By Kristian Dyer
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Mediocrity isn’t enough for the New York Jets, and it certainly won’t be enough to turn Rex Ryan’s sixth season in New York into a seventh.
The recent bit of bluster and bravado from Ryan as the Jets were gearing up for another trip to upstate New York and training camp followed a season of restraint, a season where he appeared muzzled at times.
At this time last year, Ryan was a quietly sullen and crestfallen head coach. The whispers and back pages said he was gone, doomed with a first-year general manager in John Idzik who was supposed to be his polar-opposite in personality. The 2013 season was to be his final season with the Jets as he was supposed to be five and done in the green and white.
Instead, he put together his best season of coaching, confounding the pundits by playing meaningful football in December. An 8-8 record was celebrated with a Gatorade bath in Week 17 in Miami, not because mediocrity is the norm around this franchise, but because the team had its coach back. The Jets played as if to guarantee his extension with their hard work and grit. They cheered his return.
And in return Ryan has spent the offseason showing that he’s back.
He’s no longer the emasculated head coach of the Jets, neutered by the talk of being fired. The guns are blazing and he’s a little cocky again – though he likely would call it confidence. He’s jawing again and while there are no Super Bowl predictions or brash statements he’s got that glimmer in his eyes again.
But, beware Rex, beware.
He has every right to believe he has a playoff team. The Jets are better on both sides of the ball and are a younger, faster team than at any point in his previous five years with the franchise. But the schedule is also tougher with six playoff teams from last season and markedly better opponents in the AFC East. The Jets are better as well but this won’t be easy and a trip to the postseason, despite the offseason additions, isn’t a foregone conclusion.
But the Jets can win with Rex being Rex.
At his best, Ryan is contained. He isn’t the over-the-top personality from 2011, when his affection for certain players in the locker room perhaps clouded his judgment on some tough personnel decisions, choices that eventually cost a veteran team a third straight playoff berth. And he seems released from last season’s tension, which resulted in him being guarded and a somewhat a shell of himself, as if if a LAP-BAND procedure had been done to his super-sized personality.
During Ryan’s most raw moments, he cries in front of his team. He sheds the spotlight in front of those 53 players during the week and makes it about the win on Sunday. Never once, the players in that locker room say, has Rex make it about Rex. He makes it about “Play Like a Jet” and winning for the franchise and an owner in Woody Johnson he clearly loves to work for.
In that locker room is when Rex finds his voice at its clearest. He calls on the team to play hard, “with their head on fire” and to play for the green and white and their passionate, long-suffering fans. There isn’t a “Win one for the Gipper” quip from his lips. It is never about him when he speaks to his team.
It’s the reason why players want to put on the pads for him and why free agents want to join his team. When Rex is Rex, he may be a head coach with flaws but he is as passionate as any player on the team.
There is no filter when Rex is Rex, and his players respond to that rawest of emotion.
The 2014 season is one of heightened expectations around these parts, where .500 simply won’t be good enough. A playoff appearance in his sixth season in New York will almost certainly mean be a seventh one next year.
There will be nothing fake about Ryan’s bravado and swagger, traits that seemed over-the-top and phony in 2011 and again in 2012 — season where the Jets underwhelmed. And what you will get won’t be the ramblings of a despondent and dejected head coach who stood before the media at times last year with his shoulders slunk forward, almost resigned to putting his house up for sale.
Rex Ryan can take this team places. He’s done it before and he can do it again.
But only if he’s the Rex we’ve grown to expect, confident and yet controlled — not a caricature of what already was pretty darn unique.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York. Follow him on Twitter at @KristianRDyer
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