New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and head coach Rex Ryan bond before last weekend's NFL playoff victory over the New England Patriots.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and head coach Rex Ryan bond before last weekend's NFL playoff victory over the New England Patriots. Charles Krupa/AP
There are four teams left in the NFL playoffs, and the only returning semifinalist are the New York Jets, who play the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC championship on Sunday.
In his two years coaching the Jets, Rex Ryan has taken a team that was a laughingstock and turned the joke on himself. A lot of football fans don't like Ryan's brash approach, but it seems that Ryan's players love it.
Quintessential Rex Ryan Moments
"His character is what pulls us towards him," says defensive lineman Trevor Pryce. "It's different from what I've seen from a head coach, at least."
For Pryce, the quintessential Rex Ryan moment was what he did without fanfare for perhaps the least heralded member of his team. It's the kind of thing that made Pryce, a 14-year veteran, jump at the opportunity to be a Jet.
The moment came in the Jets' December game against the New England Patriots — their worst loss of the year. Ryan took a member of the Jets' practice squad, Shawn Crable, and named him a de facto captain against his old team.
Across the NFL, practice-squad players are routinely treated no better than cannon fodder. In Crable's mind, Ryan's gesture solidified that this was a coach who cared about people, not puzzle pieces.
"Once he starts thinking about his players, starts thinking about what people will want [and] what people will do, he makes a lot of good decisions for his players," Crable says. "And his players respond to him and they play for him."
Jets players routinely say that Ryan understands football is an emotional game. But safety Jim Leonhard says with Ryan it's much more than that.
"The majority of stuff that Rex says is extremely positive, and he has a lot of confidence in the people around him, his team, his management. He thinks that they're the best and he says it."
Brash, But Not Rash
Opponents, traditionalists and lower-key members of the NFL club didn't necessarily like Ryan's brash preseason prediction that the Jets would win the Super Bowl.
In a recent HBO series, Ryan made this comment:
"I believe our team is better than every [expletive] team in the league. I believe our players are better than any players in the league. Those are true statements, that's how I believe. We ain't going to win guys if it's about me. I'm sitting back waiting for the team we said we were going to be. What the hell were we waiting on?"
Some fans might regard the perpetually grinning coach as uncouth, but Ryan's players love his personality.
They love when Ryan literally buried a football at the Jets practice facility when they lost that big December game to the Patriots.
They love that he took whatever pressure there was before last week's Patriots rematch and put it all on his shoulders, saying that the Jets lost in December only because he was a lesser coach than the Patriots' Bill Belichick.
They love the speech he gave midseason when he talked about conquistador Hernan Cortes' decision to burn his boats upon arriving in the New World. The team repeated "burn the boats" for weeks.
Shaun Ellis, the longest-tenured Jet, has played for four different head coaches in New York. "I've heard a lot of [speeches] since I've been here, but Rex is by far the best," he says. "There's no shyness about it. The players feed on it, positive or negative — the players eat it."
But Ryan's girth and mirth sometimes obscure his worth. But for the players that see Ryan every day, their coach is underrated as a strategist.
"As long as he keeps winning and keeps doing things, I think that his coaching ability will at some point overshadow his personality," says center Nick Mangold.
A trip to the Super Bowl might burnish his reputation as a strategist. And of course, the media onslaught that goes with a Super Bowl appearance wouldn't dim his reputation as a character.