The son of a coach, Jeff Howard thought he'd go in a different direction when it was time to find a job. Howard was a biology and chemistry major, so he figured something in the medical field would pique his interest.
Then, Howard played the last snap of his Hall of Fame career at Eastern New Mexico University. Everything changed.
"I've been around the game my whole life and it was hard to give it up," Howard said. "That's how I changed because I was like, 'I'm going to be a doctor,' then all of the sudden, I got done playing and was like, 'Wow. I don't really like this feeling.'
"More than anything else, it's just a passion and a calling."
Howard's turned that passion into a coaching career that's spanned 14 years and included stops at the high school, collegiate and NFL level. He'll enter his eighth NFL season -- first outside of Minnesota -- as a coach with the Browns as the team's pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach.
Howard will work closely with defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who has mostly coached defensive backs throughout his career. Howard and Woods were on the same staff together in Minnesota in 2013.
"Jeff Howard is someone I've had a football relationship with ever since our time together at Minnesota. We always talk football. We have for years," Woods said. "I was very excited to get him as a secondary coach and to work with him as a coordinator.
"It's hard when you've coached a position so long to not be involved so he understands the situation of me being involved and really working with the corners. He will still oversee the whole room and run his operation but I feel we'll have a great working relationship together."
Howard began his NFL coaching career with the Vikings in 2013 as assistant to the head coach -- the same position Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski occupied seven years earlier.
"He gave me a little bit of insight on the ins and outs of how that played and why he felt that was a good starting point and how that could develop your ability as a coach," Howard said. "With that role you have so much to do from a day-to-day and seeing the big picture of the organization and focusing on the details of everything, so when you actually get to the football side of it, you apply that focus onto the schematics and techniques of everything and it helped me out a lot."
A linebacker as a player, Howard became a defensive assistant with the Vikings in 2014, shifted his focus to the linebackers in 2016 and was named assistant defensive backs coach in 2018.
While working with the defensive backs, Minnesota ranked tied for sixth in the NFL in total takeaways, including 29 interceptions during that span. S Anthony Harris tied for the league lead with six interceptions in 2019, becoming the first Viking to lead the league in interceptions since 2003. CB Xavier Rhodes and S Harrison Smith made the Pro Bowl this past season, and LB Anthony Barr made it both seasons while Howard worked with the linebackers.
"I love defensive back play because I feel like it's a very challenging position," Howard said. "I like living on the edge a little bit and that's the way you've got to live. You've got to be a dog to be out there and play. You've got to be on your p's and q's and on your details. I've been fortunate enough to work with some really good guys in Minnesota. The camaraderie of that group was tight-knit. We were all in it together, took care of one another and fought for each other."
From 2007-10, Howard worked as a defensive assistant at Odessa Permian High School, the perennial power in West Texas that was chronicled in the best-selling book "Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team And A Dream." He was the Panthers' defensive coordinator from 2009-10 before leaving for Texas Tech, where he served as a quality control assistant in 2011 and defensive backs coach in 2012.
One year later, Howard was in Minnesota, and he immediately made a connection with Woods, the Vikings' longtime defensive backs coach. It was the kind of relationship that further affirmed his decision to make coaching his calling.
"I remember at nights when everybody was taking off, he would let me come into the office and we would just talk football," Howard said. "He actually would give me extra projects and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world because I was just getting my foot in the door and I was a nobody. He showed an interest in me and we just kept talking.
"I think a lot of Joe Woods and I think he's a great coach obviously by his track record and the guys that he's developed and the defenses that he's been around. It's fun to be around guys like that where you feel like you add value to them and they add value to you and what you're doing."
Jeff Howard's Coaching Background:
2007-08: Odessa Permian High School, assistant defensive backs/linebackers coach
2009-10: Odessa Permian High School, defensive coordinator
2011: Texas Tech University, defensive quality control coach
2012: Texas Tech University, defensive backs coach
2013: Minnesota Vikings, assistant to the head coach
2014-15: Minnesota Vikings, defensive assistant
2016-17: Minnesota Vikings, defensive assistant-linebackers
2018-19: Minnesota Vikings, assistant defensive backs
2020: Cleveland Browns, pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach