Cowart led the Jets with 14 tackles (12 solos) – and forced a third-quarter fumble that was returned 42 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Donnie Abraham – as Gang Green defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-24, at The Meadowlands in the season opener for both teams.
During his press conference following the game, Cowart seemed taken aback when asked whether the stellar performance in his first regular season start as Jets' middle linebacker was a "vindication" of sorts.
"I'm a middle linebacker," he said, simply. "I play the position to the best of my ability."
With the preseason release of veteran middle linebacker Marvin Jones, Cowart requested a return to the position that earned him Pro Bowl renown with the Buffalo Bills. But there was also the little matter of competing for playing time with the Jets' first round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft – middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Cowart won the battle for the starting role, although the heralded rookie saw action Sunday in situational roles at both middle and outside linebacker.
When the Jets signed Cowart prior to the 2002 season, he was moved to weak-side linebacker by then-defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. The change didn't suit him well as reflected by his often-pedestrian play. Cowart was also hampered by lingering injuries and recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in 2001 with Buffalo.
"I think [Cowart's] better playing in the middle – it's just like being back at home for him," second-year defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson told Jets Confidential following Sunday's game. "That's a big thing. Whenever you can put a player on the field in a position where they can play fast and do their job well, that's a plus."
Last season, with Jones in the middle, the Jets run-defense was among the worst in the NFL. On Sunday, paced by Cowart's inspired play, Gang Green relinquished only 113 yards on the ground to Cincinnati, including 70 yards on 24 carries (a paltry 2.9 average) by feature back Rudi Johnson. A reason for the shutdown is the clear upgrade in speed and quickness that Cowart has over his predecessor.
"I think we did well against the run," offered defensive tackle Jason Ferguson. "Marvin [Jones] was more physical at the point of attack and Cowart's faster. There's two different styles of linebackers."
Vilma lauded his mentor-competitor's effort.
"Whoo, oh yes – he's a good player," Vilma said. "That's a lot of tackles…I look at the technique he uses and the things that he does."
For young defensive starters like rookie free safety Erik Coleman, Cowart's veteran leadership and savvy offered an extra edge during the game.
"Even in the huddle [Cowart] tells you what to look for; he gets us pumped up," Coleman said. "If we're down and we're not doing right, he'll tell you we've got to pick it up -- especially with the type of young guys out there. He'll pull us aside and give us some inspiration. He was telling us we got to stop giving up big plays."
Cowart made more than his share of big plays. In the first quarter, with the game tied, 7-7, he tracked down speedy running back Kenny Watson, following a nine-yard gain on a pass from Carson Palmer, forcing the Bengals to punt. But his showstopper occurred early in the third quarter and proved crucial to the game's outcome.
With the Jets holding a 14-10 halftime lead, the Bengals took the third-quarter kickoff and started a drive from their 20. On first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 43-yard line, Rudi Johnson ran off right guard where he was belted by Cowart one yard behind the line of scrimmage. Johnson fumbled and Abraham recovered the ball – racing untouched on a 42-yard gallop to the end zone. In all of 2003, Johnson didn't record one fumble in 215 carries.
"We got them out of their running-game plan at times," linebacker Victor Hobson said.
"Sam told you guys he was a middle linebacker."