MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The other big football game this weekend is the AFC Championship between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets.
In his second year as Jets head coach, Rex Ryan has taken his team from laughingstock to giant killer. They dispatched both the vaunted Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots to make it to this weekend's big game. A lot of football fans don't like Ryan's brash approach, but NPR's Mike Pesca reports that Ryan's players seem to love it.
MIKE PESCA: It wasn't when he burned the ships or buried the football or blamed himself - and we'd get to all of those in our examination of the dour Rex.
For defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, the quintessential Rex Ryan moment was what he did without fanfare for perhaps the least heralded member of his team. It's why Pryce, a 14-year veteran jumped at the opportunity to be a Jet.
Mr. TREVOR PRYCE (Defensive Lineman, New York Jets): His character is what pulls us towards him. It's different from what I have seen - from a head coach, at least.
PESCA: Pryce remembers the Jets' December game against the Patriots, the team's worst loss of the year, by the way. But what stood out to Pryce was Coach Ryan's treatment of Shawn Crable, a member of the Jets' practice squad. These players are routinely treated no better than cannon fodder throughout the NFL, but Coach Ryan so appreciated Crable's anonymous work that he rewarded him by naming a de facto captain against Crable's old team. The gesture solidified in Crable's mind that this was a coach who cared about people, not puzzle pieces.
Mr. SHAWN CRABLE (New York Jets): Once he starts thinking about his players, starts thinking about what people will want and what people will do, you know, he makes a lot of good decisions for his players. And his players respond to him and they play for him.
PESCA: Jets players routinely say that Ryan gets that football is an emotional game. This adjective, emotional, is often read as simply a synonym for fired up. But safety Jim Leonhard says that with Ryan, it's much more than that.
Mr. JIM LEONHARD (Safety, New York Jets): 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, you know? He thinks that they're the best, you know? And he says it.
PESCA: Opponents, traditionalists, the more low-keyed members of the NFL club didn't necessarily like Ryan's brash prediction that the Jets would win the Super Bowl. They regard the rotund and perpetually grinning Ryan as uncouth and especially object to his turn on an HBO series as undignified.
Mr. REX RYAN (Head Coach, New York Jets): I believe our team's better than every (bleep) team in the league. I believe our players are better than any players in the league, right? Those are true statements. I -that's how I believe. We ain't going to win, guys, if it's about me. I'm sitting back waiting for us to understand the team that we said we were going to be. What the hell are we waiting on?
PESCA: But players love it. They loved it when they lost that big December game to the Patriots that Ryan literally buried a football at the Jets practice facility.
They love that he took whatever pressure there was before last week's Patriots rematch and put it all on his shoulders, saying that their past loss was only because he was a lesser coach than the Patriots' Bill Belichick. They love the speech he gave at midseason when he talked about conquistador Hernan Cortes' decision to burn his boats upon arriving in the New World. Burn the boats, the team repeated for weeks.
But Ryan's girth and mirth sometimes obscure his worth. A trip to the Super Bowl might burnish Ryan's reputation as a strategist. Of course, the media onslaught that goes with a Super Bowl appearance wouldn't diminish his reputation as a character.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.