Rex Ryan Works His Magic on the Jets

Edan Lisovicz

Shortly after signing up to be the third head coach of the Jets in the last five years, Rex Ryan declared that he did not come to New York “to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.” While long-suffering Jets fans still waiting for their first Super Bowl appearance since 1968 may have dismissed such brash talk on the part of a head coach who had yet to win his first game as little more than foolish naivety, it appears to have quickly resonated in the only place that matters: the locker room. That is because the Jets-despite having a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback at the helm-are one of several surprise teams to start the season 2-0.

Although his tenure with the Jets has been very brief, it did not take long for Ryan’s overtly candid and at times confrontational personality to rub off on his players. In the days following the Jets’ first game of the season, a convincing 24-7 rout of the Texans in Houston, several Jets players made incendiary remarks directed at their week two opponents and arch-rivals, the New England Patriots. Safety Kerry Rhodes was the most outwardly hostile, telling reporters that the Jets were not merely aiming to “just go out there and try to win,” but that they were going to try to “embarrass them…make them feel bad when they leave here.”

The only immediate result of Rhodes’ comments was that the Jets now found themselves facing a degree of pressure to win that is typically characteristic of games in late December rather than early September. But when the team took the field last Sunday they exhibited few outward indications that they were nervous about backing up his words. After falling behind by two field goals in the first half, the Jets shut down Brady, Moss, & Co. in the second half en route to an impressive 16-9 victory.

After the game the Jets toned down their antagonistic tone and said all the right things about the victory, but nonetheless the loud personality of Ryan’s team has undoubtedly caused a stir around the NFL. Typically, watching a press conference in the NFL compares unfavorably with watching C-SPAN; players and especially coaches are so conscientious of avoiding comments that opponents may be able to make use of as “bulletin board material” that their interactions with the media are often little more than a repetitive drone of one-word answers and over employed clichés. But as soon as he took over the reigns in New York, Ryan began speaking his mind on all sorts of topics. The son of coaching legend Buddy Ryan and the brother of Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Rex clearly lives for football and had made it clear he does not care what others think about him, declaring, “I’m just going to be myself. That’s just the way it is.”

And it has turned out that the man that Rex Ryan is has been a welcome replacement for his predecessor, Eric Mangini, who is in many ways his polar opposite. Mangini, notorious for his stoic demeanor and reputation as a disciplinarian, was also known for his extreme reticence around the media, and in fact, just last week was fined $25,000 for failing to disclose information regarding Brett Favre’s shoulder injury last season. And while there is no telling what went on beyond closed doors, it is not difficult to make a connection between last year’s late season collapse and the lack of a rapport between coaches and players that plagued Mangini’s three-year regime.

In sports it is often said that a team takes on the personality of its coach, but when the Jets hired Rex Ryan they completely turned around the mood of not only the team but also the franchise. Rather than attempting to mimic the success of Belicheck and the Patriots by hiring one of his protégés and adopting the same arrogant and secretive aura, the Jets instead hired a man who does not pretend to be a genius and yet whose confidence is nevertheless contagious. Perhaps nothing epitomizes the contrast between the Jets of last season and the Jets of this season than the telephone message that Ryan left for all of the Jets’ season ticket holders in the week leading up to the game with the Patriots. Engaging Jets fans personally and challenging them to be loud and “make life miserable” for the Patriots, Ryan concluded by saying, “Again, I admit that I’m not as good as Belichick, but at the end of the game, I want to be 1-0 against him. So, help me out if you don’t mind.

That’s my challenge, OK? Thank you. Bye.”

So while Jets fans are certainly wary of becoming too excited after over 40 years without a Super Bowl, it cannot be denied that this is a promising start to the season. Their defense still has yet to give up an offensive touchdown this year, a feat that looks all the more impressive after Houston put up 34 points on Tennessee’s supposedly vaunted defensive unit in week two. But while much remains to be seen over the next fifteen weeks, (especially whether the team continues to maintain its level of talk after its first losing streak) Ryan’s attitude is unlikely to change. “We’re a football team that should be respected,” the coach said after last week. “Sometimes we talk a little bit, but only because we have confidence in our football team.”