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Jets coach Todd Bowles undaunted by potentially explosive QB situation

Todd Bowles never played quarterback and never coached quarterbacks. As a former NFL safety, he devoted nearly a decade of his adult life to trying to embarrass quarterbacks. So, no, he's hardly an authority on the position, and yet he's presiding over a potentially volatile, multilayered quarterback controversy that will be one of the hottest training camp stories in the league.

It will take a strong, steady hand to navigate the Ryan Fitzpatrick contract dispute and its fallout, which will have far-reaching implications for the New York Jets. Bowles handled various forms of adversity quite well in his first season, but there's nothing in the coaching handbook that explains how to deal with a situation like this.

He has an absent and angry quarterback demanding more money from a split organization. The locker room wants Fitzpatrick to return, but the front office isn't willing to pay him a starter's salary. Bowles also has Geno Smith, who believes he's ready to lead the team and wants to reclaim his old job.

It's a tough spot for Bowles, who will rely on his gut if not his experience.

"I'm pretty confident -- quiet, but confident," he told ESPN.com. "I don't waver too much, one way or the other. When I make a decision, I go with it."

Bowles pushed the right buttons last season, but it wasn't too complicated. When Smith went down because of a broken jaw, sucker-punched by a teammate in the locker room, the decision was easy -- Fitzpatrick. Bowles stuck with him through a midseason slump, but that, too, wasn't a hard decision.

The degree of difficulty is about to increase: Does Bowles have enough faith in Smith to move on without Fitzpatrick? If Fitzpatrick returns late, who gets the starting job? Do they keep Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty? Do they sign an experienced veteran to replace Fitzpatrick?

Those are the questions he'll face in the preseason; the regular season will bring a new set of challenges.

Bowles said he won't have any problem making a change if he deems it necessary.

"I know football, I know football players," he said matter-of-factly. "If you're getting your ass kicked consistently, that's a no-brainer. You can see those types of things as a football coach over the course of time. Being that it's my 17th year in coaching, I've seen quite a few things."

The stakes are raised for Bowles, whose charge is to end a five-year playoff drought. A successful rookie season (10-6) ended on a bitterly disappointing note, as the Jets gagged away a wild-card berth with a loss to the Buffalo Bills. His first year was akin to a fantastic honeymoon tainted by a missed flight and lost luggage on the return trip.

Bowles will continue to evolve as a coach, but one thing he won't do is get heavily involved in the offense. He plans to stay with the defense, leaving the offense to coordinator Chan Gailey.

As a rookie coach, Bowles didn't attend offensive meetings and didn't have sit-downs with Fitzpatrick until later in the season, a hands-off approach that might strike some as unusual. For the most part, Gailey served as the conduit between coach and quarterback. Rex Ryan took a similar approach during his six seasons, fueling the perception that he was a glorified defensive coordinator. That might explain why there always seemed to be chaos surrounding the position.

Bowles said he was not planning to put on a new hat simply because of the wacky quarterback situation.

"No," he said. "I know what's going on and I trust Chan completely. I know the plays we run and I know what everybody is supposed to do, right or wrong. I understand busted assignments and things like that. I'm up to speed because I've been in the offense a year as well. I'm still a defensive guy, but I have an overall game mentality. When you get experience like I did the first year, you get a better feel for situations before they come up."

Even though he never has worked closely with quarterbacks, Bowles has coached on teams that dealt with instability at the position, which should serve him well in his current gig. From 2005 to 2014, he worked for four teams that started a total of 12 quarterbacks over that period -- the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.

When Bowles discusses the position, he often characterizes it as just one of 22 on the field. He compares Fitzpatrick's absence to that of an injury, invoking the next-man-up mantra. That, of course, is an oversimplification. Everybody knows quarterback is the most important position; it can affect the team's psyche.

Bowles sees the game a different way; he sees it from the perspective of a defense-minded coach. He doesn't believe a quarterback mess should cripple the entire operation, pointing to the Denver Broncos as a prime example of how a team can overcome upheaval and win a championship. The Peyton Manning-Brock Osweiler situation could have undermined them, but their defense carried the day.

"You have to find other ways to win the game," Bowles said. "That's what they did. If you remember, they weren't lighting up the scoreboard. They came together as a team. If you come together as a team, you give yourself a chance."