Head Coach Changed A Culture And Then Was Systematically Abandoned By Front Office

By Jeff Capellini
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Somebody should thank this man for his service. He deserves it and then some.

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In the cold-hearted world of professional sports, where all too often you are reminded that you are what your record says you are, four consecutive seasons without a playoff berth is quite enough for many to call a head coach a failure.

Rex Ryan went 26-38 during the regular season following his second straight appearance in the AFC Championship game, and in many instances his teams weren’t very competitive.

But I have a very hard time calling the guy a failure. Flawed? Certainly. But a disaster as a head coach? Hardly. To me, he was a pawn in a game played by very ignorant people.

Rex’s biggest problem ended up being his undying belief in his own abilities. Normally that’s never a bad thing, but when you work for the Jets, a team that never seems to know which way is up, all the hear-me-roar chest beating and positive reinforcement in the world often doesn’t amount to diddly if you don’t win and win consistently. And that’s very hard to do — in fact it’s nearly impossible — because no one aspect is powerful enough to overcome the sum of this franchise’s many dysfunctional parts.

Rex can flat-out coach specific aspects of the game of football and as a motivator of men you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better, but he was forever hamstrung throughout his tenure because the Jets never really had true football people picking his players.

Think about it: Rex Ryan never, ever had a competent quarterback in six years with the Jets. And just in case you’ve been absent from reality for the last decade or so, the NFL is tilted heavily toward the passing game. A greater emphasis on scoring points has been prevalent this century than ever before.

Yet there were the Jets for six years taking exponentially longer to move the football than seemingly every other team in the league. Rarely did you see a long touchdown pass and the notion of a “quick-strike offense” was something reserved for your father when he gathered his grandchildren around the fire to tell stories about the days of Ken O’Brien, Wesley Walker and Al Toon.

Too bad those days were over 20 years ago.

The Jets of the Rex Ryan era were all about the running game, moving the sticks and solid defense, things that would have made them arguably the premier team of the 1970s. Forty years later? Not so much. But Rex had little choice. It was the only way his teams had a chance to win on a weekly basis.

Ryan convinced himself and a good percentage of Jets fans that his teams could be successful playing a smash-mouth style of offense and stout defense, and for two years he had people mesmerized. But there’s just so long you can continue to trick opponents that way. When they finally got wise to Rex’s game, or if his players, primarily on the defensive side of the ball, got a bit long in the tooth, Ryan ran into two problems: First, as stated earlier, he never had that competent quarterback to pick up the slack or, God forbid, set a tone, and, second, he didn’t have competent people in the front office finding players to replace his aging warriors or to give the Jets that needed game-breaker-type of impact player.

The result was an embarrassing Jets’ offense littered with turnovers and ineptitude for four years.

People love to say Rex never paid that much attention to the offense. It’s funny, because what good would it have done if he had? Mike Tannenbaum and John Idzik marched to the beat of their own drummers, and neither knew very much about talent — assessing it, selecting it and ultimately nurturing it. And God only knows what was going on in the bowels of the team’s headquarters in Florham Park with Terry Bradway and his crew of supposed talent evaluators.

Oh, so maybe Rex could have paid more attention to the offense and required more downfield passing. Sure, with the incredibly inaccurate and turnover-prone Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith throwing the ball. Yeah, great plan.

I could go on and on about how the roster was systematically destroyed after the second year of the Ryan regime by GMs who should’ve been doing your taxes, not putting together the professional football team you pay ungodly amounts of money to watch every week. But you get the point, and if you don’t, you likely never will. As of this column, it’s no longer my problem.

Yes, Rex Ryan’s defenses didn’t always live up to advance billing, but they generally operated with little margin for error due to the lack of ability and explosiveness on the other side of the ball. I got news for everyone: this is the NFL. If you think you’re holding teams consistently under 20 points per game you’re out of your mind.

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But getting back to the topic at hand —  thanking Rex for his service. It’s time to segue to why Ryan will be missed.

Following the great Brett Favre experiment in 2008, a shot in the dark if ever there was one by a team always looking for the back page bold ink, owner Woody Johnson reacted to his club going from 8-3 to 9-7 and out of the playoffs by firing head coach Eric Mangini.

Ryan was hired and the fan base was hooked from the second he started his introductory press conference.

The outspoken and burly former defensive wizard for the Baltimore Ravens spoke of the Jets as becoming a highly physical team that would take no prisoners, while at the same time being a family.

“The players will have each other’s backs, and if you take a swipe at one of ours, we’ll take a swipe at two of yours,” was the gem from that press conference that changed the entire culture of the Jets. And while it was true they still had to play the games to prove they weren’t the “same old Jets,” the tone had been set.

And everyone — from the players to the fans to the Flight Crew — bought in.

For those two magical seasons, ironically riding the backs of players nurtured by Mangini (another black mark against the front office) the Jets were no longer the butt of every joke. They were as good as anyone on any given day — and that was with a quarterback in Sanchez who for the most part had no idea what he was doing. It was a shocking turn of events. It gave the diehards and the longest-tenured Jets fans from back in the days at Shea Stadium a reason to believe again.

Ryan the man was more emotionally invested in being the Jets’ head coach than anyone to come before him. Good and bad, he was the face of the franchise, and he took the business of being “Mr. Jet” very seriously. And that should count for something because he took a largely cynical collection of fans, people who knew mostly misery for 40 years, and united them. If the Jets were a biker gang, the fans became their prospects, the pledges ready to do whatever they had to do to be inducted into the club.

And though the years following the back-to-back AFC title game appearances were dark times indeed, most of the people never forgot what it felt like when their Jets were finally a team to be feared, just like Rex had promised.

People like that are not so easily swept under the rug. They become something more over the course of time.

Rex Ryan did more in two years than any coach since Weeb Ewbank and Joe Namath, a franchise quarterback mind you, pulled off their miracle in the Orange Bowl.

So while the last four years definitely put a damper on Ryan’s legacy over the short term, he was not just another seemingly clueless coach in what had been a long line of failure on the Jets’ sideline.

He was the guy who came in and showed you right away what it’s like all the time for the haves of the world. And people like that deserve to be remembered fondly, not for only what they failed to do for you lately.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

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