Jets rejoice after doing right by Rex Ryan

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:56
PM ET
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Nearly 45 years ago, the New York Jets won a Super Bowl in Miami. On Sunday, they celebrated like they had won another, this time 15 miles from the old Orange Bowl.

Owner Woody Johnson walked into the locker room party after the Jets' resounding 20-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium, and the room fell silent because Johnson, who is no Jerry Jones, rarely addresses the team. He spoke quietly, prompting some players to move in closer. Several players said they didn't know what to expect from the unassuming boss.

Johnson told the players he was proud of their 3-1 finish. Then he hit them with the news of the day: He announced that Rex Ryan -- known recently in articles as "Embattled Rex Ryan" -- would return as coach in 2014.

The room exploded. Players mobbed Ryan. He tried to speak, but he got so emotional that his voice cracked, halting his words.

"You'd think we won the Super Bowl," quarterback Geno Smith said afterward.

Yep, the Jets were the happiest 8-8 team you ever saw.

This was the Rex Bowl, because the players went out and backed up their recent "We love Rex" proclamations by playing like a team that had a playoff berth at stake. The afternoon was capped with Johnson's announcement, creating a vibe they hadn't felt since that remarkable playoff win against the New England Patriots three years ago.

The Jets made the right move by retaining Ryan. It would've been lunacy to fire him. He squeezed eight wins out of a roster that didn't have a single Pro Bowl player. The strong finish, Johnson said, was an "amazing" tribute to Ryan and his staff.

The outcome of the game had no bearing on Ryan's status. Johnson and general manager John Idzik had made the decision at least a couple of days before the game, and they shook on it with Ryan at the stadium before the warm-ups.

"I love being the head coach of the New York Jets, plain and simple," Ryan said. "I never wanted to go out this way, another losing season or something like that."

The question of Ryan's contract situation was left hanging in the thick Florida air. Neither Ryan nor Johnson divulged whether the coach received an extension on his current deal, which runs one more year. If not, he'd be a lame duck -- and that would be bad business.

You could argue that no coach with three straight non-playoff seasons deserves a one-year sweetener, but it's the price of doing business in the NFL. Assistant coaches don't want to work for a lame duck, and free agents don't want to play for a lame duck. It sends a bad message.

"You'd think they'd negotiate an add-on year," an AFC personnel director said on condition of anonymity. "[It's] symbolism."

The NFL Network reported that Idzik wants Ryan to make changes on the defensive staff. Presumably, that means coordinator Dennis Thurman, one of at least seven assistants with expiring contracts. He's Ryan's right-hand man. That, too, would be bad business. The head coach should pick his coaches, not the front office. Afterward, Ryan and Idzik danced around questions about the coaching staff.

"That's chicken crap if it's true," a longtime league executive said. "You don't pull the wings off a fly."

Obviously, Ryan agreed to whatever terms were on the table, and we'll find out in the coming days what they are. For now, the Jets have their coach and a feel-good vibe as they head into the offseason.

They said they won for Ryan on Sunday.

"We've been talking about the benefits of having him stay," receiver David Nelson said, "but as a team, we came together and said, ‘The time for talking is over. ... The most powerful way to keep him is to go out and prove it.'"

They did, crushing the Dolphins' playoff chances. The Jets did so much right.

Smith, an overwhelmed rookie when these teams met four weeks ago, played his best overall game of the season. The kid acted like he belonged. Fellow rookie Dee Milliner made two interceptions. Sheldon Richardson, another rookie, continued his Refrigerator Perry impersonation, rushing for a touchdown. Ed Reed played young. The offensive line didn't allow a sack for the second straight week.

Linebacker Calvin Pace, 33, one of the Jets' oldest players, sat in front of his locker stall and surveyed the scene. He said the mood reminded him of how it was when they reached the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010.

"It was fun to watch everybody grow up," he said, alluding to the five rookie starters.

What the Jets have to do now is avoid what happened to them in 1988. They closed the season with a rousing win over the New York Giants, finishing 8-7-1 and bouncing the Giants from the playoffs. Everybody called it a springboard. In reality, it was an illusion.

The following year, they went 4-12 and the coach got fired.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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