For the first years of his tenure, the team swung between moderate success and futility, putting up a winning season one year only to slide back to the basement the next. In 2006, after a 4-12 season, Johnson brought in a new coach, the 35-year-old Belichick protégé Eric Mangini. He was well regarded by football people, but his approach, like his mentor’s, was sour and rigid. He regarded the press as an enemy, and he was infamous among players for his sharp, and occasionally brutal, tirades. In an ESPN poll of players during this past off-season, Mangini—now with the Browns—was named the “Last Coach You’d Want to Play For” by a wide margin.
But Mangini was successful at first in New York, earning the nickname Mangenius. The next year, in 2007, his quarterback got hurt and the team sputtered once again—Same Old Jets. Fans dropped the Mangenius nickname and replaced it with “Manjackass” and, later, “Manboobs,” as though the portly coach were a sidekick on “The Howard Stern Show.”
Meanwhile, Johnson was fighting to free the Jets from the awkward fit of their adopted home. In 2005, Johnson threw his weight behind the initiative to build a West Side football stadium in Manhattan, which he envisioned as a grand new home for the Jets. But the bid, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s vigorous backing, was torpedoed by Sheldon Silver and Joseph Bruno. This was not only a disappointment for the team but a personal rebuke for Johnson: The primary private opponent to the stadium was none other than Charles Dolan, the man Johnson had outbid for Jets ownership. “In terms of the West Side stadium, that’s just business,” Johnson says now. “Some of it may have appeared personal. And maybe it felt personal at the time.” The stadium debacle left Johnson facing a faltering product on the field, a very public political defeat (who can forget all those grand renderings of the theoretical West Side Jets stadium?), and, not long after, an organization run by an increasingly unpopular coach. (“A miserable workplace” was one characterization—and that was in a positive ESPN profile of Mangini.)
So Johnson decided to focus on the things he could control. In 2008, the team opened a brand-new, $75 million, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed Florham Park facility and headquarters, thus escaping their old practice facility at Hofstra, which reporters couldn’t help but point out was ringed with barbed wire. The new building is a gleaming white football temple, notable for its state-of-the-art equipment and attention to good health, per Johnson’s obsession. The cafeteria serves organic food and Purell hand-sanitizers dot the hallways. In the lobby, under glass, you’ll find the team’s lone Super Bowl trophy. It’s the one Namath once hoisted, and it’s conspicuous in its loneliness.
To try and add to that tally, the Jets’ front office, in 2008, led by G.M. Mike Tannenbaum, made a win-now gamble and traded for the retired, 38-year-old Brett Favre. Mangini didn’t want Favre, but he was overruled by Johnson and Tannenbaum. This shotgun marriage worked for a while, but then Favre broke down and the team faltered. After the season, Favre re-retired, and later bolted for the Vikings. And Johnson fired Mangini.
It’s ironic that a man who was born as the scion to a long-standing family business instead wound up in a job for which there’s no system of apprenticeship. As an NFL owner, you learn on the job. The Mangini mess proved Johnson was still learning. “It’s a complex business,” he says.
When people talk about Rex Ryan, they invariably call him “Rex” (except the players, at least to the press), and all this repetition—Rex Rex Rex—leaves the impression that he’s either a favorite dog or a reigning king. In a sense, he’s both. When Johnson flew to Baltimore to interview Ryan (Ryan was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator), Ryan showed up 45 minutes late. Johnson wasn’t impressed. But by the end of Ryan’s interview, the position was his. “He blew us away,” says Johnson. “Seeing his personality, his sense of humor, the way he and I got along, it was kind of a done deal.”
Ryan is, in every way, the anti-Mangini: loose with the press, funny, well loved by his players, and fearless in doling out controversial quotes. The press roots for him to do well because it doesn’t want to see him leave. Ryan is seen as a football savant, at least on the defensive side of the ball: He took the Jets’ pass defense from 29th in the league to first. He’s also a coach that players want to play for. Bart Scott, Ryan’s star linebacker, says of Hard Knocks: “I heard from a lot of guys who saw that first episode and said they really wished they could work in an organization like that.”