Even the ending was classic Rex Ryan. The man almost upset his own firing.
Sunday, December 28, just after 4 p.m. Pandemonium in the bowels of Miami’s Sun Life Stadium. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a Magoo-ish rich eccentric out of central casting who wears a goofy green tie to Sunday games and looks like he might play with toy trucks on all the days in between, is looking in vain for a safe route through the stadium tunnel.
Johnson looks miserable. He’s just hours away from sealing his fate as the most unpopular man in all of New York sports. Nobody wants him to fire Ryan: not the players, not the majority of Jets fans, and certainly not the assembled Jets media, who are already mourning the last hours of what for six years was by any measure one of the most entertaining gigs in the history of sportswriting.
No, the only people at this moment who genuinely want Johnson to fire Ryan are the fans of opposing AFC East teams who are tired of ugly surprise losses like this final-week 37-24 beating of the Dolphins, people like the security guard who wolf-whistles at Johnson as he tries to slither down the tunnel.
“The best decision of your life!” the man shouts. “Best! Decision! Ever!”
Johnson frowns, rattled, and presses past me.
“Having second thoughts?” I ask.
No answer. Johnson scoots away and the team’s beat writers gang-chase him. Halted for a moment, he mutters a single noncommittal sentence and then waves the writers off like they’re a cloud of blackflies. The beat pack rushes back in a frenzy of Kremlinological speculation.
“Something about it being all about the players,” snorts a reporter on the way back.
Poor Johnson. He was almost home free. All he had to do was fly down, watch his Jets suffer another agonizing 13-8 smothering (extra-innings-baseball-type scores are one of the great legacies of the Rex Ryan era), flash a frown, and fly home. The next day, he could have waltzed into his Florham Park headquarters and more or less frictionlessly fired his all-time headline-grabbing coach, perhaps with some distracting new front-office meat in the form of a Charlie Casserly or a Ron Wolf (or both) by his side.
Instead, what happens? His turnover-machine front man, Geno Smith, achieves a perfect passer rating — how many millions of Americans would have bet their own children’s lives against such a thing happening? How many likely did? — and leads the Jets to a shocking, script-souring ass-whipping of the favored Dolphins.
The whole situation is both classic Jets and classic Ryan, who over the past six years has established himself as one of this century’s great American characters — part showman, part salad antagonist, part unlikeliest sex-taper, and, more than occasionally, a big part genius underdog coach. Echoing Houdini (or Andy Kaufman), underdog Rex made a mockery of his own funeral, beating the favored Fins with a dazzling array of balls-out coaching decisions. And the locker room is oddly joyous afterward. There are plenty of negative things to write about Ryan, and there are some sizable holes in his legend — more on that in a bit — but that thing about his players loving him? That seems more true the more time you spend around his team.
“When I first came up here, he greeted me and told me I was part of the family, that’s what I remember,” says tight end Zach Sudfeld, a former New England Patriot who, one guesses, didn’t get a similar welcome-to-the-family bear hug as an undrafted rookie up in Foxborough. “I was like, ‘Wow.'”
“Deep down inside, we love him as a person,” says offensive lineman Willie Colon.
“It’s weird,” says Newsday’s Bob Glauber, who has covered the team for years. “The players have always loved Rex. Even after the last four years, after all the losing, after this horrible year, they still love him.” He laughs. “It’s almost wrong.”
This year something was wrong, for sure. Finding bizarre ways to lose games has been a Ryan-Jets trait since he arrived in the Meadowlands, but not until 2014 did it become a mathematical constant. Each week of this season seemed more horrible than the last.1
There was the “Butt Touchdown” game against Kansas City (a pale but still humorous sequel to the infamous Mark Sanchez Butt Fumble), in which linebacker Calvin Pace knocked down a pass by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, only to have it caught by casually seated tight end Anthony Fasano. There was the Week 2 loss to Green Bay in Lambeau, with the team stealing a game-tying touchdown from itself in Keystone Kops fashion, thanks to a pre-snap sideline timeout call by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who legally wasn’t even allowed to call one.2
But if you had to pick a moment that encapsulated the futility of the 2014 New York Jets, it would be the October 26 contest against Buffalo that was the metaphorical bookend to the final Miami win, a game that saw Geno Smith compile a Zen-like perfectly negative 0.0 passer rating, with two completions and three first-quarter interceptions. It was one of the worst passing performances by a starting quarterback in the history of a league that until very recently employed Tim Tebow. That particular nightmare prompted four haggard and frustrated Jets-fan friends to begin a grassroots billboard campaign to fire general manager John Idzik that won national headlines, ultimately succeeded (in a way), and seems like it ought to serve as a template for future fan uprisings. “We just couldn’t take it anymore,” says Jason Koeppel of FireJohnIdzik.com of the moment he decided to take to the virtual streets. “We had to do something.”
But through it all, none of the ire was really directed at Ryan, who inexplicably arrived in Miami with the fan base still behind him. He strode into his last postgame presser looking defiant and transformed. A year full of horrifying losses, along with his lap band surgery from years before, had made the once-gorgeously obese coach look progressively smaller as time wore on. But after this win he was Big Rex again, towering over the press corps like an Easter Island statue in an NYPD hat.
It could have been awkward. The group he was addressing had, over that weekend, variously reported that (a) Rex had already cleared out his desk, (b) Johnson really was wavering and considering keeping him, and (c) Rex was irritated by Johnson’s wavering, because he needed an answer soon, before other opportunities dried up.
The win was a big middle finger to all of that — Rex has always specialized in the middle-finger game — but it was even more of a middle finger to Johnson. He was asked if he’d talked to the owner after the final whistle.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “I said, ‘Hey, boss, I’m going to give the whole team a game ball. Sorry.'” As in: Get your souvenir from your next coach.
The next day, of course, Woody whacked Rex, along with his billboard-inspiring general manager, Idzik.
Was it a mistake? We’ll never be sure. But it never felt real, this long-predicted breakup — it’s been like watching two married people who really love each other foolishly divorce after a few bad years. Sure, coaches without rings have short lives, and uprooting whole bunches of them and their families during the holidays has become a sordid annual ritual. But if there were ever a city and a coach to break that pattern, it would be Jets Nation and Rex Ryan, the Luke and Laura of the NFL.
But that was one hell of a six years we just lived through. Can we give it up, one last time, for the Rex Ryan era?
“That first press conference,” says linebacker David Harris. “That’s when I knew.”
Ryan had the Jets at hello. His first presser, on January 21, 2009, was one of the great moments in the annals of balls, bluster, trash-talking, sweat, saturated fats — hell, even fashion. Fresh off a wildly successful 10-year run coaching defense for the swaggadocious Baltimore Ravens, Ryan didn’t just talk big. He was big. He introduced himself to New York in a sensational costume that screamed, “Get a load of me!”
Unlike his frumpy predecessor Eric Mangini (or, more to the point, unlike Bill Belichick, whose name will come up a lot in this story — the smallish, moribund, clam-faced, Giants-pedigreed Patriots coach is paradoxically both Rex’s alter ego and his perfect Dostoyevskian opposite), Ryan was a massive physical presence. At his intro he seemed to be at least 900 pounds of resplendent manhood crammed into a shiny jacket-and-striped-tie ensemble that featured an amazing, unapologetically booger-green color. He looked like the Incredible Hulk come to work at a Baskin-Robbins.
His bulging neck-bag glistening with sweat, he looked down at all the cameras and croaked a prediction.
“With all the cameras and all that, I was looking for our new president back there,” he said. “You know, I think we’ll get to meet him in the next couple of years anyway.” At the White House visit, after his Jets had won the Super Bowl, naturally.
The newspapers called it a “Namath-like” guarantee, which it surely was. But it was more than that. Ryan was also poking a stick at the pusillanimous conventional wisdom of the modern NFL (and especially of coaches like Mangini and Belichick), which says you should always tremble before the Football Gods, never take anything for granted, never look past the next game, never give even the weakest opponent bulletin-board material. In his first few minutes, Rex dropped trou on all of that as so much old-fashioned superstition.
Fuck the Football Gods! Fuck karma! We’re the fucking New York Jets! “And I think that’s going to be more than you can handle,'” Rex said. He spent a lot of his first offseason talking trash about upcoming opponents, famously offering to fight Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder (“I’ve walked over tougher guys going to a fight than Channing Crowder”) and even more famously announcing that “I didn’t come here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings.”
The media had seen trash-talkers before, but the sports world had seldom ever seen a coach who trash-talked more than the athletes themselves. Jets players like Harris bought in right away. Six years later, Harris still buys it. “We love it,” he says. “It’s like he’s got our back, and we’ve got his.”
The Jets started off 3-0 that year before promptly dipping into one of those agonizing swoons for which Ryan’s teams would become famous, losing game after heartbreaking game in some of the most unlikely ways NFL fans had ever seen. There were botched-but-makeable field goals, wasted timeouts that always proved critical, even failed attempts at allowing touchdowns (a key to a brutal 24-22 loss to Jacksonville). Things peaked when they lost a crucial late-season game to the already-eliminated Atlanta Falcons on a play in which Ryan correctly predicted a pass to Tony Gonzalez but watched as the Hall of Famer beat a triple-team anyway for a winning TD.
After that game, Ryan famously sighed, “We’re obviously out of the playoffs, and that’s unfortunate.” A stunned press room suppressed a gasp: The Jets actually weren’t eliminated at all. Ryan quickly reverted to Sergeant Slaughter mode, boasting and bragging about an upcoming matchup with the juggernaut Indianapolis Colts, who at 14-0 were chasing an undefeated season. At a news conference, he opened with a list of players on the injury report. “Manning, Clark, Addai, Reggie Wayne, Freeney, Mathis, Brackett — all those guys will not play.” Then he paused. “Oh, hold up. That was my wish list for Santa Claus.”
Caldwell curiously complied with Ryan’s joke and sat his stars in the third quarter, not just killing a chance at history but handing the game — and a playoff berth — to Ryan and the Jets.
Afterward, instead of acknowledging the gift handed to him by those Football Gods, Ryan took a characteristic power steamer on Monday-morning decorum and refused to apologize for the Jets’ sort-of win over the powerhouse Colts.
‘‘For half the year, people played against our backup nose tackle,” he deadpanned, preposterously, referring to an early-season injury to star Kris Jenkins. “I don’t think anybody’s made note of that. I know this is Peyton Manning or whatever, but he did play three and a half quarters.”
(This disingenuous little speech wasn’t Ryan’s proudest moment, but it had one brilliant side benefit. It sent New York radio legend Mike Francesa, one of Jets Nation’s most loathed enemies, into a seizure-like rage fit from which he has never recovered. It’s impossible, listening now, not to laugh at how unbelievably mad this stuff made Francesa — real human fury! “Dat’s outrajuss!” screamed Francesa, in his trademark consonant-massacring Long Islandese. “You begged dem to take the-yah playaz out last week! You sed you wanded it for Chrismuss!”)
But a few weeks later, those “same old Jets” had first beaten the Bengals and then upended the heavily favored Chargers in the playoffs, leading to an actual AFC title showdown with those powerhouse Manning-led Colts. To this day, that run remains Pace’s favorite memory of Rex. “After that Chargers game,” he says, “nobody thought we had a chance. And there we were.”
Nobody could believe it when Rex’s Jets were surprisingly whipping Manning 17-6 at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. But they faded down the stretch, thanks in large part to the atrocious play of his rookie quarterback, Sanchez. (Along with shocker-underdog wins and absurd act-of-God losses, the quarterback-ghoulishly-crapping-himself game would become a staple of the Rex era.) And while the season may not have ended in a title, Rex entered 2010 as the biggest thing in sports. His public shtick was a roaring success, and since part of his act was that he was sometimes a crass, unfunny boor, even his worst material worked. It was comedy nirvana. A nation obsessed with dieting loved him for his 7,000-calorie-a-day intake. They loved him even more when “a source” told the New York Post that “I have never heard him order a Cobb salad.” (There was a lot of this sort of investigative reporting in the New York tabloids during the Rex era.)
Still-ascending Rex then went to an MMA event in Miami and told a boisterous pro-Dolphins crowd to “Go fuck yourselves,” giving a big middle finger for emphasis — the picture ended up on the front page of the Post, like almost everything else Rex said and did back then.
Then a fateful decision by the Jets and HBO in 2010 to team up to make what would turn into the far-and-away greatest season ever of Hard Knocks turned Ryan into a mainstream pop-culture icon approaching the level of Tom Cruise, Kanye West, or the Pope. Ryan’s coming-out party was the timeless “Goddamn snack” speech, some of the most inspired gibberish ever captured on film — it sits somewhere between Sally Field’s “You like me!” Oscar speech and Benito Mussolini’s “This is the hour of irrevocable decisions!” declaration of war against Britain and France.
“Let’s make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets and not some slap-dick team!” Ryan shouted. “That’s what I want to see tomorrow! Do we understand what the fuck I want to see tomorrow? Let’s go eat a goddamn snack!”
To this day, nobody really knows what the hell the “goddamn snack” speech is about, but that was never the point. “The snack thing, that was pure Rex,” chuckles Pace.
Exactly in the manner of the more successful modern presidential candidates, he also won over a new generation of fans/voters addicted to new forms of media — reality TV, the Internet, etc. — that stressed emotional cues and “genuineness” over the actual meaning of the things people said. Even Koeppel, the FireJohnIdzik spokesman, invoked the Great Presidential Campaign Cliché when talking about why he and his friends didn’t blame Rex. “He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with,” he said, contrasting Ryan with the disingenuous Idzik.3
In his next, even more improbable run to the AFC title game in that 2010 season, he seemed to be in Jim Caldwell’s head throughout the Jets’ wild-card matchup with the Manning-led Colts. The game turned on Caldwell’s inexplicable decision to call a timeout to stop the clock for the Jets as they were driving toward a game-winning field goal with time running out. Peyton Manning himself threw his hands up in shock at the move — it’s in the top 10 of the all-time Peyton Manning Face moments — and Caldwell was more or less finished in Indianapolis from that moment on.
In the next round, Ryan shocked reporters by upping the ante on his anti-Belichick rants. Ryan by then had been outed in the weirdest wife/foot-fetish/unidentified-toe-sucker sex-tape scandal that sports (or any other industry) had ever seen, and just slightly less significantly had also been on the business end of a 45-3 bulldozing at the hands of those same Patriots on Monday night only weeks before. What coach in that circumstance pushes the trash talk to 11?
“He’d been dialing it back on Belichick,” recalls Newsday’s Glauber. “So I asked him, are you dialing it back? And he says, ‘No, I came here to kick his ass.’ And I’m writing it down, going, ‘Yeah!’”
What did that accomplish? “Well, he definitely got in their heads a little bit,” Glauber insists.
And it’s true. Would Wes Welker have made 11 references to feet in a single pregame press conference if the coach of the other team hadn’t been Rex Ryan? Would he have poked that particular sore if it had been Ken Whisenhunt’s or Mike Munchak’s wife caught on tape? Chan Gailey’s? Joe Philbin’s?
No way. But because it was Ryan, who surely would have held a pregame parade with a city-block-length papier-mâché foot float if Footgate had been Bill Belichick’s scandal to bear, Welker violated the Patriot Prime Directive, forcing Belichick back into a Punji trap of his own rules. The Hoodie blinked, benching Welker to queer the start of a divisional-round debacle that to this day ranks with the greatest victories in Jets history.
The Jets then went to Pittsburgh full of high hopes at a Super Bowl shot. And again, they almost made it — a Sanchez-led comeback from 24-0 down fell just short. The loss stung New York fans badly, but nationally, it did nothing to dim Ryan’s star.
And why should it have? The first two years of the Rex Ryan era surely rank with the greatest stretches of coaching in the history of the league, and let’s not hear any whining about how one can’t say that because Rex’s Jets never won it all during that time. If Belichick can have his ring kissed by national pundits for just missing the playoffs in 2008 with Matt Cassel and a supporting roster a season removed from a 16-0 record, then Ryan deserves at least equivalent praise for twice just missing the Super Bowl with Darrelle Revis, a nice blitz package, and the horrifying blooper-reel fixture Sanchez under center.
Ryan seemed destined not just for all-time NFL coaching greatness, but for the kind of permanent national celebrity rarely reserved for sports stars not named LeBron or Jordan. Players all over the NFL were dying to come play for the franchise. Rex was on top of the world.
And then it all went to hell.
Al Pereira/Getty Images
The Jets fan base is one of the weirdest in all of sports. As the perennially losing AFL little brother in a global financial capital long ruled by the legacy Giants franchise, the Jets remain the only NFL team in America that doesn’t claim even one county majority-populated by its fans. Even in New York, everywhere in New York, the Jets have always been second bananas, and the franchise has been dogged by an inferiority complex for its entire existence. Hell, its first owner, Harry Wismer, decided upon the team’s first name — the Titans — because he had a size obsession with the crosstown rival Giants. “Titans are bigger and stronger than Giants,” Wismer insisted.
Ryan relished the underdog role of the Jets and perfectly understood the psyche of the people who supported them. Although his regular-guy credentials were certainly a little suspect (he grew up in NFL locker rooms, after all), he was a hero to the rude, in-your-face side of New York, to “Do you have the time or should I just go fuck myself?” New York, to guys with jackhammers and hard hats and hack licenses. Simultaneously he was an ongoing affront to the city’s smug, overpaid elites — particularly the tie-clad New York Times reader who probably commuted in from Connecticut every morning, ran a pension-raping desk at some evil bank by day, and rooted for the “classy” Giants in his spare time.
But it was the Giants who won yet another title in Ryan’s third year, while the Jets began a long slide downward. The two teams passed like ships in the night toward the end of the 2011 season, when they met in an infamous Christmas Eve battle that somehow changed everything. Ryan spent all week before that game bragging about how much better the Jets were, and then on the field the Jets folded like a cheap tent, the backbreaking play being a 99-yard Victor Cruz touchdown with the Jints backed up third-and-10 from the 1.4 Sanchez tossed his usual two picks and Big Blue won running away.
Ryan approached Brandon Jacobs after the game and reportedly snarled, “Shut the fuck up. Wait till we win the Super Bowl.”
Jacobs told Ryan he’d punch him in the mouth. He then complained to TV reporters about other Ryan antics, like the Jets’ lame decision to put black curtains over the Giants’ Super Bowl trophies in the stadium the two teams nervously shared. “Rex Ryan is a very disrespectful bastard, and that’s just the way he do things,” Jacobs said bluntly. But it wasn’t trash talk because the game was, you know, over and already won.
From that point forward for the Jets, it’s been bad bounces, bad juju, and one too-colorful debacle after another. The signature low moments in this period of Jets history are so well known that they all have catchy nicknames, like political scandals, Brazilian soccer stars, or supermodels (the world eagerly awaits the Victoria’s Secret debut of a Cape Verdean girl named Buttfumble).
New York Daily News
It had already begun in 2010 with Footgate. But then there was also Tattoogate (pundits were torn over what was weirder, that Ryan had a tattoo made of a Mark Sanchez jersey or that it was his wife wearing the jersey in the tattoo) and Tripgate (“Fortunately the young man wasn’t injured,” a nervous Rex insisted to a chortling David Letterman, reliving the time Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi tripped Dolphins corner Nolan Carroll). Santoniogate came when Ryan named notorious locker-room killer Santonio Holmes a team captain and then watched as Holmes, among other things, did a mocking “Fly, Eagles, Fly” TD celebration in the second quarter of a 45-19 loss to the Eagles that will probably forever stand as a monument to when not to make love to oneself in the end zone on national television.
Of course the worst scandal of all was the 2012 Butt Fumble, a play that will someday rest in the opening antechamber of the Internet museum, on an endlessly replaying monitor between Dramatic Chipmunk and Kim Kardashian with Ray J.
There’s no understating what that play meant to Rex and to the Jets franchise. When Sanchez coughed up a fumble-for-touchdown after getting spun around on a broken play, running straight into the backside of guard Brandon Moore — “He didn’t run to daylight, he ran to the opposite of daylight!” cackled a now-triumphant Francesa afterward — he forever turned the 32-yard line of MetLife Stadium into the Golgotha of the Rex era.
A hugely rated Thanksgiving night game, this was a long-awaited chance for the franchise to do some heavy lifting for the league in a big Nielsen slot. Instead, the NFL’s whole target audience — non-football fans, pre-verbal children, pets, visiting foreigners, everyone — was treated to endless loops of a man slamming his head against another man’s buttocks. What were the rules of the game again?
But the worst thing of all about the play is that it happened against the New England Patriots and Belichick.
There’s no way to talk about what went wrong with Rex Ryan without talking about his confrontations with Belichick. The Pats-Jets battles in these years encapsulated everything that was good and bad about Ryan. He won shocking upsets and his fluency in the X’s and O’s regularly diminished Tom Brady, the fastest on-field mind of his generation. But he also lost horrific games by inches to a moody obsessive in Belichick, whose entire raison d’être was to take just such advantage of “Fuck the details!” emotional instigators like Ryan.
The two men endlessly exposed and bloodied each other, and the argument still isn’t settled. You could look at it from the Jets’ perspective and say that Belichick just had a way better quarterback during these years. But the Patriots’ point of view would be to say that Ryan’s steady six-year collapse is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale come to life — proof of the cosmic fall that awaits those who talk too much. No matter what, it made an eerie kind of sense that when it came time for the End, the Last Gasp, it was the Hoodie standing on the other sideline.
Sunday, December 21, 2014. MetLife Stadium. The 11-3 Patriots, seeking to wrap up a bye, were taking on the 3-11 Jets, who had nothing at all on the line, except maybe — who knows — one last mad dash to save Ryan’s job?
“No way,” cracked one Jets beat writer in the press box just before kickoff. “Not even Woody is that stupid.”
“Think of what you’re saying,” said the other. Both men burst out laughing.
But sure enough, two and a half hours later, the score sat at Jets 13, Patriots 10, and the upset was in New York’s grasp. Across the MetLife press box, you could feel reporters tinkering with “One more year?” ledes.
The game had played out like so many previous Ryan-Patriots battles, with Brady battered and beaten and seeing triple in the face of a fearsome Jets front seven. You watch these games and think: Brady’s seen this so many times before; how can Rex still be in his head? But he is. And who knows, maybe the nature of Rex’s celebrity comes down to something as simple and dull as this: Coaching NFL football is really, really hard, and the guy is just good at it.
But he seems to have an equal talent for losing not just by fractions, but by fractions of fractions. In this case, the Pats eked out a 17-16 win in typically heartbreaking/insane fashion, thanks in part to an almost mystical officiating decision in which New England was awarded a first down despite the whole world seeing a ball on X-treme TV close-up that clearly sat several links short of the sticks.
No other explanation: God had reached down into New Jersey and fixed the game. There might as well have been a giant Flying Elvis–shaped burning bush on the 48-yard line. Ryan would later call it a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” play.
After the game, the difference between the two teams couldn’t have been clearer. Jets players were all over the place emotionally, alternately swaggerific about the almost-win and prematurely mournful about their lost coach. Defensive end Sheldon Richardson started off by bragging about how badly he and his line mates had kicked Brady’s ass (“Feasting. Fea-sting”), then moved on to talk about how he hoped to change the Jets-Pats script post-Rex.
“Don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the season, but I’ve got to make sure I’ve got something to work for,” he snapped.
Meanwhile, in the Patriots locker room, the victors, even after clinching a week off, stayed numbingly, humorlessly on-message. As usual, nobody in the press got a single thing from any Patriot, about Rex, the weather, anything.
I tried right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, figuring a foreigner might slip and actually answer a question about whether he was going to miss these Rex-Belichick rivalry games. The enormous German paused, remembered his coaching, and deadpanned, “As far as I know, we’re still playing him next year,” then shot me an expert fuck you look before turning back to his locker to get dressed.
Ryan, forced at the postgame podium to answer the inevitable presumptuous questions about his last Jets home game, bragged in defeat for old times’ sake, talking about how “we’re the team that always gives [Brady] the biggest challenge, whether he admits it or not.”
Belichick, meanwhile, showed up for his postgame presser wearing his trademark Autopsy Table Face. And the only time his heart rate rose above 19 was when someone asked about the formation on their fourth-quarter field goal rush. Brightening, the Hoodie went on and on about it, to the point where reporters were glancing at each other in confusion — Belichick’s description of how Vince Wilfork got through the A gap was not quite a Thomas Pynchon novel, but close.
“We changed our alignment a little bit … It was a long kick, like the one in New England … ”
It’s subtle, but hilarious. Here’s his last game coaching against the rival who most confounded him both on and off the field for six long years, and Belichick’s farewell is a monotonal dive into the mysteries of special teams formations. If you speak 21st-century New England Patriot, it’s a giant middle finger, every bit as tall and proud as the one Rex laid on that crowd of Dolphins fans back in the day.
As for these two coaches, who will likely be linked together forever in a bitter, mostly one-sided rivalry along the lines of Sampras-Agassi or pre-2004 Woods-Mickelson, here’s the thing: As a media story, as sports/WWE-style theater, they seem like diametric opposites, perfect foils. Rex is huge; Belichick is little. Rex is an open book; Belichick’s face looks like something tightened with a torque wrench. Rex gives the media something every day, while Belichick wouldn’t piss on a reporter if he were on fire — unless he had plenty of reserve piss and it were Tom Jackson, or maybe Ron Borges.
And on the field, Rex is known to send the house on defense and dare opponents to hit the big one, while Belichick, for years equally hailed as a defensive genius, is known for keeping everything in front and daring opponents to execute yawn-inducing 15-play drives.
It’s fire versus ice, balls versus brains, the perfect Hollywood cliché duo. And for the last six years, Rex expertly played the role of John McClane, the tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip everyman who ignores the long odds and leads with his gut (at times literally, in Rex’s case). And Belichick? He’s been cast as America’s Hans Gruber, the evil smart guy who revels in planning for every last eventuality and irritates us because he knows what a bearer bond is.
It’s great theater, but it happens to be total crap. The two men are far more alike than they are different. Both are coaches’ sons who grew up in the game and became celebrated defensive coordinators. Officially now, both botched their first head coaching jobs. And both had enormous learning curves with the media in those first efforts, only in opposite directions. Belichick needed a whole decade to learn to be minimally polite, while Rex will need about that long to learn minimal restraint.
The major real difference is that they have opposing philosophies about how to manage players. Belichick is the overprotective dad who stays up all night worrying about the trouble his kids might get into, while Ryan, whose own wife, Michelle, described his leadership style as the “fun parent,” is the indulgent one who lets his kids make their own mistakes.
After a Jets practice one day I ask Sudfeld, who has played for both of them, if the two men have much in common. “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s the competitiveness. They both hate to lose. The philosophies are a little different, but the intensity is the same.”
“Rex is just more out in front with his personality,” agrees former O-lineman and ESPN analyst Damien Woody.
And then there’s the on-field similarity. Ryan is known as a gambler and Belichick as the plodding player of probabilities, but the fact is that both of them are famous for flipping off fan and media expectations and trying absolutely crazy things in their football operations.
Belichick will do things like cut every single viable NFL safety on his roster just before a season starts (like he did in 2011) and then field a would-be contending team with guys like Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown protecting his back line. He annually drafts someone ESPN doesn’t even have tape on in the second round, he’s sent Julian Edelman to cover Anquan Boldin with the Super Bowl on the line, and his preseason whacking of a beloved All-Pro like Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, or Logan Mankins has become a New England tradition as dependable as autumn foliage or coked-out bar fights in Southie.
And Rex is just the same. A classic demonstration came in Week 13 against the Dolphins, when Ryan didn’t even attempt to pass the ball, continually trying to run Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson past the Dolphins’ overaggressive outside rushers, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. With minutes left in a game lost by a single field goal, the Jets had more than 240 yards on the ground and Geno Smith had just eight attempts. It was a lunatic, brilliant, infuriating strategy that drove reporters crazy — and nobody else, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick, would have dared to try such a thing.
Rich Schultz /Getty Images
Belichick was an obsession of Rex’s right up to the end. He brought him up before Patriots games, before non-Patriots games, when it made sense, and when it didn’t. When reporters hounded him for not passing in the first Dolphins game, he pointed to his 200 first-half rushing yards and pleaded, “Even Brady and Belichick would take that.”
He was constantly comparing himself to his rival, and while the rest of his swaggery predictions felt increasingly hollow toward the end, in more reflective moments he actually started to sound eerily like … Bill Belichick. After practice on Christmas Eve, for instance, one of the beat writers asked him what he thought he’d be doing this time next year.
Rex sighed, for just a fleeting moment flashing a Foxborough Death Mask. How many different ways would reporters try to ask him about whether he was about to get fired? Recovering quickly, he shook his head, waved a hand, and smiled.
“Come on, are you going to make me say it?” he said. He slipped into Belichick mode: “I’m just thinking about Miami.”
Everybody laughed. “It’s going to have to be one hell of a game plan,” one of the reporters quipped.
And it was. It just wasn’t enough this time.
And that might be the final similarity to Belichick, that it will only all come together for Rex in his second chance. Of course it would be the most Jets thing ever, Rex going elsewhere and winning pretty much instantly with someone like Matt Ryan or Colin Kaepernick or even, God forbid, Jay Cutler. But it feels inevitable that the second-act success story will come somewhere. The perfect situation would probably be someplace like Atlanta: good quarterback, depressed defense, and first-tier intra-division foils in Drew Brees and Cam Newton. They’ll have to teach him where the city of Tampa is, how to offend its residents, etc., but he’s a quick study.
The NFL has seen some great showmen over the years: Namath; Jerry Glanville; Bum Phillips (we really can’t find another coach to either wear a cowboy hat or call himself “Bum”?); Rex’s dad, Buddy; even Jerry Jones.
But there’s never been anyone like Rex Ryan. This is a man who (a) maxed out the barnstorming potential of the digital age, (b) simultaneously authored both some of the greatest coaching performances of the generation and some of the worst football ever played (the Internet equally devours the genius and the train wreck), and (c) successfully marketed himself to fans not just in New York but everywhere as the fun-loving, recognizably human challenge to the staid, corporate, calculating side of the NFL represented by villainous androids like Roger Goodell.
The central question with Rex is whether fun can coach and win in the modern NFL, or whether too much fun and “fun parenting” leads inevitably to Butt Fumbles and botched snaps and karmic debacles like Marty Mornhinweg calling Chris Johnson a “first-ballot Hall of Famer” minutes after he signs. And honestly, that may be a dumb question — if Rex Ryan had lucked into a Brees or a Rodgers or a Manning anytime in the last six years, we wouldn’t even be asking it. But he didn’t, and now the Jets have lost the man who was born to coach here, and it sucks.
Because the truth is this: Ryan will be a blast to watch in his next stop. But his next stop should have been right where he was.
This article has been updated to correct the date of Geno Smith’s 0.0 passer rating achievement; it happened on October 26, 2014, not November 24.