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Thursday, July 29, 2010
Updated: July 30, 10:51 AM ET
For Jets, it's all about Rex Ryan

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

Given the charmed postseason ride to the AFC title game and all the full-bellied bluster that made Rex Ryan a cross between Bill Parcells and Charles Barkley, it was easy to dismiss this annoying little fact:

The rookie coach was a yard or two away from lording over an unmitigated disaster of his own design.

Ryan lost six of seven games in one 2009 stretch and mocked the New York Jets' chances more than any columnist did with their record at 4-5.

Rex Ryan
Rex Ryan and his QB celebrate their improbable run to the playoffs last season. More is expected of both of them now.
"We know we're barely breathing for the playoffs," Ryan said that day, right before his rookie quarterback foolishly stepped to the mike with a prepared speech that should've been written in crayon.

Ryan got a playoff-position reprieve five weeks later, when his league-leading defense had to stop the Falcons on their final drive. On fourth-and-goal, Buddy Ryan's son had his big chance to come up with the kind of defensive stop that would've made the '85 Bears proud.

Instead Ryan ordered up a soft zone defense to cover one of the greatest tight ends of all time.

"Oh my God," Tony Gonzalez said as he approached the line. "I think they are going zone here."

Gonzalez couldn't believe the Jets didn't go man-to-man, couldn't believe the Jets didn't jam him on release and couldn't believe a defensive-centric coach who knew where the ball was going didn't deny the intended receiver a sanctuary in the end zone.

"This is tough," the 7-7 Ryan said afterward, "because we're obviously out of the playoffs, and that's unfortunate."

We know how the story goes from there. The Colts intentionally tanked, the Bengals unintentionally tanked and another 614 favorable events unfolded around the league. Ryan became a cult hero by winning two road playoff games before surrendering that guaranteed trip to the White House in Peyton's place.

But as Ryan starts Year 2 of his championship-or-bust plan, beginning with the opening of training camp in Cortland, N.Y., he needs to remember how dangerously close he came to failing last year and how dangerously close his team could come to imploding this year.

This isn't only about a new contract for Darrelle Revis -- who deserves every penny he can get, by the way -- and the natural distractions tethered to a superstar looking for a raise. It's about the evolving personality of a team that could sorely miss the steady-as-a-rock professionalism of Thomas Jones, who was fired without cause.

On his opening day as coach, Ryan declared he wanted players willing to go face-first into the pile.

"We're looking for Pete Rose," he said, "without the gambling."

Or Santonio Holmes, without the marijuana.

Holmes and Antonio Cromartie have had their share of off-field issues, as has holdover Braylon Edwards. LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor long ago passed the character test, but as stars in decline they could be burdened by the memories of what they used to be.

Into this fray the Jets have invited HBO's "Hard Knocks" series, complete with lights, cameras and plenty of action that could prove divisive when, say, one wide receiver ends up as best supporting actor and another ends up on the cutting room floor.

"I'm not the star here," Ryan maintained.

Oh yes he is. Ryan is the leading man, the director and the producer. If the Jets reach the Super Bowl for the first time since man walked on the moon, he won't have to worry about splitting the credit with a Mike Ditka like his father did way back when.

Ryan would be the celebrated in this town like Joe Torre was in '96, and rightfully so.

But if these Jets end up 8-8 and out of the tournament, nobody will want to hear about Mark Sanchez's sophomore slump or Mike Tannenbaum's decision to bring in a combustible mix of win-now veterans.

Rex Ryan and his dad Buddy Ryan
Buddy knows what it's like to win a Super Bowl as an assistant coach. Rex is aiming to do it as top dog.
Ryan's the very reason why these personnel choices were made. He wants to win it all, and he doesn't want to wait. No sports figure has stepped into this volatile market and talked so boldly about winning a title for a long-suffering franchise since Mark Messier arrived in '91.

This is Ryan's team just as much as the Jets of Super Bowl III were Joe Namath's team. Buddy Ryan was an assistant in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 12, 1969, and 6-year-old Rex was right there with him, basking in the glow of an epic upset.

Buddy would retire as one of the NFL's great defensive coordinators, and as a coach who never won a playoff game in seven seasons with the Eagles and Cardinals.

"I want to be a better head coach than my father," Rex Ryan would admit.

He has his chance here. Ryan trash-talked his way into this position, promising on introduction that the Jets would meet President Barack Obama at the White House much sooner than later.

Ryan had planned to make that remark, much as it was credited to his spontaneous side. He knew in advance his prediction would create a stir, and that was A-OK with him.

All along, Ryan has wanted to lift the downtrodden Jets with the power of a personality as outsized as his waist. The coach doesn't need to put this on Sanchez or Shonn Greene, on Taylor or Revis, on Holmes or LT.

It's all on Ryan now. The defense, the offense, the season, the franchise -- everything.

For the 2010 Jets, these terms of engagement are clear:

The fat lady had better not sing before the fat man has a ring.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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