TEMPE, Ariz. — There were more than a few raised eyebrows in Tempe when Cardinals coach Bruce Arians named Todd Bowles his defensive coordinator this offseason.
To begin with, Bowles was replacing Ray Horton, who had turned an underachieving defense into one of the league’s better units.
But Bowles was also coming off a disastrous run as the Eagles defensive coordinator in 2012. Bowles, who took over the job when Juan Castillo was fired six games into the season, oversaw a six-game stretch in which the Eagles allowed 32.5 points per game, earned a reputation for poor tackling and got statistically worse than they had been under Castillo.
In that run, opposing quarterbacks completed 116 of 152 attempts (76.3 percent) for 1,519 passing yards, 16 TDs, no interceptions and a passer rating of 142.4.
“It was different because it was midseason and you’ve got what you got. You don’t grab everything you have in your playbook and try to put it in at midseason because you only get a couple days to prepare,” Bowles said. “But as a coach, you try to handle every situation that is thrown your way, and Coach (Andy) Reid was great to me, so I felt like I let him down.”
Reid was fired after the season, which left Bowles out of a job. After being passed over for the head coaching gig at Temple, his alma mater, Bowles admits he had concerns about his future.
“You worry every year,” he said, laughing.
Yet Arians was resolute in his choice, even as others questioned it. He knew enough about his former team captain at Temple to make the decision based on that experience alone.
Five games into the season, nobody is questioning Arians.
The Cardinals are tied for third in interceptions (seven), rank third in the league against the run (79 yards per game) and 10th in points per game (19). Last week’s win over Carolina was the high point of the season for the unit, which produced seven sacks and four turnovers while keeping the Panthers out of the end zone.
The stats look even better when you consider both starting outside linebackers (Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho) are out for the season, inside linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the first four games of the season, and both safety Rashad Johnson (severed fingertip) and nose tackle Dan Williams (father’s death) missed two games.
When the topic of Bowles’ selection was raised on Wednesday, Arians bristled at the idea that it was ever worth debating.
“I don’t know who would question that,” he said. “He was interim head coach and went 3-1 (in Miami) and had a good defense. I know Bill Parcells doesn’t question that, and I certainly don’t question it. If you’re talking about replacing Ray Horton, that was never a doubt in my mind.”
There were certainly doubts among the players, who had grown fond of Horton.
“It’s the business,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “You’ve got to be able to adjust on the go. (When) change comes your way you’ve got to be able to accept it.”
Bowles has made that easy with his approach.
“He’s a former player so there are certain moments where he wants to be on the field. You can tell from his mannerisms and body language and that energizes the guys,” linebacker Karlos Dasby said. “Y’all don’t see it, but we see it. He’s a character. He likes to have fun.”
Bowles knew he was following an immensely popular coach in Horton. He also knew he was inheriting a talented group that had some well-established patterns and expectations. But it never impacted his approach.
“I heard names and you see highlights of people, but until you sit down and watch film, you don’t try to judge or get to know anything,” Bowles said. “No matter whether you’re teaching high school, college or pro, you’ve got to teach ’em all the same as if they were kindergarteners or first graders.”
It certainly helps Bowles’ cause that each unit on the defense features Pro Bowl caliber players, whether it’s Dockett and Calais Campbell on the line, Washington in the linebacking corps or Patrick Peterson in the secondary.
But the greatest predictor of fun is winning, and thanks to the defense, the Cardinals have managed three wins despite a thus-far disappointing offense.
“Hey, the proof is in the pudding, man,” Dansby said. “If we go out and we win games on defense, there’s no more to be said about the job he’s doing.”