This speaking voice bears little resemblance to the one he uses as a linebacker for the Washington Redskins. On the field, his expression twists and his words thunder. He is responsible for making play-calls and presnap adjustments as the voice of a unit that started the season with high hopes but, through two weeks, has been a deep source of disappointment for the 0-2 Redskins.
“Definitely,” Bostic said when asked whether the defense’s start has surprised him. “This is not what we envisioned. But this is why you sign up for the game, the adversity that’s in it.”
Coach Jay Gruden said Bostic has done “fine” delivering the play-calls, and Gruden attributed the defense’s tough start to youthful inexperience and miscommunication. The coach preached consistency Wednesday as his team prepared for a difficult slate ahead, starting Monday night against the Chicago Bears, an offense with a dizzying menu of approaches.
Bostic said he sees his team’s situation as emblematic of his role before a play. There’s always chaos, and “as the voice of the defense, you got to be able to calm everybody down.”
“I tell guys all the time, just shut up and put your ears on,” Bostic said, low and steady. “I'm going to tell you what's coming. I'm going to tell you how they're going to attack us. Just listen to me.”
Bostic was signed this past offseason after starter Reuben Foster suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his knee, and he said he doesn’t believe the defense’s struggles are because the coaches are slow relaying the calls. He blamed the players. Minor misunderstandings can lead to major coverage gaps, and that enables explosive, backbreaking plays such as DeSean Jackson’s 53-yard touchdown that gave the Philadelphia Eagles the lead for good in Week 1. He believes the fix is simple.
“Everybody knowing what they're doing and why they're doing it,” he said. “Guys got to understand the situation and what we're trying to do.”
The linebacker does his part by starting to analyze the offense as soon as one play ends. He considers the down and distance and scans which players run onto the field, searching his memory bank for an offense’s tendencies in certain situations with certain personnel groupings. When it breaks the huddle, he examines the formation and adjusts.
Bostic also looks for tells he picked up from tape study. Maybe they always run to the side the running back lines up on in shotgun, or maybe they have a young tackle who always stands up on pass plays and puts his hand in the dirt on runs. The seven-year veteran loves chess — or any mind game, really — and he sees the crux of his job as a test of his ability to read and recognize what the offense is trying to do and then using his voice to let his teammates know as soon as possible.
“He literally talks from when they break the huddle until the ball snaps,” rookie linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “It [helps] a lot.”
Bostic’s father, John, joked this week that his son was born for this role. The day Jon was brought him home from the hospital in May 1991, John watched as Jon’s toothless mouth worked furiously at his pacifier. John figured he had a talker on his hands. John brought the toddler to Kroger, and whenever he left him in the shopping cart and disappeared around the corner for something, Jon screamed for him to come back, the first time Jon would read-and-react.
John listened as, in peewee football, his tiny fullback told the team’s tailback that as long as he ran behind him, he would be all right. He heard his boy take charge of his high school team’s defense as a freshman, employing the tips John had shared from three seasons as an NFL defensive back.
Four years later, in college at Florida, Coach Urban Meyer put Bostic into some play-calling situations at practice. The 17-year-old linebacker executed the schemes for the most part, but he earned the nickname “Slappy” because the Gators’ defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, often slapped him upside the helmet and demanded, “Put some bass in that voice!”
Bostic deepened his intonations on the field, enunciated his words and shortened phrases. William Labov, a legendary linguist, noticed what could be carry-over to his off-the-field voice. Labov pointed out in an email Bostic’s ability to convey “a maximum of information in a minimum of time.” From Bostic’s point of view, it was a simpler change.
“I got tired of getting slapped,” he said with a laugh.
The linebacker encourages other voices to speak up on defense. He emphasizes the importance of all 11 players remaining in sync because, if even one player mishears an assignment, the whole scheme crumbles. Bostic despises the miscommunication that has plagued this team’s defense because he believes the unit should prioritize cohesion above the “right” play-call.
“Even if I’m wrong on a call, I’m loud and wrong,” Bostic said. “[Then] we’re all on the same page, so technically we’re all right. So it really doesn’t matter.”
David Ley, a voice coach and University of Alberta professor, pointed to one quality of Bostic’s voice that makes him a natural fit to lead the Redskins’ defense through their early-season adversity. He said Canadians, like him, tend to finish their sentences going up, while Americans go down hard. The British land sentences softly, he said, and the drawl in Bostic’s voice has a similar quality.
“It’s ease in power,” Ley said. “It’s, ‘We’ll accomplish this, and it won’t be that hard.’”
That was the message Bostic delivered this week in the locker room. In explaining why he thought the defense would be fine, he nodded at the next locker over, which belonged to Holcomb. He repeated what he had told a fullback years before and what he thinks his teammates need to hear: “I tell Cole to listen to me. ‘You’ll be all right.’”