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Now that Shane Bowen has gone from Goofus to Gallant in the eyes of many, you can see how much that distinction means to the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator:
Don't get me wrong. Bowen cares about producing quality work. He just doesn’t connect that ambition to what you might think. Or what I think. Or what anyone outside the Titans’ building thinks, for that matter. He never really did.
That’s not meant in a nasty way. Bowen is a good dude, super friendly, the next-door neighbor you’d wish to have. It’s a gift, his blinders. He’s able to block out everything. He insulates himself in an NFL world that has embraced him, placing him at 35 on a promising career path that could take off even more if the Titans launch a run to the Super Bowl in the coming weeks.
It’s not that Bowen doesn’t care about perception as much as he doesn't pay attention.
“I don’t know if it would be thick skin,” Bowen told The Tennessean. “I think it’s more focusing in on what matters, right? Regardless of what’s said about me – good or bad – out there, like, does it really matter? … I’m not driven by guys writing great articles about me having success, whatever. That doesn’t drive me.
“What drives me is being able to look these guys (on the Titans) in the eye and making sure they know I’m doing everything I can for us to win. That’s something you’ve got to build over time, and I think we’re getting there."
Credit where it's due
Comparing the Titans’ 2020 defense to 2021 is like before-and-after photos in a weight-loss commercial. They’ve improved noticeably in every way.
We’re talking total defense (28th to 12th in the NFL) and scoring defense (24th to sixth). The passing defense (29th to 25th) numbers are only slightly better, but that’s in part because offenses haven’t had a choice. Most haven’t been able to solve the Titans’ outstanding rushing defense (19th to second).
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Most dramatic has been the Titans' third-down defensive improvement. They were historically bad on third down last season, allowing a conversion rate of nearly 52%, which was worst in the NFL. This season, the Titans (36.6%) are sixth-best in the NFL on third down.
“We brought in some guys that are bought in,” Bowen said. “They’ve kind of learned as we’ve went. They’ve came together as a unit as we’ve went. They’ve played for each other, and there’s a cohesiveness there. They’re all on the same page."
Last season’s weak link, the Titans’ defense became the biggest reason they were able to withstand multiple major injuries to offensive stars and still finish with the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
All this is why I sought to get Bowen on the phone during the bye week.
I’ll admit when I’m wrong.
Among those I’d written about critically as The Tennessean’s sports columnist in the past year, Bowen deserved my amends as much as anyone for the job he has done.
Which is what I told him.
“I appreciate it, man. It’s all good,” he chuckled and shrugged in response.
Could be wrong here, but I believed Bowen had no idea what I was talking about.
Public figures like coaches say all the time how they don’t read or listen to what’s being said about them, but they do. It’s only natural. I mean, wouldn’t your ears perk up to hear what someone is saying about you?
But Bowen, I genuinely don't think he does. That’s an impressively rare trait. I'm sure it has served him well over this past year. Because it got rough at times, and I sure wasn't the only one grumbling after Bowen's promotion to defensive coordinator.
In giving Bowen due credit, I may as well have been speaking for an entire fanbase.
Bowen called defensive plays in 2020, got title in 2021
Blaming Bowen for last season wasn’t fair, because he wasn’t the defensive coordinator. Coach Mike Vrabel didn't hire a coordinator in 2020 to replace Dean Pees. Instead, he made Bowen – the Titans’ outside linebackers coach who Vrabel had first met nearly a decade before while on staff at Ohio State – the de facto playcaller, giving him coordinator responsibility without the title.
The true coordinator, in many ways, would be Vrabel.
It didn’t work. The Titans' defense was a mess. It looked out of sync – uncoordinated, if you will – all season. Mishandling the 2020 defense remains the biggest blunder of Vrabel's successful tenure with the Titans.
Rather than reverse his course, though, Vrabel dug in further. After interviewing some other candidates, Vrabel ended up handing Bowen the coordinator title, a decision that was initially met with widespread groans.
Nothing personal. It just reflected healthy fears of more of the same. What had Bowen accomplished in the playcalling role to suggest he should keep it?
Bowen didn't necessarily campaign for the role. He said he and Vrabel talked after the season ended, and that “I was kind of on par with what was going on and bringing in other guys in to interview and all that. We were in constant communication as things were going on.”
He was on vacation playing with his kids when Vrabel called to promote him.
“I was ecstatic about it,” Bowen said. “I was excited for the opportunity. I knew last year wasn’t who we were going to be. … I knew we had good pieces.”
For Vrabel, the makeup of the defensive coaching staff has remained a touchy subject publicly.
Especially when he has been questioned about the specifics of Bowen’s role as coordinator as it pertains to Jim Schwartz, who was hired by the Titans to the vague role of “senior defensive assistant” after two decades as an NFL defensive coordinator (or head coach with the Detroit Lions from 2009-13).
You see where Vrabel is coming from with that. Given Schwartz’s experience, it wasn’t a leap for anyone to assume he was brought here to take over the defense.
But as Vrabel said of Schwartz on Oct. 27, “I never really thought of anything other than him just helping out. I know that everybody makes a big deal about it or has tried to. He has supported. He has done everything that I have asked him to do, that Shane has asked him to do — to support, to give input, to follow up on postgame, during the game.”
Bowen’s comments have been appreciative and complimentary of Schwartz all season.
“Getting a different view, hearing how different teams do it, having a different perspective, I think, has been key,” Bowen said. “It was big for me in the offseason, just hearing his train of thought as we were kind of figuring out where to go and some adjustments we wanted to make.”
Shane Bowen doesn't want to let Mike Vrabel down
Bowen is from Pickerington, Ohio, a Midwesterner who played at Georgia Tech, arriving a semester late after agreeing to delay enrollment (or grayshirt) because of the Yellow Jackets’ scholarship numbers.
During the fall he was waiting to go to college, he worked in a pizza place in his hometown. “It was actually a drive-thru little convenience store that was in the back of the pizza joint,” Bowen recalled.
After his playing days, coaching came naturally. Jon Tenuta, Bowen’s defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, has a relationship with Vrabel and Luke Fickell, helping Bowen become a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2012. He’d later join Vrabel with the Houston Texans in 2016 and then the Titans in 2018.
Vrabel’s decision to promote Bowen this season fit a trend. He'd promoted offensive staffers Arthur Smith and Todd Downing as coordinators.
Defensively, though, Bowen wasn’t a popular choice.
He has proven the correct one, though.
“A big piece of that for me is I don’t want to let Mike down,” Bowen said. “That’s a big-time motivating factor for me. He put that trust and confidence in me, and each day being able to live up to that for him and for our players.”
Bowen has insisted that he never got caught up in the coordinator title, but he’s also said that it has helped for him to have the authority throughout the defense.
“The ability this year to bounce around a little bit more and really make my presence felt throughout the unit has been big for me in the relationship aspect with all the guys,” he said. “That was a big emphasis for me coming into the year.”
The first signs of progress, Bowen said, were in preseason games. Even though starters weren’t playing much, “we were seeing the same things show up throughout who was in the game.”
Then in a win in Week 2, the Titans silenced the Seattle Seahawks’ final four offensive possessions, including a three-and-out in the overtime.
“The second half of the Seattle game was big for us,” Bowen said. “We gave up some big plays early in that game, and the second half, we were able to kind of find our footing. We were getting consecutive stops in a row.”
The Titans’ defense has continually improved from there, leading the team through a long stretch without star running back Derrick Henry. In four wins in five games to end the regular season, the Titans only let one opponent – the Texans in last week's 28-25 win – score at least 20 points. The Jaguars were shut out. The Dolphins scored only a field goal.
“We’ve just had a lot of great leadership from the players, from the coaches, to the entire organization,” said Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard. “I think we’re just very hungry. We were obviously disappointed how last year ended, especially on defense, and I just think that the mentality this year is just not satisfied with anything. Not satisfied with division champs. We’re trying to go win a Super Bowl for this entire city.”
It's a credit to Shane Bowen. Even if he doesn't care to hear it. Even if he's surely not going to boast about it.
But yes, he is having fun.
“Yeah, man, it’s been awesome,” Bowen said. “I think we’ve got a great team. … I think we have really good dudes who are all in. They want to be coached and they want to be good. With success, they want more success, individually and as a unit.”
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Shane Bowen has proven doubters wrong with Tennessee Titans defense