Team Rex

Not 24 hours after getting picked apart by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, Rex Ryan didn’t pause to crow about the memorable playoff run. Instead the forward-thinking coach built the framework for the 2010 New York Jets.

Ryan pushed the emotions and accolades of the moment aside and he challenged his players to start anew. For all his kiss-the-rings bluster and attacking 3-4 defensive brilliance, Ryan is about fundamentals. And the road to the Super Bowl begins with a steady diet of film work, conditioning and repetition.

“We enter this season 0-0,” Ryan told his crew. “There’s no guarantee that we are going to get back. My challenge to myself and to all our players and all our coaches is to find a way to get better.”
It was yet another verbal gut check delivered by one of the most outspoken and refreshing coaches in pro sports. Ryan, 47, speaks his mind like a linebacker chasing down a quarterback. It only heightens his left tackle-sized presence, his NFL pedigree and his reputation as a defensive whiz.

His father, Buddy Ryan, was a former NFL head coach, the architect of the Bears’ feared 46 defense, defensive coordinator for Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” and a blitz-happy assistant for the Jets who helped stymie the Colts in Super Bowl III. Twin brother Rob is the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns.

Rex Ryan’s NFL roots run deep and so does his confidence. He transformed the Jets into the league’s best defense a year ago and, nursing a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez, an unlikely playoff run.
“We really feed off of Rex,” Sanchez said. “He makes us feel like we’re all ready to be Super Bowl champions. Now, we need to do it every day and prove it. It’s high team morale and excitement and we’re thrilled about this opportunity. It’s going to be another great year for us.”

The Jets worked at a feverish pace during the off-season. Even Ryan showed up at training camp in August a leaner and more polished taskmaster. The rest of the NFL has taken notice.

Newspaper columnists, bloggers, photographers, TV cameras and even an HBO production crew descended on the quaint upstate town of Cortland to document the Jets at training camp. In other words, the hype surrounding Gang Green has never been greater. That’s real reason for concern. And genuine excitement.

As the Jets kick off the 2010 season, they are a trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since Broadway Joe himself guaranteed and delivered a championship in January 1969—seven months before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Many moons later, Ryan is the unapologetic face and uncensored mouthpiece of this cursed franchise.

“I’m going to be myself,” Ryan said. “I said that from day one when I took the job and I’ll be it when they’re telling me to leave 20 years from now. I had an agent tell me that no coach has made it past six years in Jets history. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think Weeb [Ewbank] did, but I’m not worried about anyone else. I’m going to be who I am and I am proud of this football team. We’ll see what happens.”

False prophets, overhyped athletes and just plain scoundrels have teased and tormented Jets fans for the better part of 40 years. So what to make of Ryan, shouting like Moses in the desert—er, New Jersey swamp—that he will deliver the faithful to the NFL promised land?

The bluster and confidence emanating from the second-year coach is infectious. There is no vaccine for optimism. Despite ample exposure to past outbreaks—remember the Bill Parcells and Brett Favre eras?—renewed hope is impossible to ignore. It spreads like a zombie plague and usually ends just as badly.

Those Same Old Jets fans have been teased before:

+ The next Bill Belichick? The Jets trotted out Mangenius.

+ The answer to Thurman Thomas? The Jets drafted Blair Thomas.

+ The second coming of John Abraham? Vernon Gholston has zero career sacks—but don’t call him a bust just yet, his optimistic coach has exclaimed. (We’ll give him the month of September.)

Oh, stop crying on my shoulders, Fireman Ed.

This team actually seems poised to deliver. The Jets collected talent like chess pieces this off-season. The only problem is that board games don’t come with personalities, entourages or rap sheets. These new Jets do—along with plenty of question marks. Ponder this:

+ GM Mike Tannenbaum brought in two future Hall of Famers in running back LaDainian Tomlinson and defensive end Jason Taylor. But do they have anything left to give?

+ Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, two trade acquisitions from the last year, could be among the most dangerous wide receiver tandems in the league. But each has endured the spotlight of off-the-field incidents involving fisticuffs and the law. And Holmes, a former Super Bowl MVP, has been suspended for the first four games after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

+ Same thing on the opposite side of the ball, where pairing Darrelle Revis with Antonio Cromartie at cornerback could create the Bermuda Triangle of defensive secondaries. But Revis feigned injury during minicamp to send a message about his contract and then held out at the start of training camp. Cromartie has money problems of his own, having fathered seven children by six different women in five states. That’s serious alimony.

+ Don’t forget the Jets’ decisions to let Thomas Jones go. Or to trade away Leon Washington once they drafted Joe McKnight. Mistakes or pure genius?

It will be up to Ryan to make these moves work. The measure of this coach, fair or not, will be whether he can wring every ounce of talent from his roster. Damn the egos. Building a champion begins with attitude, then strategy and finally execution. Now you know why owner Woody Johnson, on the eve of training camp, locked up Ryan and Tannenbaum to extensions to keep them in New York through 2014.

“Quite honestly, there are a lot of factors going into things when you bring people in,” Ryan said. “That’s what we did. I came here to win. I never came here to be average. Again, I know when it’s all said and done, I’m going to be held to those standards. Did you win? Did you deliver a championship? I’m man enough to go for it where a lot of guys aren’t.”

You’ve got to love a coach who goes after his two heftiest players with a weight-loss challenge and puts his own belly on the line. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins dropped 33.6 pounds during the three-month contest to beat out offensive tackle Damien Woody (26.2 pounds) and Ryan (20 pounds).

In reality, Ryan, weighing in at 291 pounds, was the biggest winner. The coach underwent lap-band surgery in March and shed 55 pounds heading into training camp. He also won the continued admiration of his locker room.

“You want to play for a guy like him,” Revis said. “I know he gets crazy sometimes with the media, but that’s just his personality and we like it. We appreciate it.”

Jets fans appreciate the new direction too. In little more than a year, Ryan swooped in and changed the course of a franchise reeling from a disastrous end to the Brett Favre saga. Can he keep the momentum going?

Team Rex debuts at the brand spanking new Meadowlands Stadium in prime time September 13 against his old team, the Baltimore Ravens. It’s a good first test.
Will it be the first stepping stone on the road to the Super Bowl or another colossal disappointment? With Ryan as ringmaster, it will be entertaining either way.

jason molinet

Jason Molinet spent three years at as regional editor and was a reporter at Newsday for a decade. He is a four-time Press Club of Long Island award winner. Molinet celebrates his Cuban heritage, reads Ernest Hemingway and roots for the Miami Heat.