Commentary

Time for Rex to be honest with himself

If Ryan truly cares about lifting a Lombardi Trophy, he must dramatically alter his style

Updated: January 5, 2012, 4:02 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The big news conference came without a catchy little slogan, though "Rex, Lies, and Videotape" might have sufficed. Sitting side by side, Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum took their audience for a mass gathering of fools, forgetting that they were the ones wearing the dunce caps.

The New York Jets showed again Monday why the league is laughing at them, not with them, delivering a two-man act that belonged on Comedy Central.

Consider this beauty from Tannenbaum, the general manager who gladly ran a Soviet-bloc state with Eric Mangini until Woody Johnson, the owner, ordered him to go glasnost with Rex:

Tannenbaum praised the New York Giants for discovering Victor Cruz "out of nowhere" and added, "Our locker room is full of those types of guys."

Really, Mike? The Jets' locker room is full of undrafted receivers who make season-defining plays and are good for 1,536 yards, better than the combined totals of world-famous first-rounders Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes?

And "out of nowhere"? Victor Cruz played his college football at UMass, alma mater of -- you guessed it -- Mike Tannenbaum, who likes to hire Minutemen by the minute (assistant GM Scott Cohen, second-round bust Vlad Ducasse, ex-Jets safety James Ihedigbo) and yet had no intelligence suggesting that a receiver who would flower into one of the NFL's most exciting players might be worth a look.

But it was good to hear Tannenbaum rushing to publicly confirm that Brian Schottenheimer, human sacrifice-to-be, is indeed interviewing with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the position of head coach. The GM and Ryan apparently believe the Jaguars' new owner, Shahid Khan, was born Monday, you know, after those Super Bowl-bound Jets finished 8-8 and out of the tournament.

Tannenbaum and Ryan all but said, "Take my offensive coordinator...please." The Jets have no intention of returning Schottenheimer to his current role, yet don't want to fire him and pay off his deal. Asking Rex on Monday if Schotty would remain as the OC in the event Khan isn't tricked into hiring him was like asking Ted Kennedy in 1979 why he wanted to be President: The answer circled around the room five times and back again.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum
AP Photo/Seth WenigRex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum's act in Florham Park on Monday was rife with absurdity.

The Jets' take on Holmes was a blast, too, as Tannenbaum and Ryan sounded like they were making a case for beatification instead of termination. Holmes is a great captain and a great guy, except on those occasions when he's a selfish loser firebombing his team's morale. Then he's not such a great captain and a great guy.

Mark Sanchez? "His characteristics are any GM's dream," Tannenbaum said. Only a dream quarterback doesn't wear a sour puss all season, as if someone had just canceled his next date or photo shoot. Sanchez swears he's the luckiest guy in the world, and he's got the funniest way of showing it.

But Monday's most absurd observations came from Ryan, so stunned that giving Holmes the kind of big-city, big-team responsibility granted the likes of Willis Reed, Mark Messier and Derek Jeter somehow didn't work out.

"We don't need to have a C on somebody's jersey," Ryan said in explaining that he's done with all of this silly captain stuff.

Great. Just wonderful. A coach readily admits he has no idea what's going on with his team -- and more on that in a bit -- and suddenly decides it's high time to wipe out the very players who serve as liaisons, buffers, etc. Ryan made a dreadful choice with one of his captains, and now he wants to throw out the bathwater with the baby (Holmes).

But back to that startling admission. "I don't think I had the pulse of our team the way I'd done in the past," Ryan said, "and when I met with the players ... today, I think that became clear to me."

Training camp opened in August, and the Jets coach needed a handful of exit meetings on Jan. 2 to figure out what made his team tick. What have you been doing the last five months, Rex, tending bar?

Listen, Ryan still has time to save himself from himself. In his first two seasons Rex did show an ability to draw up with the right Xs and Os on one side of the ball.

But if Ryan does care about being the first Jets coach since Weeb Ewbank to win it all, he must dramatically alter his style. A quick look next door would provide a source of motivation or two.

Tom Coughlin was nearly fired after the 2006 season, his third, because his unforgiving approach to everything was running people into the ground. He told his boss, John Mara, that he was ready to lighten up and establish a leadership council of veterans to ease the disconnect with his team. Mara would later say that if Coughlin wasn't open to change, "We would've had a problem."

In other words, Coughlin would've been canned before his season for the ages in 2007.

Across the bridge, after turning his first season as New York Yankees manager into a grim march to nowhere, Joe Girardi was told by his boss, Brian Cashman, that he had to follow Coughlin's lead. Girardi also agreed to lighten up in 2009, and voila, the Yankees won their first World Series title since 2000.

Girardi has regressed some since his parade, and hey, nobody said this was easy. A change in personality requires some work, but the good ones and great ones find a way.

It's clear Rex Ryan loves to be loved. It's also clear he needs the opposite of what Coughlin and Girardi needed. Ryan has to get meaner, tougher, more demanding. Players can't look at him as a guy they'd love to hang with in Vegas.

Reminded that NFL greats from Lombardi to Belichick have been (at times) hated by their inspired players, and asked if he believed he should harden his own approach, Ryan offered another cop-out response.

"I just think it's interesting sometimes," he said, "that maybe somebody's perspective maybe doesn't tell the whole story, because I think I'm always going to be myself. That's the only way I can be successful. But I may be a little harder on guys than you think. ... I think I'm maybe a little sterner than what maybe the perception is."

Ryan talked about benching players as a coordinator in Baltimore, then stopped himself from revealing any specifics. Whatever. Truth is, Rex is too kind to his players in his public comments, and too worried about their feelings on gameday (i.e. risking Sanchez's health to try to get the neglected Burress a catch and a touchdown in a blowout victory over Jacksonville).

If Ryan is too stubborn to change, Tannenbaum had better get to work on him and prove to be the kind of leader Mara and Cashman were with their own guys.

If Rex and Tannenbaum stay the course, they might not be sitting side-by-side at next year's news conference. Woody Johnson might be going solo at that one.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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