Throughout his seven-year tenure as a head coach in the NFL, Rex Ryan has been a larger-than-life, mostly jovial figure. Aside from his expertly managed defenses and severely mismanaged quarterback situations, he is best known for his memorable press conferences, his oftentimes misguided confidence, and his unquestionable passion for and devotion to his players. He has ruffled some (read: many) feathers and gained some (read: many) detractors, but most of his actions have been relatively innocuous, if misguided, and sometimes irresponsible. Still, it’s hard to stay too mad at a guy that can keep the mood light and get everybody laughing.
But his attempt to make things into a laughing matter will go too far on Thursday, when he will trot Bills linebacker IK Enemkpali onto the field as a team captain against the Jets and their now-backup quarterback Geno Smith. Enemkpali, as you may recall, is the former Jets player who punched Smith in the face in the locker room in August, breaking his then-teammate’s jaw. And, after being signed by the Bills in the off-season and recording two tackles in three starts this year, he is also now apparently a team captain for one game. This is not a lighthearted move on the part of Ryan. This is not simply trolling, or having some fun at the expense of the team that fired him. This is mean-spirited, careless and foolish behavior from a man whose job it is to lead.
Ryan said that this is what he always does, and yes, he does always make players captains when they return to face their old teams. “I'll get ripped or whatever, but I do this all the time,” he said. “Anybody that’s played [for that team], you’re gonna see [as a captain]. Will [former Jets tight end Matthew] Mulligan be out there? Yep, he’ll be out there. For them to be out there, you recognize their former teammates.”
Right, except that explanation, to borrow a phrase that Ryan used in his Sept. 20 press conference after the Bills lost to the Patriots, is ‘horse----.’ This is not the same thing as putting Matthew Mulligan out there. Matthew Mulligan did not get cut from the Jets because he broke their would-be starting quarterback’s jaw. But Ryan refuses to adapt to a unique situation that requires adapting. He won’t put aside his buddy-buddy relationship with players to actually act like the man in charge rather than the friend who’s always trying to get revenge. Sure, send Mulligan out there, no problem. But leave Enemkpali on the bench. He wasn’t cut by the Jets because they thought he wasn’t good enough. He was cut for committing an act of violence against a teammate in the workplace.
The details regarding the original punch are still not entirely clear. Maybe Smith was egging Enemkpali on; maybe he was poking his finger in his face. It doesn’t really matter. It was an assault. Resorting to violence, not to mention violence inside of your team’s facility, is not a rational nor a healthy response to off-field confrontation, and it should not be encouraged or glorified. It should not be rewarded with the title of captain, however temporary that title may be.
That’s not to say Enemkpali doesn’t deserve his second chance. He does. His punch, while troubling, is far from the most egregious thing that has happened in this violent league, and he should get another shot to prove this was a mistake and to move on. But this bully move by Ryan helps no one. I would guess that Enemkpali would prefer his second chance not include purposefully reminding everyone of the incident that required him to need a second chance in the first place. And yet that’s what Rex Ryan is doing—simply using Enemkpali as a way to piss off and rile up the team that fired him. Everybody loses.
The original reaction to the incident, at least across social media and the New York tabloids (which, to be clear, are not anywhere near an accurate depiction of rational, logical thought), was troublesome and problematic. It treated the assault as a joke. Some mocked Geno Smith, the clear victim in the situation, while others questioned his leadership.
But the one whose leadership actually should be questioned is Rex Ryan’s. He is a player’s coach who supports and stands up for his players. That is a good quality to have in a coach. But so is respect for opposing players. So is an ability to show some restraint when a situation is larger than a stupid attempt to show up your former team. And so is some simple sympathy for the 25-year-old quarterback—and human being—standing on the sidelines, whose jaw was broken and whose starting job remains lost.