When did we lose Rex Ryan? When did the most entertaining coach in recent New York City memory—has there been anyone as fun as Ryan since Billy Martin?—begin devolving into self-parody? When did the best show in town turn to rot?
It’s difficult to overstate how much Ryan has brought to the sports scene since he landed here in January 2009. From the moment he arrived, he was 300-plus pounds of unabashedly cocky, cheerfully dopey id. We had quotes taunting Bill Belichick, most notably “I came here to kick his ass.” We had Ryan flipping off a group of Dolphins fans at a mixed-martial-arts show and ending up on the cover of the Post for it. We had the glory of the Jets on HBO’s Hard Knocks, handing us the immortal Ryan quote “Let’s go eat a goddamn snack!” We even had the most innocuous, amusing sex “scandal” ever: Ryan was roundly mocked for allegedly directing foot-fetish videos—the “Tarantino of Tootsies,” he was dubbed—with his wife. (If only General Petraeus had such restraint.) And, most important, we had wins. In Ryan’s first two seasons, he reached the AFC Championship Game twice, something the Jets had done just two other times in their history. Ryan talked as much smack as any football coach ever, but he backed it up. He was a godsend for Jets fans and the tabloids. He was going to become a legend in this town.
Alas: It has all fallen apart. The 2012 Jets season has become such a disaster that Ryan will be lucky to escape it with his job, let alone his reputation. The Jets have been shut out 34-0 by the 49ers, and blown out by the supposedly lowly Dolphins at home, and are playing offense at a historically awful level. Even by the standards of a franchise that essentially hasn’t had a steady quarterback in 40 years, the play from that position has been especially weak this season. Heading into the game with the Rams last weekend, Mark Sanchez was 30th in the league in quarterback efficiency. Sadly, his 70.4 mark was only slightly below his career 72.8. And that’s just the starting quarterback. Last week, anonymous Jets were quoted in the Daily News sniping at backup quarterback Tim Tebow, with one of them deeming him “terrible.” This made for a particularly awkward team meeting that day, when Ryan yelled at his team for the quotes, calling the players who issued them “cowardly.”
The Jets have imploded, and, perhaps most ominously, Ryan is suddenly wobbly and defiant, a waning tyrant desperately hanging on to the vestiges of power. After an embarrassing 28-7 loss to the Seahawks, Ryan spat at a reporter, “I don’t care what you think or anyone else [thinks].” This is a man who has always cared what people think. This is the central organizing principle of the Rex Ryan era. But now the swagger is gone. Ryan still talks and makes bold predictions, but it’s sadder, less charming, more desperate now. Ryan lost more than 100 pounds after lap-band surgery in 2010. For a time, he looked practically svelte. Now he just looks deflated. It’s not the old Rex anymore. Losing will do that to a man. The Ryan era, it now seems, may be over sooner than anyone could have imagined.
All told, the first move Ryan had a hand in as the Jets’ coach might have been the one that doomed him. Three months after he took over, the Jets drafted USC quarterback Mark Sanchez as the fifth overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft (Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum both loved him). It was not a particularly strong draft for quarterbacks—it produced only two other NFL starters, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Tampa’s Josh Freeman—but the Jets needed to wash off the grime of Brett Favre’s short, gross tenure here by starting over with a young, charismatic QB. Sanchez certainly fit the bill: Despite his inexperience (he only had sixteen starts with the Trojans), he was handsome, multicultural, great in front of the camera, and had a big arm. A town and fan base desperate for a new Joe Namath embraced him immediately.
The Ryan plan was simple: Run the ball, play ferocious defense, and let the quarterback figure it out and improve as he went along. Ryan has always been defensive-minded. It’s in his blood. He made his name as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, just as his father, Buddy, did with the 1985 Chicago Bears and his brother Rob has done with the Dallas Cowboys. No Ryan has ever claimed much offensive wizardry. For two years, it worked like a dream. The Jets weren’t able to best the Patriots for the AFC East title either season, but reaching the AFC Championship Game in both of Ryan’s first two seasons was an accomplishment no other Jets coach had achieved. Most encouraging, Sanchez was improving at the expected rate. He wasn’t a superstar, but he didn’t need to be: He was better his second season than his first, and he had maybe the best game of his career in the 2010 AFC Championship Game, nearly leading the Jets back from a 24-0 deficit. Only two years into his career, he had notched four playoff victories and appeared in GQ with his shirt off. The Jets looked primed.