TEMPE, Ariz. — Let’s get something straight: New Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is not replacing a legend.
Ray Horton did wonders taking over a Cardinals defense that was the team’s weak link during the Super Bowl run and the ensuing 10-6 season (2010 was a disaster from all angles in a 5-11 campaign). The unit was one of the league’s best in third-down percentage and red-zone percentage last season, and it had a swagger that, in turn, ignited the fan base.
But the Cardinals defense was not a top-10 unit in yards per game or scoring defense in either of Horton’s two seasons here. While some of that was due to an anemic offense, the defense still had a penchant for surrendering big plays (48 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season) and struggled against the run (137 yard per game, 28th in the NFL).
So when Bowles was asked if it would be difficult to replace the popular Horton, he didn’t swallow hard or try to ease fans’ minds. He didn’t need to.
“It’s part of the business. Players go and coaches go,” Bowles said during an introductory news conference Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “We all have our favorite players and our favorite coaches, but they know it’s part of the business, just as we do.”
Bowles, 49, hasn’t had a lot of time to evaluate personnel yet, but he said he will stick with a 3-4 defense, with some variations that he didn’t detail. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett may have a read on some of those changes since he was tweeting recently how excited he is to return to his old position.
In Horton’s system, a 3-4 defensive end is responsible for controlling the gaps on either side of him. In some other 3-4s, the ends play a one-gap technique, which is Dockett’s preference because it allows him to make more plays instead of creating plays for others.
“It will depend on who we have and who’s healthy and who we’re playing against,” Bowles said when asked about the changes. “The similarities will be we’ll still be getting after it.”
This will be Bowles’ first chance to install an NFL defense on his own terms. Six games into the 2012 season, he was anointed the Eagles’ third defensive coordinator in a four-year span after Juan Castillo was fired just one year and six games into his tenure. Castillo had replaced Sean McDermott, who coached for two seasons under Andy Reid (former Cardinals DC Bill Davis is expected to be named the Eagles’ new coordinator this week).
Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense was mediocre to poor last season, finishing 15th in the league in yards per game (343.2), 29th in scoring defense (27.8 ppg) and 26th in third-down percentage (41). There was some speculation in the notorious Philadelphia media that Bowles’ defensive players gave less than full effort for him down the stretch last season, but Bowles said he never saw anything of the sort.
“You’d have to ask those guys,” Bowles said. “I don’t think one year makes you a bad coach or a good coach.
“You can tell by the body of work. When things go good, you can tell what kind a person he really is, and when things go bad, you can tell what kind of person he really is. You have to be even-keeled in this business. (If) you are in it long enough, you are not going to have success every week or every game.”
Bowles’ ties to Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians go all the way back to 1985, when Bowles was Temple’s captain while Arians was the Owls’ coach. But Bowles got his start in the NFL thanks to Bill Parcells, who hired Bowles as a Jets assistant while Parcells was general manager.
“When I played for the Redskins and he coached for the Giants, we were constant rivals,” said Bowles, who was part of Washington’s Super Bowl XXII-winning team. “We’re both from New Jersey. He’s from Hackensack, I’m from Elizabeth, so we’ve had plenty of run-ins.”
Bowles also coached under Parcells with the Cowboys from 2005-07, and when Parcells took over in Miami, he brought Bowles with him. Bowles also served a stint as an assistant in Cleveland from 2001-04.
Despite an array of opinions, it’s impossible to say whether Bowles was the right hire for this job and whether he can live up to the increased expectations Horton created. But Arians made his opinion plain on Thursday.
“There was never a doubt,” Arians said. “If I ever got a head coaching job, that’s who I was going to first.”