Commentary

Coach Rex unfit to lead the Gang

Misjudgment in Saturday debacle further proves coach should stick to defense

Updated: August 26, 2013, 10:55 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Jets are stuck with Rex Ryan now, just like they are stuck with Geno Smith. The Jets are alarmingly weak at the two most important positions in the sport -- head coach and quarterback -- and only Smith has a good excuse for his performance, or lack thereof.

He's not only a rookie, but a rookie coming off an ankle injury. His three interceptions and a ghastly safety ripped straight from the Mark Sanchez playbook Saturday night can be dismissed as the cost of doing preseason business with a 22-year-old trying to learn on the fly.

But the 50-year-old Ryan is no novice, even if he often acts like one. In his fifth season with the Jets, Rex proved in this exhibition game with the New York Giants that he still has no idea how to coach/develop/protect quarterbacks, and that he still isn't fit to lead.

Ryan is a middle manager making CEO money. He's a nice guy and a very good defensive coordinator who is overmatched as a head coach.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesRex Ryan and the Jets looked lost Saturday against the Giants.

He's a Jets employee who should've been let go with Mike Tannenbaum before the new general manager, John Idzik, took office.

And now it's too late for Woody Johnson, owner, to sack the coach who just blindsided Sanchez, his sure starter, by throwing him out there in the fourth quarter with the second-teamers who were ill-equipped to keep the quarterback upright.

On cue, Sanchez absorbed a wicked hit from Giants tackle Marvin Austin, and by now you know the rest. Between Sanchez's X-rays and MRI exam, Ryan served up lame non-answers and amateur-hour behavior in his postgame news conference, turning his back on reporters pressing for more on Sanchez and Smith.

It's too late for Johnson to do anything about this embarrassing night at MetLife Stadium because you don't fire a coach before Week 1 of the regular season, and because there isn't a low-risk replacement on Ryan's staff (though I'd gamble on the recently promoted defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman over new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who was 5-27 as head coach in Detroit). Firing Rex now likely improves the odds of an ugly 6-10 year devolving into a season that could put Rich Kotite's two to shame.

So now Ryan might have to get by with Idzik's preferred quarterback, Smith, rather than his own choice, Sanchez, who might not be ready for the season opener. Best of luck with that. The conflicting agendas of a restructured front office and an incumbent head coach trying to save his rump were always bound to create the kind of issues that surfaced Saturday night, when Ryan quite possibly saw an opportunity to pounce after that safety (Smith stepped out of the end zone on a pass attempt) and went for Idzik/Smith's throat.

He got Sanchez's shoulder instead.

"That was my decision," Ryan said of putting his four-year starter in the game.

Nobody earning a Jets paycheck was foolish enough to dispute that.

Sanchez didn't expect to play after Smith went three quarters and change, and he didn't want to take the field with backups around him, sources told ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini. Matt Simms appeared to be preparing to take the field before Sanchez was suddenly told to warm up, another exercise in comedy and futility as two footballs simultaneously tossed in his direction were sort of butt-fumbled away.

LaDainian Tomlinson, a pro's pro and former Sanchez teammate, said on the NFL Network that the quarterback's body language screamed that he didn't want to be out there. So why was he out there in the first place?

Though it's hard to come up with a reasonable explanation for an unreasonable act, here are two theories that make more sense than Ryan's insistence that he merely wanted his quarterbacks to compete:

1) Wanting to open the regular season with Sanchez all along (if only because he's the devil the coach knows), Ryan figured he could put a bigger spotlight on Smith's own follies by making Sanchez look like Johnny U. against the Giants' reserves.

2) The Christmas Eve loss to Tom Coughlin's Giants in 2011 was the beginning of Rex's end, leaving him to play the fool in a market he promised his team would own, a market the Giants reclaimed with another Super Bowl victory over the Jets' tormentors to the north. So Ryan badly wanted to beat Coughlin in anything, even in an exhibition, and he felt Sanchez (not Simms) gave him the best shot at his precious little Snoopy trophy.

Not that Ryan's source of motivation really matters here. At a time in the NFL when nothing is more important than keeping your best quarterback healthy, Ryan exposed Sanchez on a reckless whim. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

In September 2011, with the Jets holding a 26-point, fourth-quarter lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ryan had Sanchez throw into the end zone to Plaxico Burress because the coach was afraid Burress (held without a catch) would feel left out of all the fun. Never mind that Sanchez had been tested for a possible concussion six days earlier; Rex put him in danger by ordering the pass and, of course, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Matt Roth blasted him around his right shoulder and dropped him hard onto his back.

"It was my fault," Ryan said that day.

So was his decision to dress Tim Tebow and his fractured ribs last Thanksgiving night, when the Patriots tore down whatever was left of Ryan's program. A year after conceding he'd lost his 8-8 team, the final 6-10 record, the dearth of credible playmakers, the decision to hire Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator and the titanic Tebow disaster made no such admission necessary.

Johnson spared him anyway, just to have Ryan ignore his dueling quarterbacks in their first preseason game, to have him practice Smith on a bad ankle (before calling Smith's effort that day "brutal"), and to have him push Sanchez into a perilous situation for no good cause.

Once again, Rex Ryan, a nice guy and a good defensive coordinator, proved he isn't fit to lead. He'll continue to lead the New York Jets regardless.

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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