- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A furious Rex Ryan lashed into his team Wednesday morning, telling his players it was "cowardly" for some of them to anonymously rip Tim Tebow in a newspaper article, sources told ESPNNewYork.com.
The New York Jets' coach rushed to Tebow's defense, listing his attributes to the entire team, according to sources. At one point during the meeting, Ryan asked for the player who called Tebow "terrible" in the article to identify himself.
No one responded.
Tebow was stung by the comments.
"I think there was some frustration and some sadness," Tebow said. "It's never fun to hear criticism. At the same time, it's something I've always used as motivation. You try to get stronger from it."
Embroiled in another controversy that could threaten locker-room solidarity, Ryan clasped his hands several times in his news conference, claiming his team remains close even though there appears to be a mutiny against Tebow.
"This team, in my opinion, is not going to be pulled apart by outside people. Inside the walls, we're going to be like this," he said, putting his hands together as a symbol of unity.
The problem is, it's people inside the walls who have created the latest distraction for a team that ended last season with a fractured locker room.
Several unnamed players, in a New York Daily News story, were critical of Tebow's ability as a quarterback. One player said Tebow is "terrible." Another player told ESPNNewYork.com the team has no choice but to stick with the slumping Mark Sanchez because "we have no other viable option."
Ryan confirmed he addressed the issue in his team meeting.
"I feel for Tim," Sanchez said. "That sucks, it just sucks. It can't feel good. But at the same time, I've been there. You wake up the next day and you keep playing."
The larger issue for Ryan, whose 3-6 team has dropped three straight, is maintaining team chemistry. He made it his "personal agenda" after last season to repair the inner strife, but this latest development certainly raises questions about his ability to keep dirty laundry in-house.
"Quite honestly, I feel extremely confident this football team is coming closer together, than what maybe is being thought of as pulling apart," Ryan said. "I definitely don't see that."
Ryan even said this latest controversy could help the team.
"Could this galvanize it? I don't know, maybe so," he said, adding, "If I'm wrong on that, obviously that's going to be a different issue. I don't believe that. I believe this team is coming together. If there are cracks in the armor, we'll find out. Maybe we're not there right now, but I believe we will be."
Several players insisted this won't be a repeat of last season, when there was sniping in the locker room and a rift between Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who currently is on injured reserve.
"No question it can be harmful," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "That's why the story's out there, is to try to kind of break this locker room up and make us turn against each other. But that's not what we're about. We all think that the source is not credible, we don't believe we have those types of guys in this locker room. It's just ridiculous to us."
Tebow and guard Matt Slauson, the only player in the article quoted by name, spoke Wednesday to clear the air. Slauson, who was quoted as saying, "it's not even close" between Sanchez and Tebow, said he made the comment more than a month ago.
"We had our talk and it's all done," said Slauson, declining to give details. He also said, "I love Tim. Great dude."
Slauson hedged when asked to compare Sanchez and Tebow, saying, "I feel Mark is our quarterback. That's how I feel."
Asked how he'd feel if Tebow replaced Sanchez, Slauson said, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Despite Sanchez's sagging play and mounting pressure to make a change, Ryan has stood firmly behind his hand-picked franchise quarterback. Ryan hasn't even considered benching Sanchez, sources said.
Clearly, Sanchez still has the support of the locker room, but some players still felt it was wrong for unnamed players to criticize Tebow.
"I've never heard anything so disgusting in my life," said linebacker Bryan Thomas, the team's longest-tenured player. "In the history of me being here and playing football, I've never heard anybody say, 'That guy is terrible.'"
Thomas was so outraged that he said he'd fight anyone who called him out like that. Asked if Tebow reacted that way, Thomas said, "He's not that type of guy. He'll probably pray for you."
The Jets have been dealing with the Tebow issue since March, when they acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Denver Broncos. They hyped him as a "dynamic weapon" (Ryan's words), claiming he'd play a key role on offense in the Wildcat. So far, he has appeared in only 62 plays on offense, making little impact.
His sporadic playing time has fueled speculation that Ryan never wanted Tebow in the first place. Some believe owner Woody Johnson orchestrated the trade to create publicity and raise the team's profile.
"I absolutely wanted Tim here," said Ryan, who defended Tebow's work ethic and unselfishness.
Ryan claimed Tebow has improved as a passer, yet he has attempted only five passes from the quarterback position -- and three came in last Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
They have no intention of scrapping the Wildcat package, according to Ryan, who also praised Tebow for accepting his role as the personal protector on the punt team.
"We asked him -- a former Heisman Trophy winner, first-round pick, a quarterback who led his team to the playoffs -- 'You know what? We want you to be our personal protector,'" Ryan said, adding that Tebow never complained.
He said Tebow's presence has improved the punting unit because it forced opponents to leave the gunners in single coverage. He was, however, partly responsible for a blocked punt.