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Rex Ryan is coaching for his job, leading a team many consider among the bottom five in the NFL, but he sees this as an opportunity, not a burden. He's not looking for any assurances from ownership, not even a contract extension.
"No, I don't need anything," the New York Jets' coach told ESPNNewYork.com. "What I'm going to do is, I get to prove it. The lame-duck deal, I haven't thought two seconds about it. I haven't.
"I know what people are saying. Did some great players walk out the door? Did some great coaches walk out the door? Absolutely. But I'm ready. I swear I'm excited about it."
Should we believe him? Yes.
Competitive arrogance is part of Ryan's DNA. The man of many words relishes the prospect of making critics eat theirs. It takes a lot of chutzpah to feel that way, considering he has lost 13 of his last 19 games, but Ryan believes he can will the Jets to a turnaround.
That belief started with an epiphany last New Year's Eve.
|Rex Ryan could get criticized for his increased role on defense this season. But he won't care.|
He was chased by bulls in the streets of Pamplona and pursued by paparazzi in the Bahamas (remember TattooGate?), but the defining moment of Ryan's offseason occurred in his office -- specifically, at a round conference table with scented candles in the center.
About 16 hours after the season ended in Buffalo, Ryan was visited by team president Neil Glat and owner Woody Johnson, who interrupted a vacation to fly back to New Jersey for the postmortem. When the boss leaves his island paradise and shows up immediately after a 6-10 season, it causes heart palpitations.
Ryan could've easily been fired. Instead, he got fired up, deciding as they sat around the table that he'd change his approach. He promised himself that he'd stop being a copycat head coach, and that he'd tackle 2013 -- a do-or-die season -- with the same formula that worked in 2009.
Yes, he's back to being a glorified defensive coordinator. It's unconventional, and it opens him up to criticism, but he doesn't care. It's his team, his job, his career.
"I'm not like any other coach in the league, I'm not," Ryan said. "I'm different. The more I try to be like what a head coach is supposed to be in the handbook, the less success I have. So I'll be damned if I'm not going to do it my way."
Cue the Paul Anka lyrics. There you have the soundtrack to the Jets' season: "My Way."
Ryan received a vote of confidence that day from Johnson, but he's not naïve. He realizes there's a shelf life to an owner's support, especially with a new man in the general manager's chair. If Ryan doesn't return to the playoffs, or at least show significant progress, he's toast. The fun starts Thursday in Cortland, N.Y., where Ryan opens his fifth training camp.
With the current roster, gutted by new GM John Idzik, Ryan would deserve Coach of the Year votes if he wins eight games. Logic says he's Dead Coach Walking, but Ryan is a half-full optimist. Indeed, this gives him the chance to show the world he can coach with the best of them.
His competitive juices are "boiling, absolutely boiling," he said. "It's to the point where it's like, 'OK, I'll show you.'
"This isn't the first time somebody bet against me. I always talk about having confidence in myself. People might get tired of hearing it and say, 'He's arrogant.' Well, I do believe in myself. No question, I believe in myself. Am I confident? One hundred percent."
Ryan has two years remaining on his contract, so he'll either be fired or extended after the season. No matter what happens, he doesn't want to look back with regrets.
I'm not like any other coach in the league, I'm not. I'm different. The more I try to be like what a head coach is supposed to be in the handbook, the less success I have. So I'll be damned if I'm not going to do it my way.” -- Rex Ryan
"I have to go back to doing what I do best," he said. "I think that's building people up, that's coaching every day on defense, doing the things that I love and trying to present a clear message to our football team."
Cynics will say it's just lip service, that Ryan sold Johnson on the "My Way" theme to buy one more chance. But Ryan truly believes the team will function better if he runs the defense and stays out of the way on offense, giving autonomy to new coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Let's be clear: Ryan let his previous coordinators, Tony Sparano and Brian Schottenheimer, run their own show. Ryan got involved a little last season, attending some offensive meetings and trying to be a well-rounded head coach. He strayed from his bread and butter -- defense -- but that's how coaches are supposed to evolve, right?
"Being like everybody else works for 99 percent of the guys out there, but it doesn't work for me," Ryan said. "I'll never forget this: Mr. Johnson said, 'I hired you to be you.'"
The Jets didn't stink last season because Ryan hung out with the offense a little more than usual, that's for sure. But now, his job is on the line, and he wants to be in a comfort zone.
So Ryan has turned back his coaching clock to '09. He will run the defensive meetings, run the defensive drills in practice and call the plays on Sunday. His sleeves are rolled up and he's ready to get his hands dirty again. He will be in the trenches, teaching, organizing and leading his beloved defense.
"This is his defense. He's the mastermind of it, he knows it better than anybody else -- so why not teach it to everybody?" linebacker David Harris said. "I think it's going to pay off. I think we're going to get back to being more aggressive, a more attacking defense. We're going to get back to the way we were."
It's a big job, running an entire unit and trying to manage the game. One longtime head coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity, wondered whether Ryan will be distracted from game and clock-management responsibilities, adding: "It's hard to focus on that stuff if you're doing other things."
The counterargument: Ryan managed to do it in '09, when the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game.
Former special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, who spent four seasons on the staff, said Ryan's biggest task will be budgeting his time during the week.
"It's not easy; it's a challenge," Westhoff said. "[New Orleans Saints head coach] Sean Payton does it [on offense], so it can be done. I don't think it'll be a problem. I think he can do it. It's a matter of how you divide your time."
Another potential issue is the Ryan-Mornhinweg marriage. In terms of philosophy, they're the football version of Oscar and Felix. Mornhinweg likes to throw -- a lot. Defensive-minded coaches like Ryan prefer ball-control attacks.
The unnamed longtime coach said the Ryan-Mornhinweg dynamic "makes me nervous," but he believes it can work if Ryan lets Mornhinweg do his thing.
Ryan claimed he was unfairly stereotyped as a ground-and-pound coach because the Jets led the league in rushing in '09. He said he's willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it means throwing the ball more often than he's accustomed to.
Considering the Jets' personnel -- major questions at quarterback and receiver -- Mornhinweg will have to bend more than Ryan. The passing game will look ugly at times, so it behooves Mornhinweg to lean on the running game, especially early in the season.
On paper, the running game is the strength of the offense. The defense is in transition, but it has top-10 potential. If Ryan can coach 'em up on defense, and if the offense can be workmanlike, the Jets might surprise some people.
It will take a fantastic coaching job because, let's face it, the talent base is stripped down. Westhoff said Ryan "doesn't get a hall pass" for the current plight of the roster, but he believes Ryan can save his job.
"If he takes the hand he's been dealt, which isn't perfect, and shows some positive things, I think that will earn him another opportunity," Westhoff said.
If Ryan loses his job, it'll be on his terms. Which brings us back to his epiphany last Dec. 31, when he made a New Year's resolution, so to speak, to be more like the old Rex. To hear him describe it, it was liberating.
"I truly believe that was like my first day on the job," he said. "That's how I felt. That's how fresh I feel. That's how excited I am about this season. It's no different than the first day I walked in here. I feel that same kind of passion. It may sound weird, but that's how I feel."