Three keys are fueling the Rex Ryan revival
November, 8, 2013
By Rich Cimini | ESPN.com
Rex Ryan deflects questions about his future, preferring to keep the focus on the team, but he didn't deflect anything on a quiet day last June, sitting at a conference table in his New York Jets office.
This was when he was "Dead Coach Walking," when Vegas odds listed him as the NFL coach most likely to be fired. Ryan, preparing to enter a make-or-break season, was asked if he was seeking a contract extension or assurances from ownership. He shook his head.
"No, I don't need anything," he told me. "What I'm going to do is, I get to prove it. The lame-duck deal, I haven't thought two seconds about it. I haven't.
"I know what people are saying. Did some great players walk out the door? Did some great coaches walk out the door? Absolutely. But I'm ready. I swear I'm excited about it."
In essence, Ryan was betting on himself. The man whose family vacation served as a metaphor for his job security -- he went to Spain and ran from the bulls on the streets of Pamplona -- was looking forward to a season of outrunning his critics.
So far, he's winning. At 5-4, the Jets are one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. If they keep it up, Ryan, signed through 2014, will receive a contract extension and votes for Coach of the Year.
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsRex Ryan's Jets defense is the NFL's stingiest against the run this season.
This wasn't supposed to happen this quickly. The Jets' 53-man roster last week included 33 players with less than three years of experience, including five rookie starters. This had all the makings of a rebuilding year. Heck, even owner Woody Johnson asked the fans last offseason to be patient.
So how is Ryan doing it? Three key factors:
He's coaching 'em up on defense: After the mutual parting with coordinator Mike Pettine, Ryan decided to become the de facto coordinator, calling the plays and running the defense on a day-to-day basis. He took some heat for the idea, admitting after the first preseason game that he didn't see a Mark Sanchez interception because his back was turned to the field while he coached up the defense on the bench. He was criticized for not caring about offense. It turned out to be an isolated brush fire.
Ryan's game-management skills still raise eyebrows (see the curious sequence in the final minute of last Sunday's upset of the New Orleans Saints), but his work with the defense is the primary reason for the team's success. Despite seven new starters, six of whom had no NFL starting experience before this year, the Jets are ranked No. 7 in total defense and No. 1 against the run.
The Jets finished No. 8 in total defense last season, but it was an old, slow unit that couldn't stop the run or rush the passer. Those areas are now the strengths of the defense.
Ryan's plan before the season was to revert to their blitz-heavy approach, circa 2009, but it hasn't unfolded that way. Recognizing the front four's pass rush potential, and realizing the shortcomings of the rebuilt secondary, Ryan has used coverage-based game plans with more two-deep safety looks than in the past. They've allowed a lot of passing yards, but the style helped them beat three top quarterbacks, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Simply put, Ryan is showing why he's one of the top defensive minds in the sport.
He's making nice with the new boss: Remember that silly controversy around Labor Day, when Ryan left the team on cutdown day to check out his son's game at Clemson? In some circles, it was portrayed as the beginning of the end between Ryan and new general manager John Idzik, a sign that Ryan had been marginalized in the organization.
You never really know unless you're in the room with them, but from all indications, Ryan and Idzik are getting along well. It's an odd pairing, to be sure. In case you haven't noticed, their personalities are different.
"Really?" Idzik joked the other day.
Idzik had no choice but to retain Ryan, fueling many valid questions about their working relationship. These types of pre-arranged marriages rarely work in the NFL, in part, because the new GM always feels more comfortable with his own hire.
To Ryan's credit, he has conformed to fit Idzik's buttoned-down style. He has turned into Rex Lite, measuring his words before he reveals information to the media or expresses a potentially controversial opinion. Early on, it was hard to watch, as the once-brash Ryan seemed to be afraid of his own shadow, but he has loosened up recently. Winning helps.
"The more we work together," Idzik said, "we learn how we have a lot of similarities, not only in our upbringing, but really our view on football, view on the type of players and people that we want in the building that reflect what it is to play like a Jet and act like a Jet."
Idzik is the grown-up in the room that Ryan needed. He's getting the best out of Ryan -- his defensive acumen and his leadership skills, filtering out all the nonsense that sometimes overshadowed the good.
Unlike the previous two seasons, undermined by locker-room turmoil and a quarterback controversy, the Jets have remained relatively distraction-free. The question is whether Ryan can maintain the harmony. Things imploded the last two Decembers, as the Jets finished each year on a three-game losing streak.
He's coaching the coaches: People tend to forget this, but Ryan's coaching staff was ravaged after last season's flameout. He parted ways with all three coordinators and assistant head coach Bob Sutton, among others. Ryan ended up hiring eight new coaches, which wasn't easy. Let's face it, the Jets weren't exactly a destination spot, which made it harder to attract quality.
That much upheaval on a coaching staff can ruin a holdover head coach, who suddenly is surrounded by strangers. One of the reasons why Bill Parcells made so many coaching jumps in his career was because, for the most part, he was able to keep his trusted staff together. He didn't want to spend his time coaching the coaches.
Ryan, using his people skills, has galvanized his new staff and, in turn, the team.
"Golly, he can talk to a football team," said quarterbacks coach David Lee, who had no prior experience with Ryan. "I mean, he can motivate. The guy can talk to players and they love him. I saw that immediately."
Ryan's best move was hiring offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, another coach with whom he shared no background. Despite a rookie quarterback and a rash of injuries, Mornhinweg has made the Jets competitive, if not prolific on offense. He and Ryan are a philosophical Odd Couple -- pass versus run -- but they've found a common ground.
Over 10 months, Ryan reinvented himself and fixed a lot of problems. Technically, he's still on the hot seat, but the temperature has cooled.