In Football And Life, Ryan Plays Like He Means It

In Play Like You Mean It, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan describes how his passion for football led him to pursue a coaching career. i i

In Play Like You Mean It, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan describes how his passion for football led him to pursue a coaching career. Jim Rogash/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Rogash/Getty Images
In Play Like You Mean It, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan describes how his passion for football led him to pursue a coaching career.

In Play Like You Mean It, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan describes how his passion for football led him to pursue a coaching career.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Rex Ryan, the head coach of the New York Jets, has been called a lot of things: boastful, brash, profane and even fat. But one thing you can't call him is ineffective.

In two years, he has twice coached the Jets to within one game of the Super Bowl, yet his ascent to NFL head coach was never a given. In his new book, Play Like You Mean It, Ryan writes about his journey to the top and how it all began with what he learned from his father, football coach and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

"My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches," Ryan tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And so what we do ... with our defense, we'll actually have the entire defense in a meeting and we'll teach the entire defense to everybody."

On another team, the meetings may be divided by position. But Ryan believes that his method encourages each player to know what everybody else is doing, rather than just the coaches. And that split-second advantage makes a difference.

"Everybody is in the same room, and there's accountability because you all know each other's jobs," he says. "You teach the whole defense to everybody and it may sound complicated [but] it's not."

Learning The Tricks Of The Trade

In his book, Ryan writes about the benefits of treating different players differently according to their temperaments. He says some respond to profanities or insults, while others are likely to take such treatment personally.

"You gotta know what button to push on a guy," Ryan says. "Bart Scott is one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. He's a mean kid, and you can cuss Bart Scott up and down the field, and sometimes that's the best thing to do to Bart, because he can handle it. Every single person is different, and they're all motivated differently."

Play Like You Mean It by Rex Ryan
Play Like You Mean It
By Rex Ryan
Hardcover, 288 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

There have been incidents in Ryan's career when he's been fined for his words or actions, but he says he has come to terms with his mistakes.

"I've made plenty of mistakes in my life but I learned from them," he says. "And I'm also genuine and I'm honest. I may not be right, but I'm honest. ... You know, I've been wrong so many times in my life, but at least I'm gonna speak from the heart."

A Family Affair

With so much of the family in football — Ryan's brother is an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys — it can be hard to avoid lumping them together. Ryan writes in his book about an often-heard observation that while Ryans make good football coaches, they aren't head coach material. He says he was eager to put that rumor to rest.

"I was stepped over for a head coaching position several times, even in my own organization," Ryan says. "I was with the Baltimore Ravens for 10 years, and they chose somebody else. And I was right under their nose. But I used it to fuel my passion in all those type of things. I know I'm in the right place. I'm gonna show you."

The lessons Ryan took from his father, who had a reputation for being hard on players and coaches alike, only added to his coaching philosophy.

"I always thought my dad was fair on his players," he says. "But I also thought that he could have improved on getting the whole building on board. He was more isolated strictly on football — it was his coaches, it was his players and that was about it. I do just the opposite. I'm fortunate, starting from ownership that's behind us all the way, where my dad actually fought with the owner."

'It Wasn't A Straight Line, It Was Curvy'

Rex Ryan had to face his fair share of adversity, both off and on the football field, before making it to where he is today.

"I had to overcome the weight issues — I'm fat and whatever," he says. "And I think people look at a guy that's heavy and they say, well, he's lazy. I'm not lazy; I'll outwork anybody."

Growing up, Ryan says, he also had trouble in school. He didn't learn why until, as an adult, he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

"I was frustrated and, quite honestly, the only time I would stay in school is if there was floor hockey or softball," he says. "I had no idea until I was in my 40s that this was the problem that I had all my life. But I found a way and I actually have a master's degree and all that — so I found a way to get it done. It wasn't a straight line, it was curvy, but I found a way to get it done."

Ryan's passion for football makes him optimistic about the immediate future of the NFL, which is currently embroiled in a lockout with its players association.

"There's three certainties that I know," Ryan says. "I'm certain that the owners want there to be football. I'm certain that the players want to play football. And I'm certain that the fans want to see football. So I can't tell you when we're gonna play. But I just think we will."

Obstacles aside, Ryan says he feels fortunate to be coaching an NFL team today.

"I knew at a young age I wanted to coach football," he says. "I saw the way my dad would come home and how he loved his work. How he had a little pad of paper, that he would sit and we'd watch TV and he'd be writing in that pad. But he could not wait to go to work the next day. And that's how I feel every day. There's times, I pull up to our facilities and I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm the head coach of the New York Jets.' "

Excerpt: 'Play Like You Mean It'

Play Like You Mean It by Rex Ryan
Play Like You Mean It
By Rex Ryan
Hardcover, 288 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $26.95

On January 24, 2010, I looked up from the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium and watched the clock tick down to 0:00. The hard realization set in: our 2009 season, my rookie season as head coach of the New York Jets, was over. The Indianapolis Colts had won the AFC championship. Losing is brutal — I don't think anyone can deny that. But some losses, well, they burn a little deeper. As 63,000 fans cheered for the Colts, and their players started putting on their championship hats and T-shirts, I jogged to the middle of the field to shake Jim Caldwell's hand with only two things on my mind: 1) Damn ... Peyton beat me again; and 2) When do I get another shot at him?

Losing in the AFC championship was tough enough, but having Peyton Manning take a second Super Bowl ring from me just pissed me off. In 2006, when I was the defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, we got beat by the Colts in the playoffs. The whole thing just haunts me. Wait, let me rephrase that. Peyton Manning haunts me. In my opinion, simply winning isn't enough. You have to win against the best, and Peyton Manning is the best. Now, don't get me wrong, we deserved to lose that 2009 AFC championship Game. We were outmanned, injuries killing us all over the field during the second half. And no one knows how to abuse your weakness quite like Peyton. But to watch our season end on that note was frustrating, and the only way I knew how to deal with that frustration was to let it drive me. That's why my first instinct was to imagine how we were going to beat Peyton the next time around...and to envision the Jets, if only in my mind, playing the Colts in the playoffs again.

My moment to mourn was short and sweet, because the second my hand left Caldwell's, the 2010 season began and we were 0-0.

Setting the tone with my Jets in that postgame locker room speech was a huge step toward a new season. Fortunately, it took very little effort. I just went in, was true to myself, and told them exactly what I believed. I told them that the fastest way to kick ourselves in the ass was to go into 2010 with the assumption that we were going to make it to the AFC Championship Game. From that point on, every team was on a level playing field. There were no guarantees. We knew what it felt like to be right there and lose it. That would make us hungrier. We wanted to take it all. I told them to strive to get a home game in the 2010 playoffs. I said let's play for it again, let's win it, and let's do it in our city, at our stadium, in front of our fans. I wanted them to wear their Jets gear and be proud. We finished in the top four in the NFL, we turned an underdog team into an AFC title contender, and we earned the respect and support of the people in New York. I mean, they lit up the Empire State Building green and white the week of the AFC Championship Game. If that didn't make my players proud to be Jets, then they shouldn't be on this team.

The future, I told them right there in the belly of that stadium, came with a challenge. I told the coaches and the players that I was challenging each of them, and myself, to find a way for us to get better. I didn't know how it was going to happen, but we were going to find a way for each of us to get a little bit better. I knew as a team we were going to have to make some roster improvements. We had to get better in the corner and better in the back end. I also knew it was crucial for us to get a closer as a pass rusher. We needed someone who could close out guys so I wouldn't have to blitz every snap.

Coming out of that game and going into the off-season, we went right at those weaknesses to prepare for 2010. We signed Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie as free agents. We rafted Joe McKnight, who could help us in both the running and passing game; Kyle Wilson, who I know will be a dynamic player down the road; John Conner, who is an outstanding fullback; and Vladimir Ducasse, who is a dynamite player on the field. We also ended up getting LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes, Nick Folk, and Trevor Pryce. We were determined to do everything we could to improve in every way possible. We even picked up Mark Brunell, an 18-year veteran quarterback, who has turned out to be a fantastic mentor to Mark Sanchez.

Unfortunately, this business is all about give-and-take. So, as excited as I was to get such amazing guys before our 2010 season, I was equally upset to have to let some go. We released Alan Faneca, Thomas Jones, and Marques Douglas, who was one of my guys from Baltimore, and traded Leon Washington to Seattle. That is, by far, the worst part of my job. These guys are truly amazing players and people. If I had it my way I would keep everyone, but that's just not how it works in the NFL. Every decision is for the betterment of the team.

With a week or two to go before our 2010 season opener, I was feeling good. We were back in Florham Park after spending training camp at SUNY Cortland, we had officially decided on our 53-man roster, and we had settled some lingering contract negotiations.

If you watched us on HBO's Hard Knocks at the beginning of the season, then I'm sure you're well aware that two of the contract negotiations I'm talking about were with our cornerback, Darrelle Revis, and our center, Nick Mangold. I'll get into further detail about this later in the book, but for now, let me just say that compared to the Revis situation, Mangold's contract was a breeze. Both of these players are great guys, but the way their situations played out was far different. Our owner, Woody Johnson, and our general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, approached Nick about a lucrative seven-year extension, and he signed two weeks later, making him the highest-paid center in the league. On the day he signed, I actually held him out of practice. I mean, we're talking about a lot of money here! The last thing he needed was to walk out there and fall in a hole with that much on the table.

Revis, on the other hand, signed a big-time four-year deal after one of the most publicized holdouts in recent NFL history. The day he came back to practice might possibly have been one of the happiest days of my life. I have never wanted something to be over more than that whole ordeal.

From the very beginning of the season, it seemed like the New York Jets were the most talked-about team in the NFL. A large part of this was due to our appearance on Hard Knocks. Apparently, some people think I'm entertaining. The truth is, I don't really care what other people have to say about me, including an NFL blogger, a broadcaster, or even a former head coach. I knew Hard Knocks was going to generate interest. Not everyone was going to like it, and that's fine; that's what remote controls are for. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't like our name constantly in the press. People were talking about us, and that's really all that mattered. We were exactly where we wanted to be.

We put ourselves in a position where we had no other choice but to prove ourselves. I knew people looked at the Jets and me like, "Okay, Rex, we've been hearing about you guys all preseason. Now show us what you've got." I felt challenged by all the media attention, and I LOVE a challenge.

Book excerpt from Play Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful Game. Copyright 2011 by Rex Ryan and Don Yaeger. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

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Play Like You Mean It

Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful Game

by Don Yaeger and Rex Ryan

Hardcover, 280 pages | purchase

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