Commentary

Rex's chance to send out the clowns

His job seems safe, but Jets coach must work to shed label as leader of circus

Updated: September 7, 2012, 9:30 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If his little press briefing the other day was any indication, Woody Johnson has a better shot of reaching the Super Bowl than the World Series of Poker. While he thought he was declining to assess the future -- or lack thereof -- of his head coach and general manager, Johnson actually showed every card in his hand.

His praise for one and clear lack of enthusiasm for the other put this final score in MetLife Stadium lights:

Rex Ryan? Safe. Mike Tannenbaum? Not so much.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Jeff Zelevansky/Icon SMIRex would be wise to avoid this type of tomfoolery.

That's the way it should be, too, if only because Tannenbaum has been around longer and has already fired one head coach, Eric Mangini. If these New York Jets are destined to play out a 7-9 season, Tannenbaum and Mark Sanchez might be voted off the island together.

Only Ryan is scheduled to survive for now, his benefit-of-the-doubt reward for the two AFC Championship Games and for elevating the Jets' public profile in ways even Bill Parcells could not. Rex also changed the franchise's culture so dramatically that an 8-8 season -- once cause for a ticker-tape parade in the bad old days of Leon Hess and the rest -- is now reported as nothing less than an unmitigated disaster.

But Ryan understands that Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills opens a season as important for him as it is for his quarterback and GM. Rex is tired of being cast as the lead clown in a circus of his own design.

This is his chance to retire the fake red nose, polka-dot pajamas and exploding shoes. This is Rex's shot to prove once and for all that he'd rather run a consistent, championship-level program than perform the kind of one-man Vegas show that will inevitably land him a lucrative second career in a network TV booth.

Ryan knows it, too. That's why even in the post-guarantee phase of his Jets life -- "I guarantee that I won't give any guarantees; I'm out of that business," he said Friday -- Rex has given Rex some public pep talks to prepare for a grueling season.

At different times he's called himself a great coach, and the best defensive coach in the sport. Ryan has also called this Jets team potentially his best despite the dearth of playmakers on the Sanchez/Tim Tebow side of the ball.

Woody the owner added to the pile of positivity by declaring his extreme confidence in Ryan and by saying Rex's early success is "unparalleled" in the team's history. Asked Friday if his employer's endorsement hardened his own stated belief that he'll thrive as the long-term coach of the Jets, Ryan said, "I just hope I'm here a long time, and that's what I plan on doing.

"I'm a confident person. I've said it all along: I'm confident in my abilities, but more importantly I'm confident in the people we have in the building here. Sometimes a head coach can get let go because maybe he doesn't have the people around him. If they let me go it's not because of that reason; it's that I must've failed. But I have a tough time believing that I'm going to fail with the men on this football team and with the people in this building."

Truth is, the men on Rex's football team and the people in Rex's building keep reading from different playbooks.

Tannenbaum tells "Mike & Mike in the Morning" that Sanchez will be on the field for 80 to 90 percent of the regular-season plays, and Ryan later says he wants to keep the percentages a secret. Santonio Holmes says a two-quarterback system can't work, and Ryan says he didn't promote his receiver to offensive coordinator. Holmes casts himself in the role of Kissinger after disclosing that his new BFF, Sanchez, was blown away by the Tebow trade, and Ryan, Tebow and Sanchez shoot holes in Holmes' story.

"He called me a few hours after [the trade] happened," Tebow said of Sanchez, "and we had a great talk and I [feel] like our relationship has been great ever since -- even before that."

Whatever. The fans don't care if Sanchez and Tebow get along (they do), or if Sanchez really wants Tebow as his backup (he doesn't). They only care that the offense somehow scores enough points -- Wildcat formation or no Wildcat formation -- to supplement a strong defense and drive the Jets back to the postseason tournament.

"It doesn't matter who we play," Ryan said. "We think we'll be able to move the football."

Good luck with that. The Jets don't have a viable second receiver opposite Holmes, who could come unglued without a possession's notice. Shonn Greene is a nice back, nothing more. The offensive line looks better with Austin Howard in place of Wayne Hunter, but it's not a line that inspires much faith when matched against the likes of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.

As a quarterback, H-back, slot back, punt protector, you name it, Tebow will need to make things happen for this offense to work. Ryan said he's eager to see Tebow run the Wildcat, and eager to see how defenses adjust in their attempt to stop him.

But Rex isn't eager for a return to his days of wild and entertaining bluster, even if some witnesses in the stands and press box thought his predictions were good for a sad-sack franchise in need of a boost. Those people are quiet now as Ryan admits he had it all wrong, correctly describing his promises of victory as "a burden on our football team" that needed to be removed.

Friday, a reporter raised something else the coach removed -- captains. Holmes retired that position for keeps.

"Somebody bring up another mistake I made last year," Ryan said, "because the list is long. There's no question it's long, but I hope I'll learn from them."

Rex has no choice. Woody Johnson said he's safe, more or less, but that doesn't mean the coach is in the clear.

If Ryan doesn't care to go down as a clown, he's got some serious work to do. Jets fans never asked for a three-ring circus.

One ring will do.

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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