Thursday, February 5, 2015

Remembering Sexy Rexy

Photo courtesy of NY Daily News
Both Rex Ryan and the Jets have moved on from one another in the past month. After the fourth straight season missing the playoffs, Gang Green fired the coach and have started a new era under another first time head coach, and star defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles. Ryan has chosen to stay within the division, and the state by going to the Bills. The dust has settled, so it's an appropriate time to take a look back at Ryan's run.

He came in as the neophyte coach who had made a name for himself by being the son of Buddy Ryan, and lived up to his father's legacy through 10 years in Baltimore. He began as the Defensive Line Coach, and eventually became the Defensive Coordinator, of the feared 2000s Ravens defense which was never ranked lower than 6th in the league while he was around. 

After failing to land a coaching job prior to the 2008 season, Ryan signed on with the Jets almost immediately after the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs following 2008. Soon, he came on and took the media by storm. He was brash, sarcastic, and an overall quote machine.He started making guarantees from the first moment that he stepped into his officer. And for the first little while, it looked like he was going to deliver soon.

By now, we know that Mark Sanchez is a dud. He was a top five pick who is unable to carry a team, and will vacillate between mediocre and straight up bad. But in 2009, he was drafted to be the savior of the Jets, and Rex's boy for years to come.

In Sanchez's rookie year, he showed a lot of promise. He made a lot of bad decisions of course, throwing 20 interceptions to 12 touchdowns, but the stats don't tell the full story. Sanchez made some tough throws when asked, and was able to manage the offense to a lot of success at times. Overall, he was poor, but he was a rookie. We all expected him to improve. We thought we had found our man for the future, as did Ryan. On our way to a surprising AFC Championship game appearance, Rex was heaping praise onto our young quarterback. But he wasn't why we got there.

Led by an incredible season from Darrelle Revis, Rex Ryan turned the Jets into a fearsome defense. Lacking a wealth of star power, the new coach used varied schemes to confuse opponents and optimize the talent that he did work to work with. Kerry Rhodes improved under Ryan, before personal issues between the two led to his departure from New York. David Harris had his best season to that point. Rex manufactured a pass rush led by Calvin Pace and Shaun Ellis, two guys who have no business being lead pass rushers on a great team. All out blitzes, and a plethora of different looks made it difficult to move the ball against the Jets. Bringing along players like Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, and Marques Douglas, Rex was able to install the same defense that he had in Baltimore.

The impressive defense, combined with a great running game carried the team to the playoffs, thanks to both the Colts and the Bengals laying down and allowing the Jets to win. That's where Coach Ryan really started to shine. Cincinnati was supposed to be the better team, but he brought his team into their house and won pretty convincingly. Next up, it was stunning the 13-3 Chargers on the road the next week. It looked like the 9-7 Jets were about to advance to the Super Bowl, before Peyton Manning pulled off the greatest half of football that I've ever seen. Obviously it was slightly disappointing to get to close and not make it, but I was very happy with the season. I had low expectations going in, but Rex Ryan started off his tenure right.

During the next offseason, the Jets took measures to improve the offense by trading for Santonio Holmes, and signing LaDainian Tomlinson to replace Thomas Jones as a compliment to new lead back, Shonn Greene. All of the pieces were there. Sanchez got better in year two, he had a solid core of weapons all around him, and the defense didn't skip a beat, despite being generally made up of older players.

Ryan capitalized on this influx of talent, and had the best season I've ever seen the Jets have. They went 11-5, and for the first time in a while, fans were confident going into each and every game, including the playoffs. He led the Jets through a two game stretch in which he beat Peyton Manning in his final game in Indianapolis, and slayed the beast that was the New England Patriots, in Foxborough. The latter was easily one of the best games in franchise history. After years of torture, the Jets knocked the Pats out of the playoffs, and looked prime to make the Super Bowl. There was a general air of excitement in New York related to my Jets for the first time in my life. I was so ready for the AFC title game in Pittsburgh.

Here's the one and only time I was disappointed with Rex Ryan. The Jets simply did not show up for the first half of this game. There's no way around that fact. They were down 24-0 as the second quarter came to a close, before Nick Folk finally put the team on the board with a late field goal. There was reason to be deflated, but at the same time, I didn't lose hope. It almost paid off in the end. The team battled back on offense when they could, and stifled Pittsburgh, holding them scoreless for the rest of the game. But it wasn't enough. The Jets were unable to stop Roethlisberger and Co. from gaining the dagger first down to put them away, and the game ended with a 24-19 Steelers victory.

I was heartbroken. I was in tears. All of the pieces were there, and the Jets blew it by not being ready. And all these years later I still have to give a good amount of the blame to the coach and his staff. On the flip side, it was impressive to see how he was able to take a game that was headed toward an embarrassing blowout, and turn it into one that New York had a real chance to win by the end.

From that point on, it was the same Rex, with a much worse outcome. General Manager Mike Tannenbaum allowed the roster to get worse and worse, without paying proper attention to detail. The offensive skill positions were downgraded by attrition, and some lackluster drafts led the Jets downhill. Rex had the team overachieving for most of the 2011 season as they began the year 8-5, but it soon caught up to them as the Jets fell apart towards the end, lost their last three games, and missed the playoffs, punctuated by a now famous locker room dispute between Santonio Holmes and...everyone.

Now things began to get a little serious. The 2012 season began with the worst roster Ryan ever had to coach in New York. Sanchez had regressed the previous year, and the offensive weapons were dwindling quickly. Holmes was not flanked only by a returning Braylon Edwards, who played 3 games, Dustin Keller, who was good before injuries caught up to him and hasn't been heard of since, and a rather disappointing running back combination of Greene and Bilal Powell. This was also the season that Tim Tebow joined the Jets. Everything was going wrong, and somehow the Jets won 4 games. The defense was still very good, and rookie Muhammad Wilkerson showed some promise, but with all of the issues surrounding the team on the other side of the ball, it's rather impressive that the Jets were not a total train wreck.

The next year is one of the best coaching performances I've ever seen in my life. Especially now that we know Geno Smith is a certified dud, going .500 with him leading the way, absolutely no weapons surrounding him, playing without Darrelle Revis on the roster for the first time, getting a comically bad season out of the previously reliable Antonio Cromartie. I can't seem to find it now, but I remember thinking that Ryan would deserve some sort of medal if he got the 2013 Jets to 8 wins. I projected the team to go 4-12, with an outside shot at 6-10. So naturally, Ryan got his team to .500. It took quite a few lucky bounces to go his way, the the fact that he kept that team competitive enough to where they were within a lucky bounce of a victory was impressive enough for me. It's hard to really describe what it felt like going into that season with that offense. I went into the year knowing that the peak was mediocrity, and the floor was some dark abyss where Geno Smith was the second coming of Craig Krenzel, and the Jets won 1 game despite having a respectable defense. The fact that you're reading that last sentence and wondering who the hell Craig Krenzel is proves my point exactly. But they shocked me, and everyone else. And the bulk of the credit has to go to the coach. The 2013 Jets finished the season with a better record than the 2013 Lions, who were worlds ahead of us in terms of talent. But the difference in skill level between Detroit's coach Jim Schwartz, and our coach Rex Ryan, not only closed the chasm between the two teams, but actually swung it so that the undeserving Jets were somehow the better team. That's what coaching can do in the NFL. If you needed more proof that Ryan is a stud, that season was it.

As for this past year, Ryan was once again snakebitten by bad management. The Jets finally had all of the pieces in place for the first time since 2010. But they were so bad in two important positions that it submarined the entire year. The play from quarterback and cornerback in 2014 were so incredibly bad there should be a reality show dedicated to the rest of the Jets roster complaining about the play of Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Darrin Walls, Antonio Allen, Phillip Adams and whatever other random corners that I lost track of by the end of the year. The defensive backfield was so thin that at times, Ryan had to use kick returner and wide receiver, Saalim Hakim as a roaming safety to chase down the receiver that would inevitably get open over the top.

The one constant that the Jets have had since Ryan has stepped in, has been great defense. They never ranked lower than 11th in the NFL in yards allowed with him in charge, which is wildly impressive over the past few years as the talent hasn't always been there for him. The results were never amazing on the other side of the ball, but he's not an offensive coach, and he never claimed to be. There are still people who say that because he's the head coach, he's responsible for all of it, which is only somewhat true. He's charged with bringing in assistants that he believe he can work well with, and can help the Jets out on offense. While he didn't do a very good job at that, it's also something that's hard to project sometimes. In addition, those assistant themselves can't bear the full burden of the blame. Schottenheimer, Sparano, nor Mornhinweg worked with a legitimate NFL QB during their time in New York, which is an important factor in any offense.

Rex Ryan was brought here to coach defense, lead men, and get the most out of his team that he could. And that's exactly what he did. Put him into a situation with an average player under center, and see what could happen. If the Denver job had opened up prior to his signing on with Buffalo, it would have been very interesting to see him there.

He's one of the best coaches in the league, a defensive mastermind, and a guy that it seems players can believe in. He's proven this in his time with the Jets. Just because he was a victim of terrible roster construction doesn't mean that he should earn a reputation as a bad coach. Put him in the right situation, and he'll be great. I forgive him for the first half performance against the Steelers because without him, the Jets may not have even made the playoffs.

I'm excited to see what the Todd Bowles era has in store for us Jets fans. But before we move on totally, I want to take this time to say this:

Here's to you Coach Ryan. Thank you for bringing me a couple of my favorite years in my dismal sports fandom to this point. I'll miss your wit and on field genius. Good luck in the future, as long as it doesn't hurt us. Never change. 

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