NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ask just about any member of the Tennessee Titans coaching staff to tell you second-year defensive play-caller Shane Bowen’s biggest strengths, and they’ll rave about his abilities to communicate and build relationships.
Outside linebacker coach Ryan Crow: “He connects with the players extremely well. He understands each and everybody, he spends a lot of time with each and everybody.”
Safeties coach Scott Booker: “I think he’s a really good communicator. He creates relationships with the coaches and the players, and then he’s able to develop and inspire other guys.”
Cornerback coach Anthony Midget: “He has a great understanding of the front end and the backend, and he relates well to the players.”
Here’s why all of that is weird, though: in 2020, Bowen’s first year as the Titans’ defensive play-caller, communicating and developing relationships were two things he was essentially barred from doing.
That’s because Bowen wasn’t the Titans’ defensive coordinator in 2020, even though he called plays.
STRENGTHS GOING TO WASTE
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Bowen is set to be the Titans’ DC in 2021, but his official title in 2020 was OLB coach, which meant that his primary responsibility during the week was managing the Titans’ group of edge pass rushers.
Being responsible for coaching outside linebackers prevented Bowen from working with multiple positions in practice, even though his job on gamedays was to put players from every spot on the defense in a position to succeed.
It also kept him from being in any positional meeting rooms outside of his own, rendering Bowen practically unable to develop meaningful relationships with players across the defensive roster.
Because of those limitations, it’s unfair to hold Bowen responsible for the catastrophic failures of the 2020 Titans’ defense, which ranked near the bottom of the NFL in both sacks and third-down percentage.
Judging Bowen’s abilities as a coach by the Titans’ performance in 2020 would be akin to judging a fish by its ability to breathe air or a dog by its ability to recite passages of Shakespeare.
Head coach Mike Vrabel and the Titans put Bowen in a terrible position in 2020, and it went beyond simply the fact that the team kept him from using his biggest strengths.
Bowen’s best traits happen to be vital to the success of an NFL play-caller. As linebacker Jayon Brown put it, “he’s good at everything a coach needs to succeed.”
Yet, those traits were, by choice, almost completely absent from Bowen and the Titans’ defensive operations in 2020.
Building relationships with players across the roster allows a play-caller to become comfortable with the pieces on his gameboard, so to speak. It gives a play-caller a strong knowledge base to work from.
But Bowen, in not being able to develop relationships across the roster, likely worked from a very limited, surface-level knowledge base as a play-caller.
On top of that, the communication deficiencies that Titans defenders frequently complained about in 2020 likely stemmed from Bowen’s inability to move around during practices and meetings, which prevented him from establishing himself as the lead voice for the defense.
No player or coach has said it directly, but it certainly seems like there was a “nobody knows who’s in charge” aura surrounding the Titans in 2020.
HOPE FOR IMPROVEMENT
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The silver lining to all of that chaos and mild dysfunction is that there is, without a doubt, hope for the Titans’ defense to turn things around in 2021, if for no other reason than that the coaching structure is infinitely more conducive to success and cohesion.
Whereas Bowen couldn’t develop quality relationships in 2020, he can, now.
“I think building the relationships with the guys is a big part of it,” Bowen said. “Last year I don’t think was there, whereas this year it is growing and it is becoming a bigger piece for me.”
Titans inside linebacker Rashaan Evans also discussed the difference in Bowen’s 2020 and 2021 interactions with players and highlighted just how significant the change is.
“It’s almost like having a new offensive coordinator or quarterback,” Evans said. “You get better and better, you get comfortable, you talk more and more. The more time you have, the better you become.”
And, whereas Bowen wasn’t firmly established as the end-all, be-all voice of the Titans’ defense in 2020, he is in 2021.
“I think it has helped with everybody, with the coaching staff, the players,” he said. “I think that it has been good up to this point. They kind of understand where the bus stops.”
On top of everything else, Bowen also has new Titans defensive assistant Jim Schwartz—who won a Super Bowl as the Eagles’ DC in 2018—in the building as a resource.
“It has been great having Schwartz here, it really has,” Bowen said. “He is a great sounding board for me.”
If the Titans’ defense—which boasts a revamped and retooled roster in addition to an improved coaching structure—stinks again in 2021, then Bowen will certainly deserve to be criticized.
His 2020 record, however, needs to be expunged.
Cover image: George Walker IV/The Tennessean