Rex Ryan knew how to make an entrance. His first press conference as the Jets coach took place six years ago, in January 2009, and less than a minute in, Ryan predicted the franchise’s first Super Bowl triumph in four decades and a trip to meet President Barack Obama at the White House.
That’s how Ryan's tenure with the Jets started: Rex was being Rex, unabashed and brash and boastful. That’s how Ryan talked. He had the best cornerback in the NFL, the best center, the best left tackle, the best backup tackle. He had the best gardener in sports, the best caterer for his beloved Mexican food, the best coaches, the best owner, the best team.
With words -- and one of the elite defensive minds in professional football -- Ryan injected a syringe of confidence the size of a water tower into a snakebitten franchise known not just for the football games it lost but how it lost them, with fake spikes and phantom touchdowns. This was, of course, the franchise known as the 'Same Old Jets.'
Ryan changed that perception, but his time ran out on Monday, when the Jets fired him and general manager John Idzik after another season that ended before January, Ryan’s fourth-straight non-playoff campaign. What most stood out on the day the franchise forced Ryan’s exit was the entrance he made six years ago, what it meant and what happened afterward, when Ryan took the Jets to the AFC Championship game. Twice.
That wasn’t by accident. Ryan boosted a team with cornerstones in cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker David Harris and offensive linemen Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson into contention, despite a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez who was prone to turnovers the way Ryan was prone to enchiladas. He didn’t just make the Jets good; he made them relevant. He made them interesting. He put them on the back pages of New York’s tabloids -- and not always for positive reasons.
I covered those teams and kept one NY Post from when Ryan was forced to answer -- or not answer, really -- questions about his alleged foot fetish. Yeah, that actually happened. The back page, which shows the team’s packed media room in Florham Park, N.J., is headlined 'Agony of Da-Feet.'
Good times, yes. Odd times, sure. Covering the Jets was like covering a punk rock band; each week was its own adventure, with personalities galore, wins and fame and scandal and pure ridiculousness at every turn. There was Braylon Edwards’ drunk driving charge. And the allegations that Brett Favre sent pictures of his, um, package, to a team television personality. And the time that team harassed a Spanish television reporter in its locker room. And Kris Jenkins’ quotes. And Thomas Jones’ biceps. And Revis’ interceptions. And Sanchez’s interceptions. And Ryan, always Ryan, declaring that he would not kiss Bill Belichick’s rings and telling the world about his dress sweats and challenging the absurd notion that an NFL coach must be paranoid and secretive and bland in order to succeed.
What they really have to be is themselves.
Ryan wasn’t perfect. He made the kinds of mistakes many first-time head coaches make. He was inconsistent: he would leave the offense alone one year, then take more responsibility for it the next; he would delegate play-calling duties on defense one year, then take over the play-calling the next; he would vow to be tougher on his players, then he wouldn’t be all that tough. He drafted and splurged in free agency on too many defenders. He couldn’t convince Revis to stick around, and he couldn’t bring Revis back last offseason. He didn’t convince upper management to give his quarterbacks enough offensive firepower. He never found a quarterback. And all the boasts he made about his players, those confidence injections, they amplified expectations, which amplified pressure, which cracked some guys and made others appear worse than they really were, because Ryan oversold them in the first place.
But Ryan’s biggest mistake is that over the years he lost what he entered the facility with, an uncompromising belief in his method. In himself.
He was still the same guy, still funny, still a players’ coach, still uber-confident, still Rex. But he made too many concessions. He solicited and implemented too much advice, and from people outside of the organization. He changed his mind and his methods too often, and he didn’t seem like the same guy who sauntered into Florham Park like some sort of swashbuckling defensive savant.
That’s when Ryan was at his best, and that’s overshadowed by a 46-50 record, 18 victories in his final 51 games, and the two quarterbacks Ryan chose in Sanchez and Geno Smith who ultimately doomed his tenure. The Ravens may have won a Super Bowl without a star quarterback in 2000, with Ryan as a defensive assistant on that staff. But that’s the rare exception.
After his final game as the Jets head coach, a dominant victory over the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday, Ryan told reporters, “Just understand that I’m not afraid of anything.” That’s the Ryan who will be a successful coach in the NFL. That’s the Ryan who could win a Super Bowl someday, for someone, somewhere. Who could end up like Pete Carroll, who posted a 33-31 record -- not that dissimilar to Ryan’s percentage -- in his first two stints as an NFL head coach, with the Jets and the Patriots, then later turned the Seahawks into a perennial Super Bowl contender. Ryan’s capable of that, through his defensive acumen alone.
Ryan makes sense in Atlanta, where the offense is already built and the defense needs someone to renovate. He makes sense in Chicago, where his father, Buddy, constructed the Bears indestructible defense that won the Super Bowl in 1985. He makes sense in Oakland, too, for the press conferences alone.
His exit was unceremonious, a quick wave directed at the tabloid photographers outside his driveway. But another entrance awaits, another chance for Ryan to carry what he did well in his six seasons with the Jets and lose all the indecision and concessions that marked his later seasons.
Here’s to hoping Ryan becomes pure Ryan again. Here’s to hoping that at his next press conference he promises to meet the next president.