- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Trying to predict right now if the New York Jets' training camp fights mean they're merely sick of camp or still a genuinely divided team isn't that important. That will all become clearer later. For now, what's smarter to dwell on is how Jets coach Rex Ryan responded -- and then ignore the absurd talk that he's some kind of sellout for cracking down on the Jets just because he hit New York styling himself as the last outlaw head coach in the NFL.
If you're a Jets fan, you should like this Rex Ryan better. Parts of the old Rex had to go. Even Ryan finally recognized that. So all this "gotcha" talk now that Ryan is a fraud, or that he deserves to be mocked because of his ongoing adjustment to how badly last season ended, is wrong too.
Memories are too short around here.
Have Ryan's critics already forgotten that gut-spilling appearance he made at the news conference podium back in January after the Jets' 8-8 season had ended in ugly in-house fighting and recrimination after a loss to Miami? The one that was full of extraordinary confessions for a sitting NFL coach to make?
When Ryan stood up the day after that loss at the Jets' Florham Park headquarters to face the music, he looked shaken, worn out and humbled. He hadn't bothered to shave and his voice had none of its usual bounce.
Ryan confirmed that he had to shove away some tears during his emotional last address to his players, and how he implored them to return this season more unified. And just down the hall from where he spoke, many of the Jets players walked out of the locker room still looking upset and shaken themselves.
Linebacker Bart Scott cussed at a photographer as he walked out. Fed-up Darrelle Revis, normally one of the most accommodating Jets, shouldered through the mob around his locker with his sweatshirt hood tugged over his head, declining every request to comment by just saying, "Nope ... Nope ... Nope." Like Ryan, he looked like he hadn't slept.
Santonio Holmes, who fought with teammates in the huddle and got benched at the end of that winnable Miami game, walked out without addressing the talk that he was a locker-room cancer. But Jets guard Matt Slauson didn't mind addressing it, or Holmes' slams of the offensive line and Sanchez earlier in the season.
Slauson said, "That kind of stuff destroys teams."
Things had to change. And the sight of Ryan finally, finally, finally (!) upbraiding Holmes last month just as training camp started -- barking that the Jets don't need Holmes to play offensive coordinator after Holmes publicly said he didn't believe the Jets' two-quarterback system with Sanchez and Tim Tebow could work -- was a huge break for Ryan. It wasn't applauded enough.
What it signaled Ryan is serious about trying to change the dynamic around the Jets, and that the change is starting with him. Passing on a redo of "Hard Knocks" was his preference, too.
This is a vivid and welcome departure from the old Rex, the Gotta-Be-Me guy whose idea of fixing the rift Holmes caused last season was a stunt: Ryan made veteran guard Brandon Moore walk out with Holmes for the coin toss before the Jets' next game as if all was forgiven -- which it wasn't -- and Ryan launched himself into a flying chest bump with Holmes when he caught a touchdown later in the year.
Linger on that image for a second: an NFL head coach. Chest bumping. With the biggest pariah on the team?
Had to change.
Ryan was right to re-evaluate his management style and the downside of how he behaves. To some extent, the culture change and big personality that he brought to the Jets were needed when he first arrived. It was fun compared with the Jets' dreary Eric Mangini Cone of Silence years.
But all those self-incriminating pledges and brutally frank admissions Ryan made last January were a concession that a lot had backfired.
Ryan acknowledged he'd lost the "pulse" of the locker room.
Ryan admitted he was shaken after he did exit interviews with the players about just how far out of touch he was.
If the Jets had a locker room full of players who are demonstrably good at policing themselves, the two days of scuffles that caused Ryan to first call a team meeting, then profanely rip into the team, then angrily pull the high school stunt of making everyone run gassers the third time a fight broke out, would all be easy to blow off as just normal training camp outbursts.
But the Jets aren't that kind of self-correcting team. They're a dysfunctional group, until proved otherwise.
Ryan had to be the guy to crack down and lead the change with actions, not just words.
Ryan is a very good defensive coordinator who realized he needed to get better as a head coach. And now he's trying. Bill Belichick -- you've probably heard of him -- also put himself through a similarly brutal self-assessment after he flopped in his first head coaching job in Cleveland. How did that turn out? Sort of explodes the argument that a smart coach can't change in midstream.
You should like this Rex Ryan better.
Not gripe that the clown act might've left town.
Don't worry about the Jets' issues, it's Rex Ryan's response that matters most.