Commentary

Wristband reveals Rex's true colors

Flip-flop on color-code system for Geno Smith shows Ryan is scared of Old Rex

Updated: October 2, 2013, 11:18 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It has been noted for a while now that Jets coach Rex Ryan's XXXXL-sized personality has shrunk to a mere shadow of what it was before his Super Bowl guarantees fizzled and new general manager John Idzik came riding into town, refusing to extend Ryan's contract though it has just a season left beyond this one.

So it was a welcome blast from the past to see Old Rex stir a little Wednesday and tell reporters at the New York Jets' training facility that he was thinking of reviving the color-code system that he put Mark Sanchez on as a rookie in 2009, thinking that it may be a way to help Geno Smith, his current struggling rookie quarterback -- until Ryan went on the radio a few hours later and took the whole thing back, which he shouldn't have done.

It was as if New Rex is so torn between creating anything approaching a public relations brush fire, he doesn't know a good idea when he has one. Throwback Rex seems to scare Ryan.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith, Rex Ryan
AP Photos/David DrapkinYou hear that? It's Rex Ryan, left, backpedaling Wednesday from his idea to use a color-coded wristband to help Geno Smith.

And here's the shame of it: Until Ryan backpedaled on Michael Kay's show on ESPN New York's 98.7 FM, he actually seemed on the way to suggesting two very important things about himself that might bode well for Smith's future:

Maybe Ryan has learned a bit more about grooming young quarterbacks than he knew as a rookie coach in Sanchez's first year.

And he absolutely recognizes that he's the man sitting on the hottest hot seat in Florham Park right now, not Smith -- at least not yet -- no matter how much silly shouting there is outside the building that the 2-2 Jets should soon consider starting backup quarterback Matt Simms, who is even less proven than Smith.

So for a few hours, anyway, it was fun to ponder the possibilities and good history Ryan revived when -- thinking out loud at his mid-day news conference at the Jets' practice facility -- he said he was thinking of returning to the red-yellow-green wristband and color-coded word association system that he had Sanchez use in '09, after Sanchez's particularly brutal three-game stretch of 12 interceptions left the Jets on a three-game losing streak and a 4-6 record.

And why not try it?

Old Rex never met a gimmick he didn't like. Old Rex might've gone on to joke that the original color-coded wristband that cured Sanchez of being a turnover machine has been protected in a wall safe in his office, or pressed like some lucky four-leaf clover between the pages of an old Jets playbook, next to the page where the meaning of each color is explained. He would've added he'd already told Sanchez to talk up the whole concept to Smith, same as Ryan originally sold it to Sanchez as a way to get a grasp on game situations.

Ryan went so far as to tell Sanchez a color before each drive.

"Red" was code for don't you dare take a chance with the ball.

"Yellow" meant caution, danger lurks.

"Green" meant go on, take a shot if you think something's there.

"I call them Life Savers, like a pack of Life Savers," then-Jets tackle Damien Woody said in '09.

Sanchez could've taken it as a public humiliation. But he did not. The Jets won five of their last six after that.

At the time, Ryan allowed he probably could've helped Sanchez by trying the color-code system earlier than Week 11 but, "I'm rookie head coach, too, you know."

This time around, Ryan was talking about instituting the color code for Smith in just Week 5.

"I've been thinking about it," Ryan admitted. "[It's] kind of a fine line. ... Being aggressive and yet being smart with [Smith] as well."

Whether Smith or the rest of this season's locker room would've taken to the idea is another thing. Back in '09, Sanchez seemed all in from the start, and not just after the Jets beat Carolina the first week, got on a hot streak, and snuck into the playoffs on the last Sunday of the season by beating the Cincinnati Bengals.

But even though the Jets roared all the way to the AFC title game, there are some asterisks. Then-Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer initially told reporters he was "stung" by Ryan's intrusion into his area of the team.

Current Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is even more aggressive with his playing calling than Schottenheimer was.

Also, though Smith said with a smile Wednesday that he knew only a little about Ryan's color-code idea but was willing to try anything to improve himself or the team, what Smith didn't know when he spoke was that just across the room, when Jets offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold were asked how much the color coding helped Sanchez, they essentially said, "Eh."

Ferguson claimed he only vaguely remembered the ploy at all. Mangold said while he did remember Rex's "red-green-blue extravaganza," there was "a lot more" that went into the Jets' turnaround back then.

"We were running the ball really well too," Mangold said.

Don't be surprised if the Jets have the same emphasis this week while scaling back what they ask of Smith.

Smith will most likely be without both of his starting receivers, Santonio Holmes (hamstring) and Stephen Hill (concussion). Expect Ryan to tell Mornhinweg to revert more to the sort of clock-eating ground attack that he used the first week Sanchez was on the color-code system. The Jets ran the ball 39 times in that game and beat Carolina despite getting a modest 13-for-17 passing day for 154 yards from Sanchez. And they were on their way.

The Jets' defense -- which was very good then, same as now -- took care of the rest.

The Atlanta Falcons team the Jets will meet Monday night is better than that Carolina team. And Ryan definitely did invite getting lampooned for even mentioning his color-code system again Wednesday. But the '09 Rex wouldn't have backpedaled. He would've roared, "So what?"

Ryan is going to need his own life saver to survive this lame-duck season with his job.

He might as well try anything to help his kid quarterback -- and himself -- before this season irretrievably hit Code Red.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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