Rex Ryan was late for his conference call with the Buffalo media Wednesday. This would not be an issue if it were, say, Bill Belichick or one of the NFL’s other colorless coaching cadets.
Ryan had always relished the give-and-take with opposing reporters. His swagger came through the phone. He loved talking about himself and his Jets, who reflected his bombastic personality. I swear, we’d be out at practice and Rex would still be yapping to an empty room.
But they say Ryan is a different man these days. He’s healthier after losing 100 pounds. It’s his job status that’s in bad shape. He’s on the hot seat after finishing 6-10 a year ago. Maybe that’s why he arrived late and bolted early.
I asked Ryan if it’s true what the critics are saying, that he has lost his bravado.
“Yeah, right!” Ryan replied. “OK.”
“No,” I said, knowing the Jets’ PR man had called the final question. “What’s your reaction to that? That feeling is out there in a lot of the New York media. Don’t brush it off.”
“Well, I’ll brush it off,” Ryan said, “because inside these walls, there’s plenty of bravado and plenty of confidence. It’s on show for everybody to see. That’s why you play the games. We’ll see. Don’t think my football team doesn’t have plenty of bravado, because we certainly do.”
I’m inclined to believe him. Ryan has been a refreshing presence in a league filled with robotic coaches. Sure, he’s mellowed some after guaranteeing a Super Bowl two years ago. He’s toned down his act after getting in trouble for flipping off fans.
Rex deftly turned the question to his team. The Jets were picked to be among the worst teams in the NFL, and for good reason. Like the Bills, they’re starting a rookie quarterback, Geno Smith, who inherited the job when Ryan made the dubious decision to play Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game and Sanchez sustained a shoulder injury.
The difference is, the Jets have no offensive skill players of any consequence. The offense is bad, and it might cost Ryan his job. John Idzik, the new general manager, would probably like to pick his own coach. The feeling is, Ryan needs to keep the Jets relevant into December to remain employed.
Wait a second. Where have I heard this before? A lame duck head coach, coming off a losing season. A defensive guru who can’t ever figure out the offensive side of the ball, needing to hang around .500 to keep his boss happy … has Rex Ryan become Dick Jauron?
No, I can’t go there. Ryan is still a terrific coach, someone who would get scooped up in a flash. His offense stinks, but he’s still very good at what he does, and that’s coach defense.
Two games into the season, the Jets are 1-1 and second in the NFL in total defense (as Ryan was quick to mention). In Ryan’s first four years as head man, they ranked first, third, fifth and eighth. Maybe it’s a downward trend, but in Buffalo it would be cause for a parade.
Granted, they have played Tampa Bay and a Patriots team that was down to Gisele Bündchen on the wide receiver depth chart. But while losing in New England two Thursdays ago, the Jets were impressive defensively, regardless of Tom Brady’s supporting cast.
The Jets played with skill, aggression and yes, a palpable bravado. You could see it in Ryan’s face.
“He’s lost the weight,” said Bills center Eric Wood. “But he hasn’t lost the edge.”
Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who coached with Ryan for 11 years and will go against him on Sunday, doesn’t believe his old boss has lost any of his infamous swagger, either.
“I think externally, looking at the circumstances, you might say there’s some heat on his seat,” Pettine said. “But I know him and he doesn’t feel that way. … He even said it, that they’re a lot better than people give them credit for. He laughed at the initial power rankings that came out, where they had them ranked. He’s a guy that given his competitiveness and defensive expertise, I don’t think you’d ever want to count out.”
Pettine and Ryan are like brothers. They used to vacation together and they share the same attacking defensive philosophy. They talk all the time. But when they worked together with the Jets, it was always “Ryan’s defense.” The average fan didn’t even know Pettine was the defensive coordinator.
Ryan said Pettine will be a great head coach some day. He agreed that Pettine was lost in his shadow and wasn’t going to get his due until he went on his own. He said the same thing happened to Marvin Lewis when he coached the Ravens’ D in the early days of Ray Lewis.
“These things happen,” Ryan said. “But Mike can stand on his own. He’s a tremendous football coach and it won’t be long. He’ll get his own opportunity to be a head coach.”
Ryan and Pettine danced around the subject of Ryan’s job security, but it had to be a factor in Pettine leaving. He needed to escape from Ryan’s shadow, but a man doesn’t cast much of a shadow when he’s out of a job. So when the Bills came calling, Pettine listened.
They’re good friends. Still, Pettine said he’d be lying if he claimed this was just another game. Of course, he wants to beat his mentor. He’s a fierce competitor, same as Rex.
You know Ryan wants this game, too. He still has his ego. It has to nag at him when people suggest that Pettine was the genius behind those Jets defenses. Come on, you don’t think Ryan would love to shut down the Bills, and put a hurting on Pettine’s defense in the process?
Someone asked Ryan how much his familiarity with Pettine’s defense would help this Sunday, and vice versa? Who will have the advantage?
“Oh, my goodness! I guess we’ll find out,” Ryan said. “I guess we’ll find out. I’ll probably cheap shot him before the game or something. We do know each other very well, there’s no question about it. But we’re not playing against each other. If we were, it’d probably be a pillow fight.”
A pillow fight? Come on, Rex, if you keep talking that way, people really will believe you’ve gone soft. Sorry, but I don’t buy it.