride. "No question, I'm living through Todd now," he said, which is kind of funny because an entire generation of African-American players, coaches and executives once lived through Williams.
He routed John Elway's Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, overcoming a Saturday root canal and an early Sunday knee injury to ring up 42 unanswered points, including 35 in the second quarter, and to throw for four touchdowns (all in that quarter) and what was then a record 340 yards. Of greater significance, of course, were the vile racial stereotypes he shredded in the process. Robinson, the Grambling legend, found his old quarterback in the tunnel of Jack Murphy Stadium that night and told Williams that what he'd just accomplished reminded Robinson of Joe Louis' knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium in 1938.
Bowles shared in the experience as the Redskins' starting free safety. "We had three interceptions against Elway in that game," Williams recalled by phone the other day, "and a lot of that was Todd Bowles. Todd wasn't the most talented guy on the field, but he was the quarterback of that defense. He played smart and made sure guys were always in position.
"You weren't looking for Todd to be a Deion Sanders. But if you had a Deion Sanders on your team, you'd want Todd back there to put him in the right place."
As a defensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals, Bowles would put enough players in enough of the right places to earn his standing as one of the league's best assistants. He made perfect sense for the Jets as an even-tempered antidote to Rex Ryan, who had blustered his way to four straight non-winning seasons. And yet Bowles wasn't Woody Johnson's first choice for the job -- the owner was initially hot on Doug Marrone. Although he went to high school in nearby Elizabeth, N.J., Bowles wasn't even the preferred candidate from the Garden State -- Johnson reportedly favored Morristown, N.J.'s Dan Quinn, now 4-0 with Atlanta.
But Jets fans don't care anymore that Johnson likely would have hired Quinn had his Seattle Seahawks lost earlier in the playoffs. They only care that Bowles has won three games by a combined 47 points in a parity league, and that he has provided the poise and consistency that were forever lacking under the combustible Ryan, who might've requested a ticker-tape parade after beating the Dolphins in London.
Bowles? "We haven't accomplished anything," he said after the victory that sealed Philbin's fate.
Yes, it's early, and Jets fans have endured too much pain and punishment to count on much of anything just yet. But for the optimists in that notoriously pessimistic bunch, Williams did point out that his guy is actually 5-2 as a head coach -- Bowles won two of three games for the 2011 Dolphins as the interim replacement for the fired Tony Sparano.
"Todd never gets ruffled by anything," Williams said. "When he gets mad, he doesn't get carried away. The same guy you see today is the guy you're going to see tomorrow, and he's not going to worry about being a personality. Nobody's going to carry himself better than Todd, and he's never given anybody any ammunition to tell you a story about him. So he really likes Gladys Knight. That's about all you're going to get."
Bowles was firm in firing the Jet who broke Geno Smith's jaw, IK Enemkpali, and in expressing disappointment in a starting quarterback who didn't have the big-picture sense to pay off a small debt in the name of team harmony ("It takes two to tango," the coach said). Bowles was also firm in committing to Ryan Fitzpatrick as long as the journeyman keeps winning and in eliminating the very evil -- penalties -- that Bowles' predecessor, Ryan, treats in Buffalo as some twisted badge of honor.
"Todd's never going to B.S. you," Williams said. He remains in constant touch with his former assistant, texting him after victories here and abroad.
"We're like big brother, little brother," Williams said.
Bowles has often talked of his admiration for Williams and of how his former boss taught him the proper way for coaches to relate to players. Williams won 52 of 70 games and three conference titles over six seasons at Grambling before taking a front-office job with the NFL team that drafted him, Tampa Bay. Williams returned to Grambling in 2011, immediately won eight games and another conference title, and then lost 12 of 13 games before being fired early in the 2013 season after what he described as a dispute with the university president over fundraising.
When Williams accepted a job with Washington last year, his legacy as one of the sport's most significant difference-makers remained untouched. Twenty years after his breakthrough victory over Denver, Williams presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the New York Giants and the first African-American general manager to win the Super Bowl, Jerry Reese, the great-grandson of a sharecropper. "I will keep pushing," Reese wrote Williams in an email two days after defeating the 18-0 New England Patriots in Arizona. "I won't let you down."
Reese was speaking for a generation of NFL winners that includes the head coach of the Jets.
"They're all going to respect Todd," Williams said, "because he's going to handle the Geno Smith thing and every other situation like a grownup. To me, Todd was overdue to get this chance. I want him to win every week except when we play them."
So on Oct. 18, the Sunday after Todd Bowles' bye week, Doug Williams will be rooting for the visiting team at MetLife Stadium. Every other Sunday, he'll live through the former safety he once recognized as a quarterback destined to become a coach.