Rex Ryan should embrace lame-duck status, gamble on himself

Tuesday December 31st, 2013

Rex Ryan led the Jets to a surprising 8-8 season despite early calls for him to be fired.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Every NFL head coach faces the critical go-for-it decision many times each season, but the call that Rex Ryan is staring down these days carries a lot more significance and potential reward than just another fourth-down gamble, two-point conversion try, or bring-the-house blitz.

Rex has to decide whether to go for it in the Joe Flacco sense. A wager on himself, with gusto. Here's hoping he puts his money where his mouth is and decides to work without a net next season.

In bringing back Ryan for 2014, the final season of his contract, Jets owner Woody Johnson made it clear he still has faith in his soon-to-be sixth-year head coach. But not a lot of faith, because while Ryan seeks the security of a long-term extension, New York is reportedly offering to add only one more year, 2015, to Ryan's current deal. While that half-measure would allow Ryan to avoid working as a lame-duck coach next season, in reality it would put him in exactly the same situation he just lived through in 2013.

And let's face it, while Ryan wasn't technically a lame duck this season, how much different could lame-duck status really be after what he dealt with this year? The constant barrage of job-security questions began in the offseason, hit a crescendo when some voices called for him to be fired for re-inserting starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into the fourth quarter of a preseason game (in which Sanchez suffered a season-ending injury), and followed the up-and-down pattern of the Jets' rollercoaster-like 8-8 season.

I mean, if it looks like a lame duck, and quacks like a lame duck, that one added year on his contract might just prove to be a distinction without a difference.

That's why Ryan shouldn't be afraid of lame-duck status. He should embrace it, and bet on himself to win, and win big. If his gamble pays off, he'll get paid big in 2015. From the Jets, or from someone else. The same way Flacco hit the jackpot in 2013, turning down the Baltimore Ravens' contract extension offer in 2012, before winning Super Bowl MVP honors as a free-agent-to-be.

It would take supreme faith in himself to take such a bold step, but with Rex, one of Buddy's boys, self-confidence has never been in short supply. I can't think of another NFL head coach who is more temperamentally suited to the gamble. If Ryan hasn't cracked from the pressure and scrutiny of three consecutive playoff-less seasons under the inescapable microscope of the New York market, where some in the media are willing to trail him on vacation to the Bahamas to take pictures of his tattoos, I don't think he'll wilt from the stress of turning 2014 into one big elimination game.

Ryan should conjure up his best steely-eyed missile man look and turn down the Jets' one-year extension offer -- believed to be in the $3 million to $4 million range -- telling Johnson and Jets general manager John Idzik he's perfectly content to let it all ride on his shoulders next season. If Ryan wants to get that long-term deal putting him into the $6 million a year salary range, he's going to have to create the leverage that makes that figure sound like a bargain.

If Ryan's gambit fails, what's the worst that could happen? Even if he goes 5-11 and the Jets can him after 2014, he could do a year back in the defensive coordinator pool, regenerate a little of the sterling reputation he has on that side of the ball, and still be a pretty attractive head coaching candidate in 2016. No matter how many openings there happen to be that season, there won't be too many candidates who can boast two AFC title-game runs in their first two seasons, plus the accomplishment of guiding his overachieving Jets to an 8-8 finish under difficult circumstances in 2013. In time, he'd almost assuredly get his second chance.

And if Ryan gets an improved Geno Smith at quarterback in Year 2, with an offensive playmaker or two coming aboard this offseason, watch out. The task of leading his Jets back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010 would be anything but mission impossible. Everyone in the league knows New York's young and talented defense is legit, with a dominant defensive line that has a chance to be special, and Ryan can still coach and motivate today's NFL players like few can. Did you see the video of the Jets' locker room celebration when Johnson announced Ryan would remain in 2014 after Sunday's win over Miami? Gang Green loves the guy, and all the bravado that comes with him.

It's a calculated risk on Ryan's part, but the ingredients of a smart and successful bet are in place. And the Jets might end up playing the sucker, either paying Ryan's price next offseason or watching him walk out the door into a market eager to meet his demands.

Go for it, Rex. Pull a Flacco, fix the offense, and make somebody pay. Don't settle for the Jets' tepid terms. If you lose next season, you're gone anyway. But if you win, the decision to double down on yourself will be the best call you've ever made.

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