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Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Finally, Rex, too, shall pass

By Rich Cimini

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Welcome to the modern age of pro football, Rex Ryan. You’re late to the party, but maybe not too late.

The same coach who once preached from the ground-and-pound bible … who insulated his first rookie quarterback in a protective cocoon … who never considered a punt a bad thing …

That guy is gone, as gone as his bravado and prodigious waistline.

Ryan, in his fifth season as the New York Jets coach, has gone from an old-school, defensive-minded coach to a pragmatist who realized it was time to adapt his philosophy to the current trend -- or least that’s the message he’s sent through three games.

Instead of putting Geno Smith in bubble wrap, which is what he did with Mark Sanchez in 2009, Ryan has allowed Marty Mornhinweg to operate an aggressive, pass-oriented attack. Smith is tied with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers for the NFL lead with nine completions on attempts of more than 20 yards in the air.

Rex Ryan
Rex Ryan has changed his offensive approach and gotten behind the arm of Geno Smith.
Ground-and-pound is so Jurassic. The league now is all about the passing craze.

“I give him credit for evolving as a coach,” said ESPN analyst Damien Woody, a member of the ’09 team that rushed a staggering 607 times. “Rex realized you can’t win with 3 yards and a cloud of dust. If you want to win a championship, you have to do it through the air.”

Ryan came to the realization before the Jets drafted Smith and before he hired Mornhinweg to replace Tony Sparano, a one-year bust who had no background in passing offense. As soon as last season ended, Ryan announced his intention to play an aggressive style of offense that would mirror his approach on defense.

Ryan and Mornhinweg are Oscar and Felix in terms of football background, but Ryan -- perhaps out of self-preservation -- seems willing to take a walk on the wild side. Mornhinweg likes to pass. Ryan likes to win. Hence, the marriage.

What we’ve seen so far is a dramatically different approach than in 2009. That season, Sanchez averaged only 24 attempts per game. He exceeded 34 only once. Smith is averaging 34 passes, and we’re not talking about a lot of dinking and dunking, either.

“That’s why they brought me in here, because of my ability to throw the ball downfield and be accurate with it,” Smith said.

There are four reasons Ryan has loosened up:

1. The game has changed. As Woody noted, it’s hard to win these days with a ground-oriented attack. You can’t win consistently by scores of 17-14 and 21-17.

2. Mornhinweg operates a West Coast system, one predicated on short passing, but his DNA includes a gene not inherent in most Bill Walsh disciples: the gunslinger gene. He’s not afraid to throw deep.

3. Smith arrived with a lot more experience than Sanchez, who started only 16 games in college. Smith started 39 games at West Virginia. Clearly, there’s more trust in Smith than there was in Sanchez, whose only requirement was to manage the game.

4. The current Jets don’t have Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene in the backfield, the way they did in ’09. That team, with a dominant offensive line, was built to bludgeon opponents with the ground game.

Center Nick Mangold, a holdover from ’09, believes the difference lies in the coordinators -- Mornhinweg versus Brian Schottenheimer. There might be some truth to that, but the coordinator takes his marching orders from Ryan.

Mangold likes the new way of doing things.

“You love scoring points,” he said. “It gives you an opportunity at all times to keep your foot on the gas. It’s exciting. It’s fun to be part of.”

This will help Smith in the long run because it will allow him to develop as a passer. This season is all about Smith, finding out if he’s The Guy. They could probably lower the interception total by being more cautious with him, but you can live with the mistakes (most of the time) if he averages 11 yards per attempt, as he did last week, and the defense continues to keep teams out of the end zone.

“I’d rather have Geno’s mistakes than hold him back and not see him develop,” said Woody, who believes the ultra-conservative approach with Sanchez might have stunted his growth.

Not every game will turn out as well as last week's did, but it’s the correct approach. Ryan is backing up what he vowed to do.

Welcome to the 21st century, Coach.