Commentary

Woody growing tired of Rex's circus?

As Jets owner welcomes GM Idzik, he may not be as enamored of Ryan as you think

Updated: January 23, 2013, 8:00 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Jets' 2013 brass appeared together in public for the first time Wednesday, with owner Woody Johnson flying to the Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala., to hang out with new general manager John Idzik and coach Rex Ryan.

The Big Three will do it again Thursday under more formal circumstances, as Johnson will introduce Idzik in yet another one-week-after-the-fact news conference. It'll be Woody, John and Rex, probably wearing their green hued ties (a Jets staple) and acting like they've known each other forever.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan, Woody Johnson
AP Photo/Seth WenigRex Ryan is still running the show, right? Maybe not as much as many people believe.

But let's call this for what it is -- an arranged marriage between a neophyte GM and a polarizing coach.

Of course, the matchmaker here is Johnson, who, as it turns out, may not be as devoted to Ryan as everybody thinks.

Ryan was painted as the owner's pet two weeks ago at the previous one-week-after-the-fact news conference. In the season-ending presser, Johnson acted like 6-10 never happened. He professed his faith in Ryan, even saying the embattled coach (so we thought) would participate in the GM selection process. Johnson was sharply criticized for what was depicted as a Rex crush.

Behind the scenes, Johnson has been giving off a different vibe. While he admires Ryan's innate leadership skills and his ability to relate to players, Johnson isn't blind to the other stuff, according to people familiar with his thinking. As one person said, "He's tired of the circus."

Former Denver Broncos GM Ted Sundquist, who interviewed for the vacancy two weeks ago, was struck by Johnson's candid, evenhanded assessment of Ryan in their meeting. He expected something of a rah-rah evaluation, considering the tenor of the season-ending news conference, but it didn't come off that way.

Sundquist, sharing details of the interview because he wants football fans to understand the dynamics of the process, said he actually posed the question to Johnson: Why is Rex your guy?

"He wasn't as -- look, I know how that press conference came out," Sundquist told ESPNNewYork.com, referring to the Woody-Rex lovefest. "I'm not sure if that was accurate. I think Mr. Johnson realizes there are weaknesses and deficiencies there.

"He was adamant about how the players love Rex, their connection with him," Sundquist continued. "But then he was like, 'That said ... ' -- and he listed X, Y and Z, the things Rex needs to improve upon."

In public, Johnson comes across as though he's mesmerized by Ryan's larger-than-life personality. It was the same deal in the aftermath of the Tim Tebow trade. Johnson made a few silly comments about his fondness for Tebow ("Can't have too much Tebow") and, as we've come to find out, the owner wasn't initially on board with it.

The point is, it's hard to gauge Johnson's true feelings because what he says publicly and what he believes can be two different things. His critics say the line gets blurred sometimes, leading to problems.

So why retain Ryan if he has concerns?

Ryan has two years and more than $6 million remaining on his contract, so that's probably a big part of the reason. Johnson has to eat money for firing offensive coordinator Tony Sparano after only one year, and he may have to eat big money if they decide to part ways with Mark Sanchez. There's probably a limit to how much money he will devour.

The landscape changes next season. If 2013 is a failure, which probably means no playoffs for the third straight season, Ryan is a goner. It makes him a lame duck.

Enter, Idzik, who is charged with rebuilding a franchise with the coach who helped put them in this mess. It's not an ideal situation. A lot of GM wannabes would run from a situation like this -- and some probably did.

Idzik faces an enormous challenge on many levels, but his relationship with Ryan will be one of the keys to the job. Former colleagues say Idzik is quiet, but resolute in his beliefs. So is Ryan, except no one ever described him as quiet.

Ryan can be a persuasive presence, especially in the draft room. He didn't want to draft Stephen Hill last year, and the scouting department did, putting former GM Mike Tannenbaum in the middle. He sided with the scouts on that one, but there were other times when Ryan got his way.

Now Idzik slides into the big chair. He has worked with player-friendly coaches like Ryan in the past -- Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, Pete Carroll -- but he's never had a coach with an infamous tattoo and an aversion to red lights.

This ought to be interesting. This much we know: Johnson -- the matchmaker -- is tired of being a laughingstock. He wants a grownup in the room. We'll see if he made the right match.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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