Players and coaches at the University of Central Florida remembered well the "George O'Leary forecast," a routine assessment done jokingly by the staff to gauge, in advance, how surly their notoriously cantankerous head coach might be on a given day. Potential thunderstorms were never a good sign.
The necessity of this daily appraisal should explain a little bit about how O'Leary wanted to forge a relationship -- or divide -- with his players. His program was built on the idea that everything must be earned the hard way. That philosophy also tells the story of how one of his players, Houston Texans star cornerback A.J. Bouye, could slip through the cracks as an undrafted free agent, only to emerge early in his NFL career as one of the league's best pass defenders.
"George] was going to be an a--hole to everyone, from [Blake Bortles, the top quarterback in the draft, all the way down to the water boys -- coaches included," Bouye's now-retired defensive backs coach at UCF, Kirk Callahan, told me this week.
He added: "Bouye's personality never matched O'Leary's. They both respect each other, and A.J. would say nothing but nice things about him, but they butted heads. He struggled with him a lot. O'Leary is old-school -- he wants you to bloody your nose on every play, and that's not really A.J.'s personality. But I think the one thing he did get from it was toughness. He wasn't going to start on defense -- or play any defense -- until he started on special teams."
After Bouye went unselected in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Texans scooped up the 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback as an undrafted free agent. One year later, Houston hired one of O'Leary's most successful disciples, Bill O'Brien, and the process started over again for Bouye. This time, the naturally gifted CB knew exactly how to weather the storm. His opportunity would come eventually, and when it did, he would put a stranglehold on a starting role.
This Sunday against the New England Patriots, Bouye has an opportunity to set the table for another plateau in his career: top-tier free agent. Arguably the best cornerback set to hit the market this March in a climate rich with buyers, this likely will be the last time he must work his way to the top after years of toiling. The stage provided by the postseason can only increase his already-high price tag from here. As we've seen with the likes of Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Aqib Talib and Byron Maxwell in recent years, inspiring postseason play has a way of elevating an already-lofty status. Make no mistake, the NFL has long been aware of Bouye's budding star power, as one executive recently told the Houston Chronicle.
Now, with Bouye facing an offense piloted by Tom Brady, the rest of the casual football world has the chance to find out.
"I always felt like his best playing days were ahead of him after he was done with us," Jim Fleming, Bouye's former defensive coordinator at UCF told me. "He could run, he had length. He's a worker, and once he got his chance, he's certainly capable."
Back at UCF, Bouye's main concern was focus. Fleming would point it out constantly on film; flashes of Bouye's smooth trademark brilliance followed by "negative plays," or what Fleming described as momentary lapses while working on an island against receivers.
The beauty of O'Leary's system was that the allegedly boorish attitude from the head coach drove players into the comforting arms of their position coaches and coordinators by design. Bouye, according to his college coaches, did not get discouraged. He redirected his energy into increasingly intense practice battles and film sessions.
On any given weekday, that meant facing off against future first-round pick Breshad Perriman, Raiders star running back Latavius Murray, Browns receiver Rannell Hall or short-time NFLer J.J. Worton. His continued progress forced his coaches to rethink O'Leary's quarters coverage scheme, which is prominent in zone looks and off coverage, and add more bump-and-run to accentuate Bouye's growing ability.
"Every day, it was one-on-one coverage," Callahan said. "Your first rep was off coverage, the next rep was press coverage, and we just rotated that. A.J. would get up there, and he'd just be so smooth. Even when he's facing someone who is taller and faster, his confidence is so unique. He's so comfortable."
Callahan saw how comfortable Bouye was in a playoff-opening win over the Oakland Raiders where he helped hold Amari Cooper to just two catches for 10 yards on 10 targets. Michael Crabtree added two catches for 33 yards on seven targets. And Bouye put the finishing touch on Houston's win with a late interception.
Like Callahan and the rest of Bouye's coaches have come to find so far, this could be just the start of good things to come.
Who else can cash in?
Bouye is not the only one. While each player's background and story is different, some still have the chance to make a lasting impression on deep-pocketed general managers this postseason -- even if a high opinion is already solidified. Here is an alphabetical list of players still active in the playoffs who can bolster their already hefty price tags in the style of former Broncos tackle Malik Jackson, who signed a six-year, $90 million contract with the Jaguars following Denver's Super Bowl run.
Le'Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers: What else is there to say? Bell is the best offensive player in line to hit free agency this winter. I personally don't see the Steelers allowing him to go anywhere, but he will not come cheap. For those who have not gotten the chance to witness what Bell is doing to opposing defensive coordinators (where have you been?), this is a chance to see a franchise-altering talent at work for at least one more week.
Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs: Berry has the exciting opportunity to set the market for safeties this offseason, or sign an astronomically-high franchise tender for the second straight year, which would also make him the league's highest-paid safety. Berry has done nothing to soften his stance as the best free agent-to-be at his position and, on multiple occasions, has taken over games this season on his own. Could his play, inspiring off-field story and consistency inspire an owner to shake up negotiations and steal Berry away from K.C.?
Barry Church, safety, Dallas Cowboys: This offseason, we will see Berry dictate the market, but safeties like Church, Johnathan Cyprien and others could fall right into line behind him. Church has been a godsend for this secondary and is a huge reason why Dallas' defense has played above expectations this season. Already well-regarded, Church now gets to orchestrate Dallas' defense against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers with all of America watching.
Morris Claiborne, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys: This is a little tougher to project, given the slow start to the former No. 6 overall pick's career and his limited action this season due to a groin injury. But Claiborne has played like a top-10 cornerback when active this season and is hitting the market at a time when he could arguably be the second-best available option to Bouye. Dallas takes on a pass-crazy Packers team and potentially has a date with Matt Ryan's explosive Falcons down the line, as well. This postseason offers a great forum to have some big-game tape against big-name competition.
Dont'a Hightower, linebacker, New England Patriots: The best linebacker expected to hit free agency this offseason playing on the best team remaining in the playoffs. New England has a date with the run-oriented Texans on Saturday night and potentially could face off against Le'Veon Bell in the conference title game. What better opportunity for a linebacker to flex both his run-stopping and coverage skills before cashing in?
Dontari Poe, defensive lineman, Kansas City Chiefs: While he might not have enjoyed the regular season he'd hoped for heading into free agency, there is still time to boost his stock. Poe has one of the best defensive coordinators (Bob Sutton) remaining in the playoffs and the chance to help shut down Le'Veon Bellon Sunday.
One additional note: I can hear you, Patriots fans, screaming, "No Malcolm Butler?!" He is a *restricted free agent this offseason, which limits his earning capabilities -- meaning, no matter how well he plays, there is still a good chance that New England already has decided what to do with him. Barring some sort of sign-and-trade, the market cannot take his playoff performance and elevate an already desirable asset.*