FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The Miami Dolphins were 1-7, Tony Sparano was walking his Green Mile as a head coach and motivation was in short supply within South Florida's pro football team. Miami was playing the similarly listless Washington Redskins the next day, and Todd Bowles was at the front of the meeting room.
"If you had to commit a crime, what three people would you pick?" the Dolphins assistant head coach asked a momentarily confused group of guys.
Bowles then explained. "Gotta have someone to plan it," he said, as he picked one Dolphin out. "Gotta have a getaway driver." He pointed to another. "And you gotta have someone to pin it on," he said, pointing to a third player. And just like that, any tension was lifted, and everyone was cracking up. Bowles then told his players that the defensive coaches were gonna let it all hang out, and that, with the guts of a burglar, he and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan would hold a zero-blitz for a critical, clutch situation.
Final score: Miami 20, Washington 9.
Four years later, Bowles is staring down a much different situation: his first significant challenge as the New York Jets' head coach.
On Tuesday, linebacker IK Enemkpali rolled up to quarterback Geno Smith in the Jets' locker room and clocked him, breaking the starting quarterback's jaw and sidelining him for six to 10 weeks. Smith will have surgery on Wednesday. He might never get his job back. Enemkpali is out of work. Sources say Smith's no-show at Enemkpali's football camp, and Enemkpali's failed effort to recover $600 in travel expenses incurred, were at the heart of the dispute.
The story's been spun. No matter how you slice it, both players are paying a heavy price for all the idiocy.
But that doesn't mean there won't be a payoff here.
If they didn't already figure it out, the players will get some insight into who Todd Bowles is as a coach. Because as much as Bowles probably wishes all of it had been avoided, this is the type of tricky spot -- one that would tie so many other football bosses into a knot -- that Bowles is uniquely qualified to handle.
Before Tuesday's practice, Bowles gathered his players and, by his own admission, raised his voice, something he doesn't do often. One of his ex-players said Tuesday night that Bowles was likely delivering a very simple message along the lines of: "Don't play with people's money or you'll end up like Geno."
That message, of course, involves simple common sense. But there's more to it.
For most guys who've played for him, being in trouble with Bowles feels a little like being in trouble with your dad -- he might not get angry often, but when he does, you know it, and you don't feel good about it. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson certainly experienced that two weeks ago, when it was revealed he'd been charged with resisting arrest. There's no question that Enemkpali experienced it, as well. And Smith probably isn't in a much better boat right now, aside from the fact that, unlike Enemkpali, he's still collecting a paycheck.
In between the Richardson and Enemkpali/Smith incidents, I was in Bowles' office, and he explained that in his own way as he illustrated his vision for the Jets' new program.
"They understand what I'm looking for, and I kinda got a feel for a lot of guys and what they do and what makes them tick," he said. "We're on an accountability system. That's the one thing we're trying to get accomplished -- you are responsible for your job, your whereabouts, where you're supposed to be and how you do things around here. It's not a crack-the-whip type of thing. It's treating them normal. This is what I want, this is what's required; can you do this? And if you can't, you're not gonna be here."
Then, boiling it down to three words, he said, "It's on them."
Bowles said on Tuesday that Smith would have to earn his way back. In two months or so, when Smith is ready to return, he'll have to show he deserves the job again. And even then, if veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing well, there are no guarantees.
Likewise, Richardson's prodigious talent may afford him the kinds of second chances that others (like Enemkpali) don't get, but it won't buy him a free pass. "Over time, they have to gain your trust back," Bowles explained to me, in outlining Richardson's situation. "You allow them to gain your trust back, you don't make it easy."
See, it's easy for a new coach to come in and announce his presence to the team, or stand in front of the players on Day 1 of his first camp. It's another thing to keep the ship steady when the waters get choppy.
And that happens to be Bowles' specialty. "This could galvanize them," said a former colleague of Bowles'.
"The message is, 'You play or act like a b----, I'll cut you,' " added one of Bowles' ex-defensive players. "It's all up to you. It's solely up to you."
On that night in 2011, during that hopeless Miami season, that was the underlying theme: Bowles handed his Dolphins players the keys and let them drive. He knew which buttons to push, he connected with the players, and, most of all, he gave them ownership of the situation.
That'll be the idea again with the Jets. Two guys screwed up. One's gone. The other has a long road back.
If the ground rules -- and the difference between Bowles' approach and the previous way around here -- weren't clear, they are now, to those players and everyone else in the locker room.
Mess up, and you'll get treated like you stole something.