- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Sure it had to hurt, because Rex Ryan would not be human if it didn't. He was supposed to be the guy everyone in America wanted to play for, a recruiter in John Calipari's league, yet here he was on top of some list naming him the most overrated coach in the NFL.
Never mind that 103 players participated in the Sporting News poll, meaning 1,593 did not. Never mind that "most overrated" is often confused with "most publicized" or "most discussed" and that your average professional athlete won't likely devote the same time and energy to this kind of survey that he would to the pre-draft Wonderlic.
These were players making this call, Ryan's kind of people. These weren't told-you-so columnists or jealous coaches taking a shot at an easy 3-5 target but the very athletes who were said to want three things in life: fame, fortune and a chance to play for Ryan's New York Jets, not necessarily in that order.
So yeah, it had to sting. It didn't hurt him as much as it hurt Mitt Romney to lose his home state of Massachusetts and a whole lot more to President Barack Obama, but it hurt Ryan all the same.
That's why Ryan responded the way he did Wednesday when asked if the poll got to him even a little bit.
"No, I think if you look at it and poll the same players or whoever about who they want to play for, I'll probably end up where I always am, right at the top with [Mike] Tomlin," Ryan said. "Either me or Mike Tomlin, one or two, of where the guys want to play for. I don't think that will change.
"As long as they want to come here and play and I'm overrated, that's fine. But I want them to want to come here and play."
This was Ryan's shield, his first line of defense. Understanding that being called overrated is tantamount to being called something of a fake, Ryan hid behind the players' stated affection for his fun-loving, say-anything style.
He has tweaked that style, using the 8-8 season that followed another Super Bowl guarantee as reason to finally, mercifully, temper his act and ease some of the burdens on his stressed-out team. Ryan surely thought that change in approach would make life easier for the Jets and earn him some bonus points.
But this is what Ryan found out from the survey, flawed as it might have been: If he doesn't win, nobody will think he's worth a damn.
It won't matter if he remains (relatively) humble or if he regresses and goes back to calling himself the best defensive coach in the sport. It won't matter if he continues to make self-deprecating humor the order of the day or if he grows more defiant as he did near the end of his news conference when he said, "At the end of the year, we'll see who's overrated."
Ryan can enhance his standing in the league, and among its players, only by winning far more than three out of every eight games.
"I know we can do it," Ryan said. "I know we can get it fixed. I've got the coaching staff with me, I've got the players ... and that's why I'm so excited about this. This is about a tough a thing that we're facing right in front of us. Well, here we go.
"Look, my confidence will never waver, ever. ... To do great things, extraordinary things, you're always going to have skeptics. There's no doubt about that. You always have them, and I understand that comes with the territory. But I understand this: I don't buy into it. I'm confident. We'll always be confident, and maybe it's the way I've been raised."
Ryan came to the Jets saying he wanted to be a better head coach than his father, Buddy, a hell-raiser as defensive coordinator of the epic '85 Bears but something of a dud as the boss in Philly and Arizona. Buddy never won a playoff game with the Eagles and Cardinals, and Rex has already won four with the Jets.
So no, Buddy's boy isn't even the most overrated coach in his family.
But even after season-ending injuries to Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes, the Jets shouldn't be this bad. Ryan predicted this could be his best team yet -- another claim gone south -- and the Jets are one wayward Sunday in Seattle away from effectively eliminating themselves from the postseason.
Mark Sanchez isn't getting better, and the defense doesn't scare opponents the way a defense carrying the Ryan family name should. The Jets have no idea how to use Tim Tebow, an indictment of Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, and they don't have any game-breaking playmakers on the wings, an indictment of general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
If a losing season inspires Jets owner Woody Johnson to hold someone accountable, Tannenbaum will be ahead of Ryan on the hit list. Ryan isn't getting fired this time around, but a failure to rally in the second half will put him on notice in 2013.
Ryan was embarrassed by Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid toward the end of 2011, when he kept trying to sell a postseason push to his players before publicly conceding, "I almost felt like I was the only one that believed it."
Now he has been embarrassed -- if only slightly -- by this poll of 103 anonymous players, finishing with 35 votes and scoring a landslide victory over the runner-up, Bill Belichick, who finished with 16.
When Ryan saw his tormentor to the north had placed second, he told himself, "Hey, I finally beat Belichick in something. I got him. I knew it would take time, but I finally got him."
Ryan sighed at the podium Wednesday and said, "I mean golly, like it hadn't been a tough enough year."
The Sporting News' most overrated coach is stuck with Sports Illustrated's most overrated players, Tebow and Sanchez, and somehow Ryan has to make the polling numbers work. He has a 3-5 team about to hit the road to play a 5-4 Seahawks team that Ryan made out to be the Montana-and-Rice 49ers.
If Ryan loses this game and lets another season spiral out of control, he won't come across as a head coach who is overrated. He'll look more like a head coach who is overmatched.