Rex Ryan attended the Clemson-Georgia game as the Jets trimmed their roster to 53. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Rex Ryan is a man under fire -- we all know that. Going into his fifth season as the league's most talked-about head coach has worn away most of the goodwill that his brio and bravado originally engendered. That will happen when your team goes 14-18 over two seasons after two straight trips to the AFC championship game. The current roster is a disaster, and that's not entirely his fault. Former general manager Mike Tannenbaum engineered a series of decisions that ranged from questionable to catastrophic, and he is out of the picture. New GM John Idzik comes from Seattle, where he managed the team's salary cap and had a very limited voice in personnel decisions. Most will tell you that the change up top indicates that Ryan is in his win-or-go-home season, and it would appear that Ryan believes he can do both.
On Saturday, while the Jets were mulling their final cuts to get down to the league-mandated 53-man roster, Ryan was watching his son Seth, a walk-on receiver for Clemson, as the Tigers faced the Georgia Bulldogs. (The younger Ryan was active, but did not play.) His absence was excused by Idzik, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, and the rest of the front office finalized the tough decisions. It was the first time in Ryan's Jets tenure that he wasn't there for final cuts. A team spokesperson told Mehta that Ryan was in contact with the Jets' organization during that time, and Ryan said that he had talked to several of the players before they were released.
On a recent NBC conference call, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said that he applauded Ryan's decision, and from the perspective of a family man, the move is laudable. It's long been known that coaches struggle mightily to balance career and family, and it's a hard thing to do under the best of circumstances. Coaches on the hot seat may find it especially difficult to find time for their families.
“It’s not like I’m going to be able to go to another game,” Ryan said on Monday. “It just so happened that I could make that one; it was a night game. So that’s really what I did. I took advantage of it. It was great. I just played dad there for a day and it was a lot of fun.”
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The situation Ryan left, however, was tenuous at best. Idzik is running personnel for the first time, and this is a time when coaches and general managers work hard to not only purge their current rosters, but discuss who might help their team from the waiver wire. Ryan returned to the facility early Sunday evening, one full day after the Jets were one of the last teams to announce their moves to get to the final 53.
Recently, TheMMQB.com Editor-in-Chief Peter King referred to the relationship between Ryan and Idzik as a "shotgun marriage." It's certainly a quick-twitch partnership that has already produced some strange results.
It's not entirely unprecedented for a head coach to be out of the building when these moves are made. In fact, Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak was at Saturday's game between Texas A&M and Rice for similar reasons -- his son Klein is a senior receiver for the Owls, and his son Klint is an offensive graduate assistant coach for the Aggies. But the Texans' facility on Kirby Drive is less than 100 miles from College Station, the Texans have the hay in the barn from a personnel perspective and Kubiak is far from a lame duck. He may be under some heat if the Texans don't get further in the playoffs this season, but that's a rich man's problem. Kubiak's situation is different, even though it's not.
Ryan's absence will lead to further speculation that he's a lame-duck coach in 2013, and if the Jets have let him know that in any way, shape, or form, he might be within his rights to be less involved when it comes to the Jets' decision-making.
What the to-be-released players, deserve, however, is a minute with their former head coach. It's an emotional time -- we've all seen the cuts on Hard Knocks -- and most teams take special care to let those released players know that there is gratitude for their contributions, though said contributions weren't enough to help the team in definite ways.
"[There are] a lot of worthy players," San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday, after his team announced final cuts. "And the thing that’s profound to me was that so many guys improved, so many guys were ascending players, right up to the point of making the final roster. It made the day, to me, a very exciting, good day by the efforts of the players and what our coaches accomplished over the offseason and the training camp. And to see young football players ascend and get better as football players, that’s very exciting to me. But I have yet to have a day where it’s not been a good experience to watch the players ascend.”
One decision that was personal for Harbaugh was to move on from long-snapper Brian Jennings and go with Kevin McDermott. You may say that the battle to long-snap isn't big in a football sense, but that's not always true in other ways.
“That was a big decision because Brian Jennings, to me, we breathe the same air," the coach said, "There’s nobody I can say I enjoy more than Brian Jennings. Watching him play, watching him compete, just being around him every single day. And I think Brian’s got more football in him. He’s definitely a NFL top-level talent. And we felt that way about Kevin McDermott and that decision we felt was in the best interest of the team. But, yeah, on a personal level that was as tough as it gets.”
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For Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who runs personnel in lock-step with GM John Schneider, being around for final cuts was both an opportunity to maximize the bottom third of the roster, and to let some important veterans know that they will be missed.
"We burned a candle up here," Carroll said on Monday. "John Schneider and his guys worked late and looked at every single guy that came across the wire that might have a chance, and we’re really happy with the guys that we’ve kept. To be so competitive; it was verified by all the guys that wound up in other people’s camps. There are a lot of guys on other teams' practice squads and active rosters as well. It was hard for us to look at someone that could come in and take anybody’s spot. John busted it to get to that point and that’s how it turned out.”
One of the players Carroll and Schneider had to cut was fullback Michael Robinson, whose contract situation apparently overtook the on-field performance that had him in the Pro Bowl two years ago -- and the overall personal value that made Robinson a key leader on a very young team.
“Very difficult. We had a lot of tough decisions and Mike was one of them. Mike had been with us for a long time. All these guys hurt us when they left because they had bought in and given us everything that they had. Mike was a very instrumental guy on this football team as we were coming along. So they were all hard decisions.”
Hard decisions deserve the full participation of everyone involved. The front office deserves it, the coaches deserve it and goodness knows the players who are now without jobs deserve it.
"This is the hardest week for us in the fact that these guys have been here all spring -- OTAs and the draft process and ... training camp and then we have to make the decisions," Denver Broncos EVP of Football Operations John Elway said of his team's final cuts. "It’s not an easy day because they all worked hard. We just don’t have enough slots for everybody.”
However, the Broncos did have enough time for everybody, and their head coach also understood the weight of the situation.
"It’s hard every year," John Fox said. "Guys put in a lot of time. It’s obviously a tough day for all the coaches and personnel people because there is a lot invested in these guys and I’m not just talking about just financially. I’m talking about time, effort, and on their part as well. So it’s never easy.”
It's never easy when it's done the right way, that is.