Secret Superstar: Stephen Bowen, Dallas Cowboys

| March 18, 2011

We’re taking a risk on our next secret superstar. There’s every chance he could be playing his football somewhere new next season, and even if he stays in Dallas, he’ll be working under a new defensive coordinator.

What issues that would present, we’re yet to know. Rob Ryan had defensive ends in Cleveland that were run stuffers. Our guy has a bit more burst and penetration to his game, and initially made a name for himself in defensive sub packages.

So, it could be a case that his skill set isn’t a good fit. Though, to be honest, if he can perform the way he did in his nine starts in 2010, there aren’t many defenses he couldn’t fit into.

Cowboys, you’re going to want to hold onto your Secret Superstar, Stephen Bowen.

Becoming Relevant

When you think of Hofstra and football, you’re more likely to think of Marques Colston. He was one pick away from being the Mr. Irrelevant of the 2006 NFL draft and has gone onto become one of the league’s better receivers. But, if you want a really ‘irrelevant’ player, how about a guy who left Hofstra at the same time as Colston and went undrafted … a guy like Stephen Bowen.

While Colston was getting all manner of praise (rightfully,) Bowen was biding his time on Dallas’ practice squad. He eventually got his call up and even saw some game time as a rookie, picking up a sack in a week 17 encounter with Detroit. That, coupled with an impressive off season, earned Bowen a spot as a back-up in 2007; a role that he kept heading into our first year of existence and when we started thinking the Cowboys could be on to something.

Though he hadn’t had a sack since his 2006 debut, Bowen did get a decent amount of pressure for the action he saw in 2008. 10 QB disruptions in 103 pass rushes represented a good return, and he’d managed to grade positively in run defense as well. He was still way down on the depth chart, but his performance was such that he was going to get more snaps in 2009.

Climbing the ladder

Two hundred and one more snaps to be precise. Though Bowen wasn’t getting a great deal of action in base defenses, his role had grown to see him alongside Jay Ratliff in the nickel. The Cowboys had obviously picked up on his ability to put pressure on the QB, and he wasn’t letting them down. Getting 346 opportunities to rush the passer, the Cowboys’ #72 produced 25 total quarterback disruptions (one less than Jay Ratliff who rushed the passer 137 more times.)

It was such an impressive performance that we were a little disappointed when 2010 rolled around and Marcus Spears was still in the starting lineup. Granted, Spears would go on to have one of his better years, but it had long been established that Spears had a limited upside. Why not get a possible diamond in the rough into the lineup when he had shown he warranted an opportunity?

As fate would have it, injury forced the Cowboys to bring Bowen into the starting defense in Week 9. Before this, he had continued in his ‘09 role of package duty and infrequent appearances in the base. The outcome was similar – he had picked up 13 quarterback pressures prior to his first start – but there was a sense of excitement (over in the PFF offices at least) when he started against Green Bay. He couldn’t have chosen a worse game to start.

Life as a starter

A terrible night for Dallas, and a bad night for the former Hofstra player too. Not only were the Cowboys dominated, but for the first time all year Bowen struggled to produce. On the field for 50 snaps (29 rushing the passer) he didn’t produce a single pressure. He kept his starting spot for the Giants game a week later, but only mustered two pressures in 37 pass rushing situations. There was a concerning trend developing, even if he had more then held his own in run defense. Could it be that the former undrafted free agent just wasn’t cut out for an every down role? Was he better off sticking to his spot as a situational player?

The Cowboys weren’t about to give up on him yet, and so, with the Lions coming to Texas, he had another chance to show he could handle what was being asked of him. While his snap total fell, he was able to get back to his pass rushing best as he went to work on Rob Sims. The end result was a one sack and four pressure day, and suddenly all was good again. A week later, in the Thanksgiving Day defeat to New Orleans, he kept the momentum going with a one hit and four pressure day, giving Carl Nicks (our top rated guard on the year) his worst game of the year.

He wasn’t showing up big on conventional stat sheets, but his performances were creating problems for the opposition. Over the remainder of the season, he had some big games (like when Washington visited) and some not so big games (in Arizona, for example), but he held up. Tasked with an increased role, he stayed firm in run defense and it didn’t come at the expense of his ability to get to the passer; he ended up with 33 total QB disruptions on the year.

Uncertainty on the horizon

It was such a good season for Stephen Bowen that he finished third in our 3-4 defensive end rankings. High praise indeed, but it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles. For a start, while he held up in the run game, he wasn’t making a ton of plays, nor was he asked to. Such was the Cowboys (and his) season that he found his ratio of run to pass snaps at 1:2.4, so we are yet to see him truly tested in this regard.

Then there’s the question of how he handles a defense that may ask more of him as a two-gap defensive end. Could it be that what made him such a good fit for Wade Phillips’ defense, makes him a situational player in what Rob Ryan does? We saw Rob Ryan run different schemes when in Oakland and Cleveland, maximizing the strengths of his rosters. What he does with Stephen Bowen, and whether he relegates him back to sub package duty will be something to watch.

So it’s a risk to label Stephen Bowen a Secret Superstar heading into the 2011 season, but if he can keep playing the way he’s played these past few years, how can you not like his chances of making a bigger impression?

He’s been good for a long time, even if people don’t know it.

Comments are closed.