To be a Ravens fan last season was to trudge through a blistering desert, come upon an ocean oasis and then pass out just steps from the water, stricken by something called Tyler Boyd.
To be a Ravens fan and a Houston men’s basketball fan last season was to wake up on the same beach, wade into the same sea and feel the sting of a dozen maize-and-blue jellyfish.
Tyus Bowser lived that agony, only more intensely, aggravated by ties to the teams and a feeling of powerlessness in either scenario.
On New Year’s Eve, Bowser, then a Ravens rookie outside linebacker, was not on the field when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton took a shotgun snap, sidestepped the pass rush and found Boyd, a wide receiver, for a go-ahead, last-minute touchdown at M&T Bank Stadium. The 49-yard score — a distance longer than Boyd’s receiving total in any of the Bengals’ previous 15 games — eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention. It would be their third straight season without a postseason.
Less than three months later, Bowser, a former Houston guard, was watching from home as the sixth-seeded Cougars missed three of four free throws in the final 25 seconds of their second-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan. The No. 3 seed Wolverines, trailing 63-61 with 3.6 seconds remaining after a timeout, ran a play for Jordan Poole. From almost 30 feet, with a hand in his face, the freshman reserve stroked a buzzer-beating game-winner. In Michigan’s four conference tournament games preceding the Big Dance, he hadn’t hit even one 3-pointer.
“It was rough, man,” Bowser said of the loss, which sent the Cougars home and the Wolverines on a path to the NCAA championship game. “Seeing those situations, as far as free throws — just make one. But that's a ton of pressure. … Everything happens for a reason, and at the end of the day, they had a great run. You can't do anything about a Hail Mary shot.”
What Bowser can do is help the team he’s on now. Less than two weeks from the start of training camp, he’s well positioned. After an offseason in which linebackers coach Mike Macdonald identified Bowser as maybe the unit’s top performer, the second-year player is approaching preseason with the kind of hype befitting a former second-round pick.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has praised him in private, Bowser said. So has Macdonald. Quarterback Robert Griffin III complimented his game speed. Other teammates, “guys who’ve been in the league, who understand,” have acknowledged his behind-the-scenes progress.
“I've been through a lot,” Bowser said. He and Martindale, the former linebackers coach, “had our ups and downs just trying to figure this whole thing out. Just to see where I was then to where I am now, it's been a huge jump, and that's kind of just been a main thing for us. Just continuing to work hard, continuing to get better, and big things will come for me in the future.”
Clarity on Bowser’s role this season will come sooner than later. For parts of 2017, he was almost anonymous, finishing with 11 tackles, three sacks, three passes defended and one interception.
Bowser appeared in all 16 games, but he sometimes seemed to take the field as often as punter Sam Koch. (Fittingly, almost two-thirds of his game action came on special teams.) According to Pro Football Reference, after playing a combined 50 snaps in the Ravens' first two games, Bowser got double-digit snaps in just one of the nine next games. In the season-ending loss to the Bengals, he got 23 snaps. Just one was on defense, beating a season low set at two the previous week.
Part of the trouble was a first-year wall. “It is always a process with rookies, and every one of them grows at a different pace,” Martindale said last year. Part of it was having to battle starting strong-side linebacker Matthew Judon and starting rush linebacker Terrell Suggs for playing time.
There was room for improvement in Bowser’s game — he worked on his coverage skills over the offseason, honing his quickness and hand-fighting — but there’s only so much space on the depth chart. Za’Darius Smith recovered well from an early injury to become a dependable contributor. Kamalei Correa will likely see more time on the outside, where he’s most natural. And Tim Williams, for all he did not accomplish as a rookie, was a standout at Alabama from whom Ravens coach John Harbaugh expects “big things.”
“I don’t want to overshadow [Bowser and Williams], but I hope they take the step that I took” last season, said Judon, who doubled his sack total in his second year. “Come in here and be players that we can count on week in and week out. Not saying that they weren’t last year, but just hopefully they can take that next step to being a pro.”
Bowser all but high-stepped through the most public highlight of his offseason workouts. During the first day of a three-day mandatory minicamp, Bowser picked off a pass in the red zone from quarterback Joe Flacco and took it back for a would-be touchdown. He didn’t exactly sprint to the goal, but not because he was strutting the final stretch. He just knew the pain of a potential hamstring pull wouldn’t be worth the gain. “It's just all about staying healthy, simple as that.”
“Tyus looks good,” Harbaugh said later. “You saw the pick for the touchdown today, so that got your attention, right? It was fun to watch. That was a great catch. Tyus has had a very good offseason.”
Because Bowser is under contract through 2020, this preseason will not determine his future in Baltimore. His focus is not on whether he will start this year but on where the Ravens will finish. Houston’s NCAA tournament run was a reminder not only of the cruelty of sports, but also of the charge of do-or-die games. Suggs has told him about the intensity, the “electricity,” of postseason action.
Bowser was proud of how far Houston’s program had come since he left it. The Cougars had made a name for themselves, he said. Now, if only he could do the same.
“His confidence is just, I think, is skyrocketing,” Macdonald, his linebackers coach, said at mandatory minicamp. “You can see it in how fast he’s playing. Shoot, he’s got three interceptions out there. He can pluck it for being a guy on the edge. In the meeting room, he really attacks it. His personality is a little more quiet, but it comes out a little bit.
“He really wants to know it, he wants to master it, and you can see it in the way he practices — every rep is 100 percent. He’s been probably our most productive ’backer, in terms of just sacks and interceptions and that sort of thing. I’m really happy in how he’s coming along.”