The New York Jets may have lost Sunday, but in many respects the most memorable character of this NFL season was the Jets' roly-poly coach, Rex Ryan.
And, please, I'm not talking about the foot-fetish business. It is Ryan's ebullience, his braggadocio, that makes him so unusual. Football coaches tend to be phlegmatic, even distant personalities -- far different from baseball or basketball coaches, who almost by definition must be open and engaging. Many baseball managers are out-and-out raconteurs. Dealing with the media is as much a part of their job as tacking up the lineup card, for they must confront the press every day in their dugout salon and banter -- and at least appear to enjoy that interaction.
Football coaches, by contrast, are more like CEOs. They have large staffs, and so much of their work is so private that it borders on the monastic -- going to the darkened office alone before dawn, watching game film hours on end. Bill Belichick of the Patriots is, of course, Exhibit A. He and others of the best football coaches are often referred to as intellectual giants, even geniuses. Coaches in other sports tend instead to be praised as mere strategists, leaders, good people persons.
There's been a tendency to mock Ryan as a big-mouthed clown -- perhaps all the more so that he's fat and garrulous. But I think his critics -- which has been most everybody except his players --- have missed the point. Football players have changed. They're not the strong-but-silent little varsity soldiers of gridiron lore. They're brash, narcissistic show-offs. They literally beat their breasts. You may not like that, you may hate the dancing and prancing in the end zone, but it sure is the way of the football world now. Why do you think these swaggerers wouldn't want someone whose personality matches their own as their boss?
The idea that something inflammatory Ryan or his surrogate players would say about the opposition before a game -- that that would stir up the other team -- is so childish. It's just a tired old newspaper staple that grown-up professional athletes in a brutal game are sleeping dogs who will suddenly get riled up at what their opponents say beforehand if someone only pins up a clipping on the bulletin board. Oh come on.
Rather, Ryan was a positive influence on his own team. His players loved his attitude. They loved it that he didn't act like just another buttoned-up standard-issue football coach. They loved it that he was more like them.
OK, the Jets got beat, but for the long term, I think the example of Rex Ryan will be influential -- the football coach who has some life and humor to him, who is an extension of the modern player's own personality. He may be an exception now, but for the future he may well be the new model pro football coach.