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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Assuming the New York Jets cannot merely bluster their way to their first Super Bowl since man walked on the moon, three things must happen for Rex Ryan's team between now and the biggest Sunday in sports:
The pass rush has to get better. Mark Sanchez has to get better. The execution inside the 20 -- now aided by Plaxico Burress and his Play-doh arms -- has to get better.
But if the Jets are to advance past the AFC Championship Game that has represented their burial ground two years running, they need another crucial bounce to go their way.
Rex Ryan has to get better, too.
Upon the coach's arrival, any Jets fan would've signed up for consecutive trips to the final four packaged with the daily perk of enjoying the most entertaining front man in the league. Rex's roar is the gift that keeps on giving to a fan base that had suffered too many indignities to count.
|Rex Ryan said Monday the Jets' roster is the best it has been in his three years as head coach.|
Ryan became a bully for the bullied. He guaranteed a period of sustained prosperity for a franchise that forever led the league in empty promises.
Through the force of his personality and will, the extra-large coach has elevated the other team in an extra-large market. And yes, it's been a ton of fun watching the unwashed Jets rip New York right out of the Giants' upper-class hands.
But when last seen coaching a game, a big one, Ryan was at his worst. His team didn't bother to show up for the first half of the AFC title game in Pittsburgh, costing the Jets the Super Bowl trip their coach had pledged to deliver.
Of course, there's no shame in a contender losing a conference championship game on the road to the NFL's only six-time Super Bowl champ, especially after that contender thrashed Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in their house the week before.
Only the Jets didn't just lose to the Steelers. They allowed Pittsburgh to score the first 24 points, and put on a tackling exhibition that was pathetic even by Pro Bowl standards. If the Jets' second-half rally was a tribute to their skill, resourcefulness and respect for their embarrassed coach, it didn't delete the fact Ryan failed to honor his most basic responsibility at a most unfortunate time.
He didn't have his team ready to play.
Those kinds of defeats, Sanchez said Monday, "stay with you forever." Ryan deserves all the credit for fielding a team confident enough and inspired enough to beat Peyton Manning's Colts and the Brady/Belichick Pats in last season's playoffs, and all the blame for pushing the wrong motivational buttons in the days preceding the Jets' demise.
So just like there's room for Sanchez to grow in Year 3, Ryan has to mature, too. For one, he needs to better balance the emotions of his Jets in the postseason tournament, when whipping your team into a maniacal frenzy in Foxborough one week can't amount to a Pyrrhic victory the next.
For two, he needs to win enough regular-season games to stay home during the playoffs and better position his Jets to win it all. By Ryan's account, his team is talented enough to meet that objective.
"I feel that this is the best roster that we've had since we've been here," he said Monday. "And everything I've said in the past is still in play."
Everything he's said in the past? That would be another Joe Willie guarantee from Ryan, minus the actual, you know, guarantee.
Asked if he was ready to open training camp with a ceremonial first promise of a parade, Ryan said, "I'll stand by what I always say."
Perhaps Rex is tired of his own sound bites. Perhaps he knows he's become the coach who cried wolf.
Either way, Ryan's claim that his roster is better than last year's makes sense only if the 2011 Sanchez is better than the 2010 Sanchez (a distinct possibility), and if Burress recovers from a 21-month stay in prison and proves to be better than Braylon Edwards by tournament time (a 50-50 proposition).
Burress didn't only pick the $3 million guarantee from the Jets. Without talking to Ryan, the receiver picked Rex over a reunion with his most unforgiving boss, Tom Coughlin.
"[Ryan] supports his players like I've never seen from a coaching standpoint," Burress said. "And his players respect him. They go out and play for him. And as a player you don't want anything more from a head coach than for him to show you the ultimate respect as a person and as a player, and to give that back by going out and playing hard and performing well."
Burress' friend and fellow Super Bowl-winning receiver, Santonio Holmes, said more of the same. Ryan's public votes of confidence in his players, Holmes insisted, "allows those guys to go out and play with every type of confidence, aggression and mental capacity that they have that just allows them to play football to the best of their abilities. I think having a coach that goes out and speaks in front of us, who wouldn't want that guy?"
The same guy who is already making it personal with the Giants, pumping up their intramural Christmas Eve showdown as if it were a WWE headliner on pay per view.
On cue Monday, Ryan showed up at practice with a mystery tattoo racing about his lower right leg, something he apparently got for kicks during a trip to Hawaii. Rex has his own style, general manager Mike Tannenbaum said, "and that makes it fun and interesting because we can look at any possibility."
The GM was talking about his roster and Ryan's fearless approach to chasing recruits without sweating potential personality conflicts or past troubles off the field. The result is a team, Ryan said, "that's built for any schedule."
The Jets need a bunch of things to happen to master that schedule and finally win the franchise's first title in 43 years. But this win-now season isn't only a referendum on the quarterback, and whether or not the Jets will ever sack one.
If the players have to get a little better, the coach has to get a little smarter, too.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."