In 2001, I was a member of a Denver Broncos defense that was, in all honesty, a mess. The defensive coordinator at the time was Greg Robinson, whose favorite saying was, “Guys, it’s never as bad or as good as you think it is.” And in most instances he was right. Sometimes a little perspective is needed. But in the case of the Jets and Rex Ryan, that perspective does not exist.
If every team had the exact same talent level on its roster, and commanding an N.F.L. sideline involved nothing more than X’s and O’s, Ryan would be one of the more revered coaches in sports. He is a brilliant strategist, a man who works to the point of exhaustion and possesses a passion for and knowledge of football that is unmatched. Combine that with the fact that no coach in the N.F.L knows how to get more out of less, and you have the makings of a perennial championship contender.
Sadly for Ryan’s fans and friends, being a head coach these days has very little to do with X’s and O’s and more to do with your personality. And the two personality traits that are stopping him from being a great head coach are the same two that make him a great human being: He is loyal to the point of defiance, and he cares enormously about the people around him.
Bill Belichick displays neither of those traits, certainly not while coaching. It’s why on a whim and following a stiff breeze, the man some call Darth Hood traded defensive end Richard Seymour, who was still in his prime and seemingly destined to be a Patriot for life, to the mess that is the Oakland Raiders for a few draft picks. For two years, Ryan has stuck with a quarterback who played as if he were trying to get him fired.
Ryan’s players and staff felt awful for their coach and friend when private moments in his life became public and embarrassed him and his family. In contrast, John Harbaugh had to quell a potential player mutiny in Baltimore two months ago. In Tampa Bay, some players reportedly wanted Greg Schiano and his staff sent back to college.
Eagles Coach Andy Reid fired the defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during the season, as if it was somehow Castillo’s fault that the players Reid picked had no interest in tackling. Ryan gave a friend, the former Pro Bowl defensive back Mark Carrier, the job coaching the Jets’ defensive line in 2010. Did it matter that Carrier knew next to nothing about defensive line play the day he inherited Shaun Ellis, Sione Po’uha and Kris Jenkins? Not to Ryan.
Being an N.F.L. coach is the ultimate study in “him or me” politics. You have to be willing to sacrifice just about anyone in your organization for the greater good. To a coach, the “greater good” often means protecting your own job security first. And that is the last thing Ryan wants to do.
Even with someone as polarizing as the former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, whose relationship with Ryan eventually grew contentious, Ryan’s first choice would have been to work it out. They parted on mutual terms because the last thing Ryan was going to do was fire a guy he believed in. No matter what.
Ryan somehow winds up with players nobody wants and then talks about them as if they are Pro Bowlers in order to build their confidence. In some cases, he is right, and the player ends up being a contributor for years. Bart Scott is one of the most successful examples. But in way too many cases Ryan is wrong, and that reality eventually becomes painfully apparent. The examples of defensive end Aaron Maybin and all of his current quarterbacks come to mind.
No one ever said Ryan was not a tough coach or a competitor. He is. It’s the reason he used to record the fights in practice and took the Jets to two A.F.C. championship games in a row. But these days being tough is not quite enough. In today’s world of access and social media, a head coach also has to be cold and calculating.
However, the debacle that was Monday’s loss at Tennessee was probably the day of change. Because when Ryan looks back on this season, it is going to harden him and change him.
The day is going to come when his player and coaching decisions will be made with the same cutthroat efficiency that you find in places like New England, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ryan will realize he has no choice but to develop that same poisonous “him or me” attitude that permeates almost every other head coach in the N.F.L. And on that day the Jets will gain one of the better head coaches in the league. At the same time they will lose one of its better human beings.
And that is sad, because as Greg Robinson used to say, “It’s never as bad as you think it is.”