Rex 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.
Rex Ryan saw where that approach got his father, and where it stopped him. He told the Post earlier this year that he had been afraid his own pro-coaching hopes were doomed in 1993, when his father, the defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the face during a regular-season win because he thought the team was passing too much. Buddy Ryan was correct on the football principles—the Oilers would go on to lose a playoff game in which, playing with the lead against the Chiefs, they threw 43 passes, ran only 14 times and left Joe Montana enough time for a fourth-quarter comeback—but the message was lost in the delivery.
Rexball sounded as reckless as Buddyball going into the second game, when safety Kerry Rhodes announced that the Jets would hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady “more than six times.” Taunting Bill Belichick’s Patriots seems like taunting a column of army ants—Should we get upset about that, coach?—but the Jets hit Brady seven times, kept New England’s offense out of the end zone and won the game, ending an eight-game Patriots winning streak at the Meadowlands.
Winning a home game against a division rival shouldn’t be much to celebrate: less a milestone than an exit sign for the off-ramp from the Jets’ long road to nowhere. Sunday’s 24-10 loss against New Orleans may have been more telling. The Saints were a superior team. They had three blowout wins, with nine touchdown passes by quarterback Drew Brees already. In all three games, they had scored a touchdown the first time they touched the ball.
This time, the Saints began carving their way downfield again: six plays to cross midfield, three more plays to the Jets 22. Then the Jets dug in. A holding penalty, two rushes, and an incomplete pass, and the Saints stalled out and kicked a field goal.
Motivation is not what players feel coming out of the locker room, whipped up by a big speech. It’s what they believe when they’re colliding with other players out on the field. The Saints had more experience and more weapons; the plays the Jets used to attack downfield looked like New Orleans’ dump-off plays. Sanchez tried to force a deep pass to a receiver who was covered, and the Saints’ safety jumped the route and took it 99 yards the other way for a touchdown.
But the Saints couldn’t shake the Jets off. Brees backpedaled in the shotgun, pulling the defense in with the promise of a deep sack, then floated a screen pass into the vacated space, where the receiver broke loose for 36 yards before a saving tackle at the one-yard line. Four plays later—two gang tackles, two passes thrown away—the ball was still at the one-yard line.
It was a Pyrrhic goal-line stand; given the ball back, Sanchez lingered blankly in his own end zone till the Saints swarmed in, stripped the ball and fell on it for a touchdown.
You can only count on coaching to do so much.
The promise of Rexball is that it can blur the distinction between talent and strategy. A week before the Saints game, against the Tennessee Titans, the Jets sent seven defenders to the line on a third-and-long play: Three lined up in a normal defensive front, and four more stood up, in a bunch, off left tackle—the formation for a gambling monster blitz.
At the snap, though, only four people rushed. Bart Scott rolled off into pass coverage, and two more defenders hung back in the gaps. At left tackle, where the mob had been, linebacker David Harris and the diminutive Leonhard came looping around. The Tennessee blockers found one but not the other, and Leonhard closed in on the pocket from the blind side, untouched. Just before he got there, and as the rest of the pass rush began to cave in the line, the quarterback got rid of the ball, throwing to the sideline, where cornerback Darrelle Revis was waiting to break up the pass. It looked like chaos, but the Jets had every part in the right place. Finally.