Commentary

Weak Woody bamboozled by Rex

No one is buyin' Ryan anymore -- except the Jets' clueless owner, who is all-in

Updated: January 8, 2013, 8:14 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As the news conference wore on, as it became crystal clear Rex Ryan is the de facto owner of the New York Jets, Woody Johnson kept shrinking under the moment, retreating from his microphone as his voice turned unsteady and faint.

A billionaire by trade, Johnson all but disappeared as the walls of a packed room closed in around the table he shared with his head coach, who didn't let a 6-10 record or two consecutive end-of-season collapses stop him from filling the place with his extra-large persona.

It was a fascinating study in body language and self-confidence, or lack thereof, and when it mercifully ended inside the team's practice facility Tuesday, this much was clear:

[+] EnlargeRyan-Johnson
AP Photo/Seth WenigAfter making his opening remarks, Jets owner Woody Johnson practically disappeared on Tuesday.

The Jets are a weak franchise under a weak owner.

A great-grandson of a Johnson & Johnson co-founder, Woody is a neighborly, born-on-third-base guy who has no clue how to reach home plate. He so badly wants to be buddies with the tatted-up Ryan, so badly wants to be that nerdy physics professor welcomed into the locker room by the popular coaches and jocks, he's allowed Rex to not only have a say in the appointment of his next boss, but to survive a startling confession that should've gotten him fired on the spot.

For the first time in anyone's memory, a head coach actually admitted he's tried in vain over four years -- four years -- to establish an identity on the offensive side of the ball. "I just have failed in that area," Ryan said before adding, "I think it's clear that that's where I've come up short."

Ryan is working in the same division as Tom Brady, in the same conference as Peyton Manning, and he still has no idea how to develop a quarterback or a game plan that consistently puts points on the board?

And better yet, despite this gaping hole in Ryan's game, Johnson thought it was a great idea to spare him the fate assigned to his general manager, Mike Tannenbaum?

"Having been in business and in football for quite a while now, you can recognize talent when you see it," said Johnson, who maintained that "extenuating circumstances" -- i.e., the injuries to Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis -- persuaded him to rule out a firing of Rex. "I think Rex Ryan is perfect for the New York Jets."

So it's official: The used-car salesman inside Ryan has sold his employer a lemon. Rex has sold Woody on the idea that the same Jets who commanded the undivided attention of ESPN and "Hard Knocks" and, for the past nine days, reporters, photographers and headline writers from here to Atlantis will be reduced to an afterthought with a new head coach.

Woody would rather watch another of his favored political candidates lose an election than watch his franchise get reduced to semi-relevance, again, in a New York Giants town. That's why there was a better chance of Johnson showing up Tuesday to announce a two-year extension to Ryan's contract than there was of Johnson showing up without the coach by his side.

They made a cute couple, too, Rex in his striped, green tie and buttoned-up, long-sleeve shirt (no tattoo exposed on this day) and Woody in his glasses, dark suit and a green tie of his own. But outside of Ryan's stated devotion to his wife and his half-joking claim that the tattoo of Michelle wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey would be altered if the quarterback doesn't pick it up, nothing the coach or the owner said made any sense.

With full knowledge of the disclosure Ryan was about to make, Johnson opened the morning with an apology for the news conference delay and with his opinion that Ryan, who admittedly lost his locker room late last year in starting a wretched 6-13 run as coach, "has a rare ability ... as a leader." Johnson actually claimed those leadership skills carried over to the offense, too, because as a defensive coach Ryan has had "to fight against those [offenses]. So he's learned a lot and he's got great instinct."

Good heavens. As Rex sat a few feet away, preparing to announce to the world that he's screwed up the offense, his owner was practically swearing he was another Bill Walsh.

"I have the ultimate confidence in Rex as a head coach," Johnson would say, "as a leader, as a motivator, as a playcaller -- if he has to do it."

Jets fans can only hope Ryan won't have to do it. Rex has already run out two offensive coordinators in Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano, and maybe Johnson will let him run out another two before finally showing Rex the door.

Of course, Ryan should've been fired with Tannenbaum on New Year's Eve. "We made a ton of decisions together," Rex conceded before making a wildly unconvincing case for why he deserved to stay and the GM did not.

The coach spoke boldly of a brand-new day, of a fresh plan to mold his players into a team the rest of the NFL will fear. "You're not going to want to play the New York Jets," he said.

Ryan kept talking about building an unpredictable offense, this after neglecting the quarterback who embodied that approach, Tim Tebow. Ryan kept talking about establishing an aggressive, attacking offense to match his aggressive, attacking defense, and yet he was painfully short on specifics. Ryan kept talking about the need for innovative ideas in play calling, yet made the absurd remark that Sparano -- the guy he'd just fired -- "did a tremendous job" in his one-and-done season.

The head coach and owner were so full of it Tuesday, a laugh track would've been appropriate for most of their responses. The Jets need a starting quarterback (Ryan and Johnson ruled Sanchez's position an open one), a general manager, two or three high-level playmakers and an offensive coordinator. They need the in-house promotion, Dennis Thurman, to be a better defensive coordinator than the fleeing Mike Pettine, who knows how this movie is going to end.

Four years after booking a Super Bowl-winning trip to the White House in his introductory presser, Ryan couldn't bring himself to even speak the words. "One day," he said in the hour of his undeserved reprieve, "we want to be, you know, we know what we want to accomplish."

It's been a spectacular plunge for Rex, but at least Woody was there to cushion the fall. No head coach admits what Ryan admitted to his boss and remains gainfully employed, but in weakness Johnson somehow saw strength.

"One of the things that impresses me about Rex as a leader," the owner said, "is that he knows where he wants to improve and he's committed to do that."

Ryan said he was concerned about getting fired, and it turned out he shouldn't have wasted the time and energy sweating it. Johnson had no intention of letting the GM-to-be make that call, not when he could compromise the search in a Same Old Jets way by forcing that GM to keep a coach he might not want.

"We're going to have all the pieces to put something really great on the field," Johnson said, "led by Rex."

As it turns out, everything and everyone is led by Rex, including a sucker named Woody Johnson, a billionaire who would pay anything to be one of the coach's guys.

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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