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How Todd Bowles can survive the NFL's most daunting coaching challenge

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Todd Bowles has the toughest coaching gig in the NFL. He's a third-year coach with a roster that screams "first year."

His New York Jets offense, already short on talent, has so many moving parts that it could use another couple of weeks of training camp.

He's trying to instill confidence in his players -- let's display the old Super Bowl trophy! -- but he's fighting a perception, created in the upper-management offices of his own building, that 2017 doesn't matter.

Bowles could be Dead Coach Walking, but no one knows for sure. Jets owner Woody Johnson and new CEO Christopher Johnson haven't said anything publicly since late April, when Woody said the season should be judged by how much the team progresses from Week 1 to Week 17.

That's about as vague as it gets. For all we know, Johnson sees Bowles as a "bridge" coach, the guy who gets them through what promises to be a painful, rebuilding year only to get replaced after the season. They probably will have a new quarterback in 2018, and perhaps Johnson & Johnson envision a new coach-quarterback tandem to sell their success-starved customers.

If that's the plan, it's misguided.

Bowles deserves a chance to make this work. He's already proven he can coach a veteran team -- 10-6 in 2015 -- so why not give him a fair shot with a young group? Let's see if he and his revamped coaching staff can develop players. Let's see if the locker room clean up pays dividends. Let's see if Bowles grows as a coach in his third year.

"I still enjoy coaching," Bowles said Thursday. "I love the game and I love coaching the game."

The man has tried to eradicate the stink of 2016, introducing a mantra ("One Team, One Goal") and changing the decor at One Jets Drive. No, really, he has. To promote team bonding, he ordered six black leather couches in the middle of the locker room, with the hope of drawing players away from their lockers and into groups. He also spruced up the walls, adding references to the franchise's history and team-building slogans.

Refurbished digs, same message:

"The goal here is the Super Bowl, it's always been the Super Bowl," said tackle Ben Ijalana, who arrived in 2013, which makes him one of the longest-tenured players. "Todd's message hasn't changed. The message hasn't wavered."

Cynics will snicker, breaking out the pig/lipstick analogy. They're probably right. Talent wins in the NFL, and the Jets simply don't have enough. After a 45 percent roster turnover from last year, the current team has 18 players with fewer than two years of experience. If Bowles gets this team to 8-8, he should get a statue outside the training facility.

The roster includes only two players with a Pro Bowl on their résumé -- Matt Forte (2011 and 2013) and Muhammad Wilkerson (2015). One of their most talented players, Sheldon Richardson, was shipped out last week, yet another move geared toward the future. Their three most accomplished pass-catchers -- Jermaine Kearse, Jeremy Kerley and Will Tye -- were added this week. Who does that?

"They've made one bad decision after another," one longtime personnel executive said. "I don't see any hope for them."

He's right. This season will look ugly in the standings, but Bowles should be judged on how the team fares in other areas. Such as:

  • Competitiveness. This should be a tough, feisty team that battles for 60 minutes. A repeat of last season, when they lost six games by 20 points or more, won't be acceptable.

  • Chemistry. Richardson and Brandon Marshall, the main antagonists in last year's divided locker room, are gone. This should be a more unified team than the '16 group, which pulled in different directions and tapped out at the first sign of adversity. Bowles can't survive another year of locker room drama.

  • Smarts. This is hard to quantify, but we'll know it when we see it. There should be fewer turnovers, pre-snap penalties, wasted timeouts and busted coverages than last season. To a man, the players say the on-field communication has improved significantly. Self-inflicted mistakes can't be part of the narrative.

  • A quarterback discovery. Bowles' best chance of survival is for Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg to emerge as a legitimate starter, setting up the franchise for the future. Realistically, it probably won't happen, based on what we saw in the preseason. The bleak quarterback situation will make it exponentially harder for Bowles, who refuses to be rattled by the dire forecasts for his team.

"He's a coach of few smiles to begin with, so it's not like we're seeing him smile less," Ijalana said. "He is who he is."