Back for his sixth and possibly most pressure-packed season as Jets head coach, Rex Ryan is as bullish as ever on his team’s chances in 2014. There are no brash Super Bowl guarantees dropped into conversation any more, and conventional wisdom says New York needs to end its three-year playoff drought in order for Ryan to survive past this season on the job. Naturally, he likes his odds, but maybe with good reason this time. The Jets do look improved at receiver, running back and in the secondary and enter this year with much more than false hopes. SI.com’s Don Banks caught up with the slimmed-down Ryan on Friday, New York’s second full day of training camp at SUNY Cortland, in Cortland, N.Y.
SI: I do believe you’re half the man you used to be. You look great these days. How goes it on the weight loss front?
Ryan: It’s crazy. I’m 120 pounds down. But I feel great.
SI: Do you ever look at pictures of your old self and say, "I can’t believe that was me"?
Ryan: I do. It’s the truth. And thank God I lost it, because my health and everything else is amazing. And this time, that weight is not coming back because I learned how to eat and I learned how to take care of myself. Everybody, I think, keeps waiting to see if it comes back, but it’s not coming back. Trust me.
SI: With fourth-year defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and second-year defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, and now first-round safety Calvin Pryor on board, the Jets keep collecting young defensive studs. If you can get second-year cornerback and former first-round pick Dee Milliner to take a big step in 2014, does this group have a chance to be your best defense yet?
Ryan: I don’t know where we’re at yet compared to 2009 and 2010, but yeah, we’ve got some studs. And the thing I do like about this team is we have a lot of depth at certain spots. Us adding (defensive end) Jason Babin the other day, now we’ve added another pass rusher to our front.
And we’ve got depth at safety that we’ve never had. This is a great group of safeties with Pryor and Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett. And quarterback is another spot we’ve got great depth, more depth than I’ve ever had as a coach. And that’s all you can ask for, because you’re always worried about having one great player, but then he goes down and now what do you have behind him?
SI: With the strength of your front seven and an improved secondary, shouldn’t you be able to count on your defense keeping you in every game, even if the offense isn’t lights out?
Ryan: I believe so. I do. And I think that’s the challenge to that unit. To keep us in every game we play. This team, we feel good about ourselves. And I think our defensive players are excited about the other side of the ball this season. We think we’ve added some weapons in Eric Decker at receiver and Chris Johnson at running back to go along with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.
SI: Johnson looks like he has his burst back, and his legs look healthy again. Have you ever had that type of home run threat in your first five seasons in New York?
Ryan: This group kind of reminds me of 2009, my first year, when we had three really good running backs. We had Thomas Jones, we had Shonn Greene and we had Leon Washington. We had a great stable of backs. Danny Woodhead made the team, but that’s why he couldn’t get on the field, because of those other guys. And we had Tony Richardson at fullback. That was a great backfield. Are we as good as that group? I don’t know, but we’re pretty darn good.
SI: Must be nice to be able to find a former 2,000-yard rusher on the market, just sitting there waiting to be had.
Ryan: A former 2,000-yard rusher who can still flat fly. And we’ll be smart with him, We’re not going to just run him into the ground here. We’re going to use him wisely, but we’re going to use him a lot of different ways, flexed out, in motion, throwing the ball to him out of the backfield.
SI: Whether you have a legitimate quarterback competition or not this preseason between Geno Smith and Michael Vick, it’s pretty apparent early on that Smith looks sharp and did everything he could to put himself into position to make the job completely his? Is that how you see it, too?
Ryan: I do. He gave himself every chance to win this job. That’s true. And not only just in terms of how he’s throwing the ball. From a physical standpoint he’s bigger, he’s stronger. He’s ready for the pounding. He knows what it takes and he’s been through a season now. He wanted to make himself stronger physically. He’s added weight and he’s added strength and his body fat is down. So all of that is a real positive.