By Jason Keidel
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Not long ago, we were all aboard the Rex Ryan Express.
The large and loquacious coach rang the bell of a new era of Jets football. His first warning shot was the refusal to kiss Bill Belichik’s ring, a sign of the rebellious refrain for Gang Green, which had been an AFC doormat for the better part of 40 years.
Maybe after guys like Rich Kotite, Herm Edwards, Al Groh, Joe Walton and Walt Michaels the Jets fan wanted someone with equal helpings of heft and hot air, war paint and promulgations. If being quiet and classy meant losing, then perhaps the team needed some swagger, some volume before victory.
And Ryan delivered, whacking his way to two AFC title games his first two years, with a fledgling quarterback (Mark Sanchez), some creative blitzing, a little luck from the Colts, and a cool, confident breeze spawned by his mouth.
But just as fast as they rose, the Jets plunged from the high orbit of contention. And just as he got the credit for the surge in the standings, Ryan was blasted for their fall. It’s as if the suddenly svelte and more muted Ryan lost his epic mojo in the process, shrinking as fast as his belly.
Now, armed with a few new dynamic players on offense — Eric Decker, Michael Vick, Chris Johnson and four pass catchers in the draft, including a slick pick in the second round in tight end Jace Amaro from Texas Tech — and an eternally rugged defense, Ryan knows a false start to the season could end his tenure long before Week 17. Mike Tannenbaum and the rest of his yes-men can’t save his skin now.
Usually a coach gets one chance to build the program in his pristine likeness. After that, he’s usually canned and returns as a coordinator, humbled and hungry from being fired. Ryan, however, has gotten a second chance to make this right, a right not afforded most coaches, particularly first-time head coaches whose nostrils are barely above .500 waters (career record 42-38). But Ryan has always dwelled deep in Woody Johnson’s heart, which has bought him a stay of corporate execution.
Fans regard their Jets with a twisted reverence, forgetting that they have not won a Super Bowl since 1969, nor have they even played in a Super Bowl since Joe Namath waved his index finger while trotting out of the Orange Bowl, and into American history.
And with it comes distorted emotions toward an emotional coach who brings out the best and worst of us even when things are swell. So it’s always been misguided to brand Rex as Vince Lombardi when he wins or Ray Handley when he loses.
Neither hard-edged extreme really captures Ryan. He’s not just an embellished defensive coordinator who couldn’t find his quarterback with a GPS system. Nor is he a misunderstood, genial genius, players coach, and all-around defensive savant who inherited his old man’s talent but none of his temper. The truth, as always, is in the murky middle.
Ryan is clearly behind the curve when it comes to calling an offense. His regime’s ability to draft high-end players at the skill positions is horrendous. And it’s hardly a secret that a team’s success is almost always commensurate to the HC/QB bond.
At the end of his tenure, a battered Sanchez was being hunted by hordes of linemen, handing off to players who couldn’t run or throwing to receivers who couldn’t catch. Ryan’s conflicted relationship with Sanchez will always be a bit mysterious. Twice they came within 60 minutes of a Super Bowl appearance, and then Sanchez either forgot how to play football or the Jets did. Or both.
And now Rex’s life raft has two passengers, Geno Smith and Vick. Which survivor he chooses will most likely determine his football fate.
The first four-pick game from Smith, at home, and Jets fans will lose that loving feeling. They will ask for more than a QB change. Ryan has been here five years, an eon by NFL standards. But with a new GM prowling the halls you get the sense his coaching leash is shorter than ever.
It seems so long ago when an ecstatic John Idzik stood in that locker room, game ball held high, and announced that Ryan would return for another season, before a bevy of bubbling eyes, tears sliding down the fat cheeks of beefy linemen. Even Ryan was overwhelmed by the bromance, no matter how brief it is.
Stripped of its chick-flick sentimentality, Idzik gave Ryan the most tepid endorsement of all. Most coaches get their lame duck year resolved before the season. Idzik actually guaranteed Ryan’s high-wire 2014, each game potentially his last.
But Ryan knows better than most about the ephemeral football family, the whimsical winds of success and failure. Feelings change hues much like the fall leaves below his office window.
The question surely murmuring along the cold walls of Jets headquarters: how much time does Ryan have before he’s tossed into the coach’s recycling bin? Must he start at least 4-4? Is 5-3 the minimum? Or could 6-2 be the hard target?
Ryan has managed to charm the toughest sports city in America. Despite his recent, woeful results on the gridiron, the formerly corpulent coach of the Jets is trying to bring his big chat back, stripped of the fat, of course, and seasoned with a few more wins.
No new diet can trick the denizens for much longer.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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