The Jets Bet on Evolution

rex ryan getty The Jets Bet on EvolutionRex Ryan is 3-1 as the new head coach of the New York Jets, and the Jets might be as good as their record. The second part is what would be unusual. The Jets are never as good as their record, not till the season is over, when they turn out to have been the Jets all along.

Al Groh went 4-0 as the Jets’ new coach, then 6-1, on his way to 9-7. Bill Parcells went 8-4, on his way to 9-7. Herman Edwards went 10-6 and got lit up by the Raiders in the playoffs. Eric Mangini—Mangenius!—went 10-6 and got lit up by the Patriots in the playoffs.

And Brett Favre—not a new head coach, but last year’s new idea—swaggered to an 8-3 start, then limped to defeat in four of the final five. With that, the Mangenius era ended, in a flurry of tar and feathers.

So Rex Ryan is another fast starter. That doesn’t make him any different from those who’ve gone before. What sets him apart, not only for Jet fans but for a wider tribe of people who love a particular kind of football, is where he fits into another historical lineage: He is Buddy Ryan’s son, and he could be Buddy Ryan’s heir.

What is that inheritance? The elder Ryan went 55-55-1 as an NFL head coach, never winning a playoff game. Don’t dwell on the head-coaching record. John Gruden and Brian Billick have won Super Bowls. Buddy Ryan was only the defensive coordinator of the 1985 Bears (and the defensive line coach of the Jets team that beat the Colts in Super Bowl III). They carried him off the field after the Super Bowl, after the Bears had given up a total of 10 points in three playoff games.

Whenever a Buddy Ryan team lined up, you were going to see something happen. His defense was a conceptual revolution, attacking instead of reacting, players storming the backfield in unpredictable combinations and from all angles. Nearly 25 years later, as offenses spread wider and receivers keep multiplying, teams are still trying to run away from the ’85 Bears.

That was one part of coaching, the schemes on paper. Another part was the players, who executed Ryan’s plans joyously and savagely. He was a player’s coach, this fat man who’d never played a down in the NFL, who could show up with a playbook and a few loyal veterans and get the existing players to believe they could do this, too.

Now here is Rex Ryan, as stout and loud as his father, fresh from coaching the Baltimore Ravens’ fearsome defense. Along with him are linebacker Bart Scott and diminutive safety Jim Leonhard, the Ravens’ second- and third-leading tacklers last year. On offense, for good measure, he has a gold-dusted rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez of Southern Cal, and a bunch of tough veterans. The schemes are in place, and the players are making them work.

Does this mean the Jets have a future with Rex Ryan? It was the space in between the coaching ideas and the on-field action, the managerial space, that Buddy Ryan never got the hang of. He was insubordinate, antagonistic and hotheaded, picking fights with opposing coaches, his own colleagues and ownership—fights that wouldn’t blow over after three hours, the way the violence down on the turf would.

The elder Ryan had bad luck—one of his better Philadelphia Eagles teams literally could not find the end zone in the playoffs, lost in billows of Chicago fog—but he often made the worst of it. When the 1987 strike hit, he refused to put any effort into coaching the Eagles’ scab team, winning him a good name with the players and a bad name with the people who hire and fire coaches.

The executives last much longer than the players do. But Buddy Ryan lived for the heated moment. His greatest quarterback was the scrambling, improvising, deep-bombing Randall Cunningham. His defenders aimed to not only stop the play, but to strip the ball; not only to strip the ball, but to try to score with it, lateraling it around if it looked like that might work. If they fumbled back to the offense, well, just try to get it back again.