Whatever happens when the Jets play the Bills this weekend—if the Jets destroy the Bills 64–2, if Rex Ryan juggles flaming cars on the sidelines, if Mark Sanchez suddenly sprouts wings and flaps around the MetLife Stadium’s upper deck, if Darrelle Revis transmogrifies into some sort of hydra-headed beast—I think the Jets’ rule of this city’s football landscape over the last three years will still be finished. I hope I’m wrong. This has been so much fun, to watch, to write about, to experience. But I think the party’s over.
The lasting image of the Jets’ crushing, inexplicable 17-13 loss to the Denver Broncos the Thursday before Thanksgiving was not, to my eyes, yet another Tim Tebow prayer in the end zone, or even Mark Sanchez watching another defender sprint toward the opposite end zone with one of his ill-fated throws. No, it came seconds after Tebow’s game-winning touchdown, when the NFL Network cameras caught Rex Ryan looking … defeated. Ryan’s look was not one of defiance, or anger, or even sadness. He was flabbergasted; he looked like he finally realized, despite his always entertaining, desperate flailings, that this just wasn’t the Jets’ year. Ryan is famously a scrapper; his signature virtue as a coach is an unfailing belief that no matter what happens, his team, his boys, will end up on top. But that’s not what Ryan looked like after Tebow’s touchdown. He looked like Jets coaches and fans have looked for years, the look Ryan came here specifically to eradicate. He looked, at last, like a Jet.
Ryan had been wobbling before Tebow’s shocking last-minute heroics. He was caught by cameras a week earlier cursing out a Patriots fan minutes after the first half ended, screaming, “Shut the fuck up!,” which earned him a $75,000 fine by the NFL. The day after the Broncos loss, Ryan seemed stricken. “It’s still hard to really fathom, it really is,” Ryan said, shaking his head. This is a humbled Rex Ryan. No one wants a humbled Rex Ryan.
So much of the Ryan mystique—so much of what has made him a successful coach—has been steeped in his wonderfully snobbish bravado. From his very first news conference, in which he proclaimed to every knife-bearing local media member that “you’ve got the right guy” and promised he’d be meeting the then-new president “within a couple of years,” Ryan was having none of this Doomed Jets talk. He took a team that was still reeling from the Eric Mangini era and the Brett Favre fiasco and transformed it through force of will. With a rookie quarterback who had a reputation for being soft and a fan base just hoping the rest of the NFL would stop considering it a leaguewide joke, Ryan changed the whole personality of the franchise, turning the Jets into bullies, into cocky look-at-me guys, into the team that everyone wanted to watch. Imagine that: The Jets—the Jets—as the league’s most feared and hated team, the circus coming to town. It has been so long since the Jets mattered like that. Ryan did it in a year. And then he did it again last year.
Mostly, though, Ryan has been fun, and this city has needed that. Our teams are run by buttoned-up grandfather types like Tom Coughlin, corporate middlemen like Joe Girardi, professorial bean counters like Sandy Alderson and his Mets brain brigade. Ryan was the Platonic ideal of a football coach, the type of guy you’d not only want to have a beer with but also want on your side when you smash that empty mug against a guy’s head at the end of the night (with Ryan, you know everyone would end up laughing and hugging it out anyway). Ryan flipped off opposing fans at an MMA match, showed up at Yankee Stadium in athletic shorts drinking a beer, and joked that he’d “take a swing” at Bill Belichick. And he had that big dopey grin the whole while, like he’s just a fat guy having the time of his life. (Heck, even the foot-fetish thing was kind of endearing; who are we to say what kind of fun a man should have with his wife?) I’ve always thought Ryan’s ability to hog the spotlight was partly a strategic maneuver, a way to take the focus of the world’s largest media market away from his players and allow them to concentrate on the game itself. But even if that’s not the case, he’s been so entertaining it doesn’t matter. It’s no wonder Joe Namath has always felt so obviously threatened by Ryan. He’s the one guy larger-than-life enough to challenge his legacy.
Ah, it makes me nostalgic just to type all that. Because it feels different now. Ryan looks mortal—scared, even—and so does his team. That’s the thing about being brash, about pounding one’s chest and acting invincible: You’re not invincible, and once you start bleeding, it’s that much more noticeable. That’s why Ryan’s look after Tebow’s touchdown—and his bafflement the next day—felt like the end of something. If Rex Ryan has slumped shoulders, what hope is there for the rest of us?