By Kristian Dyer
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It isn’t sensationalistic and won’t make a big splash, but the development and maturation of Jets head coach Rex Ryan as he gets ready to enter his fourth year with the team is quite easily the biggest story of preseason. This is an older, wiser Jets head coach then seen anytime before.
In his first three years as head coach, Ryan delighted the masses with his stand-up routine from the podium during press conferences and his heart on his sleeve emotions that connected with the common fan. Ryan came across as real, as the guy you might saddle up next to at the bar and talk football with.
He was an everyman who openly talked about crying in front of his team in 2009 when he thought the Jets would miss out on the postseason and he has been the star of the team ever since. And from this connection with the fans started an aura about the man, surely bolstered by consecutive AFC Championship games in his first two years as head coach.
But as great as his initial success was and as strong as his bond with the team’s jaded fan base had become, there was a lot to be desired from Ryan – and it was all exposed last year.
2011 was supposed to be the year when the Jets would make just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The team was deep and star-laden and coming off two straight years of being just a game short of the Super Bowl. But locker room dissension and divisiveness tore the Jets apart and Ryan’s style showed serious shortcomings.
He had a reputation leading up to last year of being a player’s coach. Here was the man who got a hideous tribal tattoo on the outside of his right leg, something that would connect in a locker room with more ink than the Magna Carta. He ran a loose ship, sometimes called “Animal House,” and he was far from the authoritarian type coach that the modern player seems loathe to play for.
Free agents talked about wanting to come to the Jets, not just to play for a Super Bowl contender but “to play for Rex.” That talk has died down since last year’s 8-8 season where the team splintered apart. The shining gleam of the head coach’s armor was suddenly dinged and tainted.
He needed to find a balance to his style, to his demeanor, to the constant affability. It looks like he’s found it.
Enter a new Ryan, a determined Ryan. He’s not the guffaw machine that he once was although his press conferences remain entertaining. He’s also not as flamboyant as years past and the Super Bowl predictions that once routinely marked his offseason comments are a thing of the past.
Instead, Ryan revamped his team and eschewed – outside of the trade for backup quarterback Tim Tebow – big name signings. There was talk of team unity and purpose and a return to his mantra of “Playing Like a Jet.” He also cut ties with assistants such as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, a holdover from the previous regime, and instead brought in a former head coach in Tony Sparano. In Sparano, he had the antipode of his personality, a strict authoritarian who demands perfection and whose personality on the sidelines runs counter to Ryan’s affability. A better balance was sought on the coaching staff and Sparano brought just that.
But beyond the window dressing, Ryan is sounding a different tune this year. He’s less preoccupied with being liked by his team and he’s hit all the right notes on limiting distractions and dissension. The Jets, always in love with the cameras, turned down HBO’s “Hard Knocks” to focus on football, a move atypical of the franchise. Then there was Ryan stating plainly that he wasn’t going to tolerate any type of discord this offseason.
And when fights broke out earlier this week in training camp, as they did on Monday and Tuesday, Ryan played it perfectly.
He let Monday’s melee involving 20 players go by simply with a warning, bringing the team together in a huddle to ensure that everyone was on the same page. He didn’t panic and he knew that fights happen in training camp and he knew not to be as alarmed as the national media was over the fists being thrown. Then on Tuesday when more scraps broke out, he was there to call the team together and make them run “gassers” as a punishment.
Enough was enough and a coach known for being loosey-goosey with his players had to send a message.
No one was singled out. No one got off for good behavior. Everyone suffered because of the sins of a few. It was perfect form from Ryan.
A year ago, perhaps, Ryan would have been too worried about locker room camaraderie and what his players might think of him if he punished them with sprints. Now, Ryan won’t have any of it as this year, it will be Ryan and Ryan alone who will run this team and not the players.
Then he followed up the sprints that night with a trip to the movies, mixing some good cop in with the bad cop. He can’t change who he is – the man his players call “Rex” loves them as much as they love him. Lessons were learned from last year and the man was willing to change.
All credit to Rex Ryan for being willing to do just that.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL and college football for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo!Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed @KristianRDyer.
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