Friday January 14th, 2011

Rex Ryan is at it again this week. He tweaked Tom Brady about his work ethic. He said his Jets' game against the Patriots "is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan ... There's no question, it's personal." This came a week after Ryan said it was personal between him and Peyton Manning. If the Jets make the Super Bowl, Ryan might just say it is personal between him and Vince Lombardi.

Ryan might be saying this stuff for effect or to take pressure off his team (and especially quarterback Mark Sanchez). It is also possible that he says it because he is Rex Ryan. The man can't help himself.

There is something irresistible about Ryan. Oh, sure, if you're a Jets fan, your coach might make you wince sometimes. If you're a Patriots fan, Ryan might make you furious.

But wouldn't everybody else love to have this guy as their coach? For most NFL fans, the year is 16 days that matter for your team and 349 days of talking about them. This is where Ryan comes in. In a league where the identity of the backup left guard is considered a state secret, Ryan cracks jokes in his sleep. He seems like he should come off like a jerk sometimes, but he never really does.

Nothing sums up Ryan's appeal more than this: The man had a sex scandal with his wife. That's Rex Ryan, isn't it? A little naughty, sure, but his heart seems to be in the right place.

There is a place in the sports world for the loudmouthed underdog, especially if that underdog says outrageous things with a wink and a smile. This goes back to Cassius Clay (before he was a champion, and before he was Muhammad Ali) baiting the unlikable Sonny Liston. You can trace a line from Ali through Joe Namath and Hollywood Henderson and all the way to Reggie Miller and finally get to Rex Ryan.

Ryan is venturing into Charles Barkley territory, where a man can say pretty much anything he wants and the public will love him for it. When everybody knows you are funny, everybody thinks you are trying to be funny. At this point, Barkley could praise Kim Jong Il and most people would laugh out of habit.

I don't know if this is unprecedented for an NFL head coach. Former Tampa Bay coach John McKay was one of the wittiest coaches in history -- he is the one who was asked about his team's execution and said he was for it. There have been a few other genuinely funny coaches.

But Ryan is certainly unique for a modern-day NFL head coach. Most of these guys are so conservative that they don't even trust themselves with their playbook. Ask a typical NFL coach what he had for lunch, and he'll say "no comment' and immediately fire the caterer on general principle.

A lot of NFL coaches confuse sincerity with seriousness. Ryan is showing that you can lighten up in public and still have the respect of your team. You can't fool players -- they can spot a phony from across a football field. It says a lot that Jets players love Ryan.

That stamp of approval from his team is all that the rest of us need. Ryan could not be more popular with sportswriters if he began every news conference by handing out Marriott points. He has become the face of his team and nobody seems to mind that he doesn't actually, you know, play the game. Falcons coach Mike Smith might be the NFL's Coach of the Year, but how many NFL fans would recognize him if he showed up at their front door in a Falcons hat? Yet everybody knows Ryan.

And as a result ... in the public's mind, yeah, this game kind of is about Rex Ryan vs. Bill Belichick. It's the brash underdog against the emotionless legend. Ryan got this started when he took the Jets job and said he wasn't there "to kiss Bill Belichick's rings," and he hasn't stopped since. This helps Ryan's popularity, too -- the country has been waiting for years for somebody to take on Belichick.

(As a side note: I have no idea if this has factored into Ryan going after Belichick so often ... maybe not. But three years ago, when Ryan was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens and head coach Brian Billick got fired, Ryan interviewed for the head coaching job. A lot of people thought he would get it. Instead, the Ravens hired John Harbaugh -- partly on the recommendation of Belichick.)

If Ryan wins three Super Bowls, the country will hate his shtick. Trash-talking upstarts are charming; trash-talking champions are just jerks. There is a reason nobody got tired of the 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle Chicago Bears: They only won the whole thing once. We never had a chance to start hating them.

Of course, if Ryan wins three Super Bowls, he probably won't care if you like him. He'll just want you to kiss his rings.

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