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Monday, January 17, 2011
Updated: January 18, 1:21 PM ET
There's method to Rex Ryan's gladness

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan stepped to the microphone looking and sounding like defeat, his face flushed, his voice full of gravel, his hair a bit of a mess. In the immediate wake of his greatest victory, Ryan was in no mood to give his audience the eagerly anticipated song and dance.

On the afternoon after, the coach of the New York Jets came across as a Times Square reveler recovering from New Year's Eve. Ryan wasn't searching for confrontation as much as he was trying to avoid it, so far the biggest upset of the week.

He said he loves Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger almost as much as he loves Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a soft, high-arcing changeup after all that blistering heat Ryan threw under Tom Brady's dimpled chin.

Fear not, Jets fans, for Ryan still has a plan to win it all. Do not believe for a second that the conquest of Brady and Bill Belichick and their hated band of Patriots has left Ryan a satisfied soul, left him a Super Bowl contender merely hoping to give it the ol' college try in the AFC title game.

Rex Ryan
Rex Ryan has nothing up his sleeve (wink, wink).

Once and for all, Ryan has proved he's a coach with a purpose, not a clown with an act. If Ryan decides there will be no full-contact drills with Pittsburgh, that the Steelers deserve the kind of respectful dialogue the defamed Patriots craved, don't mistake his sudden attack of diplomacy as a sign of weakness.

Ryan has a winning method beneath the entertaining madness. If he decides to send nothing but roses and wine to Pittsburgh, there must be a reason. Ryan must have identified some vulnerability in the Steelers' program, one that will allow the Jets to kill them softly.

"It's a different feel," he said when comparing this all-or-nothing game to the last all-or-nothing game in Foxborough, Mass.

Ryan had declared open season on the Patriots, encouraging his players to say whatever the hell they wanted about Brady and the rest. Reggie Jackson was hardly the only listener who took some heavy lumber to the approach.

Adding a jagged edge to a great quarterback's focus appeared to make little sense, as Brady had just shredded the Jets by 42 points and had a history -- much like his fellow athletic titans -- of finding motivation in real and imagined slights.

But somehow, some way, Ryan's approach worked. Brady was back to his Super Bowl form -- Super Bowl XLII, that is -- and Belichick coached like a dazed and desperate man. "If he slips at all," Ryan had warned, "we're going to beat him."

Slips? Belichick slipped like Chevy Chase used to slip doing Gerald Ford on "Saturday Night Live."

And yet, despite honoring his prediction that he would get the better of Belichick this time around, Ryan announced Sunday night that his players and assistants had merely survived the fact that he was the second-best head coach on the field.

"I was just telling the truth like I always try to do," Ryan said Monday with a straight face. "I never outcoached Belichick. I mean, there's no way. ... There was nothing schematically I did to win that game.

"I think it's almost a joke. I don't think anybody outcoaches Belichick."

Truth is, Ryan couldn't have outcoached Belichick any more thoroughly if he had Jim Lee Howell's staff with the Giants -- Vince Lombardi at offensive coordinator, Tom Landry at defensive coordinator.

Yes, Ryan made it personal. Belichick had dominated him in December, and Ryan told himself, "No way is that going to happen to me again."

One year after a stunning postseason run, Ryan returned to the final four by drawing up a defensive game plan that unnerved Peyton Manning and Brady, the Olivier and Brando of their craft.

The undressing of the star quarterbacks and the genius coach, Belichick, threw new light across Ryan's coaching skill. Trevor Pryce was among those who went on and on about the way Ryan confused Brady with a mixed bag of coverages ("It almost seemed like at times we had 15 people on the field," Pryce said), his words reminiscent of how old Giants recalled the Belichick schemes that took down the fast-breaking Buffalo Bills in Tampa 20 years back.

Pryce worked under Ryan in Baltimore and described the former Ravens assistant as fearless. "And the reason he has no fear is because of his confidence in his coaching ability," Pryce said. "That goes past people a little bit. They don't know how much time and effort he puts into this. ... This is where he lives. He sleeps in his office. I know for a fact he slept at the one at Baltimore. You come in at 6 a.m., [his] car hasn't moved."

Ryan's extra-large personality obscures his gift for X's and O's, the natural price of doing your news conference business the way Rex does his news conference business.

"I don't know if his [coaching ability] will ever overshadow his personality, which is big and bold," Nick Mangold said. "But I think he's a great coach with a great defensive mind. You sit and talk with him, especially during training camp when you have the time, and he's got all kinds of stuff up there.

"But I think it does get overshadowed a little bit because everyone wants to talk about Rex being Rex instead of Rex the coach."

Rex being Rex helped make Jets 28, Patriots 21 the NFL's most-watched divisional round playoff game ever, with the CBS broadcast drawing an average of 43.5 million viewers. Ryan gave them an eyeful, too, leaving Belichick's Patriots looking like Joe Torre's post-dynasty Yankees, the ones who kept losing their seasons to the Angels, Tigers and Indians.

Now Ryan needs a strategy for Roethlisberger, a quarterback Pryce described as "a genetic freak." The Peyton-Brady-Big Ben gantlet left the defensive lineman to ask, "What else could they throw at us, Bart Starr?"

Ryan only wants to get to where Bart Starr has been -- Super Bowl Sunday. The Jets' coach is paving his last road there with unmitigated affection for Tomlin ("a man's man") and Roethlisberger ("a giant").

Ryan's Ravens engaged in a long-running AFC North blood feud with the Steelers, suffering painful losses along the way, but Ryan's enduring memory of Tomlin involves the Pittsburgh coach's merciful choice to avoid running up the score on Baltimore when he had the chance.

If it sounded like Ryan had gone dangerously soft, forget it. He's got a plan here, and chances are it will land the Jets in Dallas for the biggest show in sports.