Commentary

Risky business reaps rewards for Rex

Jets coach sees opportunity where some see trouble -- but how does he make it work?

Updated: August 4, 2011, 10:40 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Safety Jim Leonhard -- one of the go-to guys for All Things Rex because of his long working relationship with head coach Rex Ryan -- wasn't standing within earshot of Kenrick Ellis on Wednesday as the rookie told reporters a few self-deprecating stories about his first days in the NFL.

But Leonhard would've approved.

Ellis and Plaxico Burress are just the latest high-risk/high-reward players the New York Jets have brought in under Ryan, a parade that started with Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson (if you believed the talk that Tomlinson's legs and ego were problems). When Ryan arrived as a first-time head coach in 2009, there was speculation that pairing a freewheeling guy like him with a handful of players who were available only because they had troubles elsewhere was a recipe for trouble.

[+] EnlargeKenrick Eliis
AP Photo/Julio CortezJets rookie Kenrick Eliis wrote tips on a wristband to help him with defensive formations, making his head coach happy.

So far, the exact opposite has been true.

Only Edwards -- who came to New York after a few controversies in Cleveland -- fell back into trouble, getting arrested and charged with drunken driving. But even Edwards did well on the field last year.

An open-door policy that's tantamount to "Give us your misfits, your trash-talkers, your castoffs and knuckleheads in need of top-shelf legal representation" isn't the safest philosophy for an aspiring NFL championship team.

But Leonhard thinks he knows why none of the gambles the Jets have taken so far have blown up in Ryan's face.

"Rex breeds that team atmosphere that you're always looking for but sometimes don't see in professional football because everyone has an individual agenda, you know?" said Leonhard, who also played for Ryan in Baltimore. "Whether they're trying to stick on the team, whether they're trying to get a new contract, whether they're trying to get out their own brand out there, players have their individual agendas. And Rex allows you to do that. You can be who you are.

"But on the football field he preaches team. And when we're playing football, he preaches [that] if the team has success, you'll get noticed.

"That's his mantra. And guys buy into it. Especially in a city like New York. Because you know you're going to get attention if the team wins. So you don't have to go out and create your own."

Ellis, a 6-foot-5, 346-pound nose tackle, was projected as a first-round pick before he was charged in an aggravated assault case that's pending. He went freefalling down the draft board in April before the Jets took a chance on him in the second round.

Even before Burress wound up in prison for nearly two years for bringing a gun into a Manhattan nightclub -- and accidentally shooting himself in the leg -- he had troubles with the Giants and Pittsburgh because of his spotty attention to detail and lateness for meetings.

Though not speaking directly about Burress, Leonhard said anyone who wants to play for Ryan will be fine if they understand a few basic things.

"With the passion that Rex has for this game, he's not willing to put up with guys that show up when they want to. That's the biggest thing -- this coaching staff, they refuse to coach effort," Leonhard said.

"If you're not giving the effort that we're looking for, you're just not playing. Period. They don't care how much money you make or who you are. If you're not bringing that effort, then you're not helping the football team, and you're going to be standing on the sidelines."

That's the tough side of Ryan, and it doesn't get as much attention as Ryan's reputation as a player's coach.

The culture that Ryan has created hasn't stopped a few Jets from popping off at times. (Cromartie and Twitter, for example, are a match made in hell.) A skeptic would also point out that perhaps Cromartie and Holmes were on their best behavior last season because they were playing for new contracts, and let's see how this season goes now that they have their long-term deals. Which is fair enough.

Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum like to say they do their due diligence on these things. But whether that's any predictor of success is debatable. Ryan's record with high-risk/high-reward players seems far more reliable. The idea that he has a few skeletons in his closet himself probably makes his promise to give everyone a fair shake more credible.

"We all make mistakes," Ryan said Wednesday. "Some are just more public than others."

So far Burress has said he's determined to prove the Jets made the right choice by giving him a $3 million guaranteed contract that no one else would. And Wednesday, for what it's worth, Ellis in his brief talk with reporters said all the things you hope to hear from a rookie.

He declined to talk about his legal case because it's still pending, but he was upbeat and honest about what a challenging transition it's been from college to just three days in the NFL. He said he's been grateful for how the veterans have kept encouraging him -- "Stay in there, rook" -- when he does screw up. He was asked how intimidating an NFL playbook was at first glance, and he laughed and said, "Oh, man, I was kinda confused."

The only thing Ellis didn't volunteer was a story that could've made him look better -- the explanation for the hand-written wristband he was wearing on his right wrist. But Ryan, speaking in his news conference later, smiled and said Ellis showed up with it after lining up wrong a few times in defensive drills the day before. Ellis filled the wristband with tips to prevent him from making the same mistakes again.

It was the sort of thing the other Jets -- not just Ryan -- noticed from their latest "risk."

"I like the way he's approaching his job," Ryan said.

And Burress? "A matchup nightmare," Ryan enthused.

It was just a little show of faith, two compliments that won't mean a whole lot by Week 4 of training camp if Ellis and Burress don't go on to play well. But Ryan's track record in coaxing the best out people is good so far.

"When Rex goes out there and makes all these promises and guarantees, and then he's willing to take all the blame if something happens, it just shows you what type of coach and man he is," tight end Dustin Keller said. "You want to play your best for him even more."

So that's why the risk goes down and the reward goes up?

"I think so," Keller says, "Believe me, if you can't play for Rex, you probably can't play for anybody. And all those guys who come here with so-called 'baggage'?

"They know."

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