What happened Tuesday on the practice field -- a profanity-spewing Todd Bowles ripped into his team in the aftermath of the Geno Smith-IK Enemkpali debacle in Floor 'em Park, New Jersey -- will be remembered in one of two ways.
It could be the seminal moment of the New York Jets' season, the speech that galvanizes their Romper (Locker) Room and establishes Bowles as the new sheriff in town. Or it could be a verbal scolding that goes through 90 ears and out the other 90, allowing the old culture to become the new culture.
Don't blame Bowles for the Smith-Enemkpali smackdown and the recent Sheldon Richardson transgressions, but start judging him now. This is his first crisis, his first pressure point. How he handles it could determine what type of coach he becomes for the Jets.
The Jets haven't played a game yet, but they're in a vulnerable state. Their quarterback is down for six to 10 weeks -- he might never get his job back -- and emotions in the locker room are raw. As guard Willie Colon said, "Things like this can become a cancer." All eyes will be on the soft-spoken, no-nonsense man in the big chair, looking to see if he can contain the controversy and eliminate the "Animal House" perception that has resurfaced.
One of the reasons Woody Johnson hired Bowles was because he wanted a 21st-century disciplinarian to tighten up the loose ends that marked the Rex Ryan era. (In fairness to Ryan, he never had a Jet-on-Jet smackdown, although Wayne Hunter came close to belting Santonio Holmes in the huddle on that fateful day at the end of the 2011 season.) So far, the Bowles Jets resemble the Ryan Jets, but to put that on Bowles would be like blaming the president in the first month of his term for a sluggish economy.
"It takes time to right a team," said Bowles, perhaps acknowledging the locker room chemistry was a bit funky under Ryan. "When you come to a team, you’ve got to establish your own culture. That’s not going to happen overnight. You take lessons and you learn from them.
"For those three things to happen (Richardson's suspension and arrest, plus Smith's broken jaw), it doesn’t discourage you as a coach. It makes you stronger. It makes you give statements to players. It makes them understand the rules clearer and, hopefully, they learn from other people’s mistakes."
Bowles walked into a tough job, one that got tougher over the last few weeks. He did a nice job with the Richardson situation, displaying the right balance of indignation and compassion. He did the right thing by firing Enemkpali, a marginal player who might or might not have made the team. Skeptics will say Enemkpali was an easy scapegoat, that Bowles wouldn't have released him if he had been a starter. The coach insisted that wouldn't have been the case. OK, fine, but now there's a precedent. It's hard to imagine another Smith-Enemkpali situation, but what if Richardson messes up again? Will he cut one of his best players?
Bowles uses the word "accountability" a lot. When I spoke to him by phone on the eve of training camp, he said his opening speech to the players would focus on accountability and chemistry.
"Those will be the two main things I'm trying to get across," he said that day.
He told them he wouldn't tolerate any fighting on the practice field (so far, so good), but no one cares about their unblemished record in that regard because Enemkpali changed everything with a devastating punch to Smith's jaw. Now they're embroiled in Defacegate, with people wondering how they can overtake the New England Patriots when they can't make nice among themselves.
"You set rules and you learn lessons," Bowles said. "You don’t want to learn too many lessons. Lately, we’ve learned about three in a row, so we’ve got to get it at some point."
That point is now, and it's on Bowles to restore the peace and remove the laughingstock label.