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it's a hard knocks life

Rex Ryan’s Jets Were Made for Hard Knocks

In just one year on the job, Rex Ryan has transformed the Jets from a franchise conditioned to expect the worst into a supremely confident cast of characters that's found as much success winning tabloid headlines as playoff games. Complementing their quotable coach, they've got a hot-shot quarterback, a newcomer with a checkered past, and a defensive standout insistent on getting paid, among others. It's less a soap opera than two or three soap operas playing out simultaneously.

Perhaps five weeks of Hard Knocks, which premieres tonight on HBO, will expose the Jets as big-talkers and little more. (And perhaps we'll learn things about Darrelle Revis, or Mike Tannenbaum, or another player that will change our view of them.) But more likely, it'll cement the reputation that Ryan's been building for a year now as a team that's not shy about its new place in the NFL. And from the Jets' perspective, that's the whole point.

Given the way the Jets have gravitated toward drama for a year now, appearing on HBO won't only be good for ratings — it's potentially beneficial to a team that's thrived on attention. Their first real "statement game" of 2009 came against the Patriots (in a game Ryan himself helped hype with his comment about not kissing Bill Belichick's rings and his phone message to fans), and they clinched a playoff berth on the season's highly anticipated final night by shutting out Cincinnati in front of a national-television audience and 70,000 fans at Giants Stadium waving team-distributed "Win and We're In" towels. (Then, of course, came the two playoff wins.) Ryan's Jets are as perfectly suited for the show as Eric Mangini's Jets would have been ill-suited.

Not everything will be so serious, of course: It wouldn't be a surprise to see things like the team's off-season weight-loss competition get a few minutes of coverage. (Tonight's TV Guide description explains that "players and coaches arrive in Cortland, N.Y., and settle in to their new quarters before beginning two-a-day drills," so here's hoping for a hilarious scene in which Kellen Clemens and Mark Brunell argue over who gets the top bunk.) Plus: rookie hazing!

Ryan has said he won't be the star of the show, but producers surely understand the appeal of an uncensored Rex Ryan. A look inside a Ryan practice, F-bombs and all, would be enough to grab our attention. But a candid look at the dynamic of the team he's shaped promises to keep that attention for the next five weeks. (An example of how Ryan does business: He offered today to cancel practice and have the entire organization present for a meeting between Revis, Woody Johnson, and their associates. Can you say "season finale"?)

Producers will have no shortage of story lines. Revis's contract dispute promises to be the sexiest of them, and though it's already playing out in the media, Hard Knocks will hopefully offer some insight into how things have played out so far. Mark Sanchez's growth (or lack thereof) this season will have a profound impact on the direction of the franchise. And we're legitimately interested in how veterans like Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Cromartie fit in on this team. Though actually, on that very last point, you don't need HBO to know that Cromartie seems to be fitting in just fine.

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Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images