Talk + Walk

Illustration by Dan Goldman

Every time I watch Mike Ditka on television, it is absolutely baffling to me that he could have ever coached a team to a Super Bowl championship. Sure, he has a commanding television presence, and he’s certainly made a career for himself as charismatic pitchman and huckster (to the point that some Illinois Republicans tried to draft him in 2004 to run against State Senator Barack Obama). But when you actually pay attention to the gibberish coming out of his mouth, you can’t help but wonder whether Ditkacan write his name in the ground with a stick.

It’s no surprise that many observers of Ditka’s old Bears team credit defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan for the 1986 Bears championship, or why the New Orleans Saints imploded years later on Ditka’s watch. The guy can create a vivid, powerful personality, but like most people who rant and rave on-camera, he does it to disguise inherent deficiencies. The reason all these guys are on TV now is that they aren’t allowed to coach anymore. (Herm Edwards would be another example.)

Which is why, with a new NFL season about to begin, we should once again be glad to have Rex Ryan (Buddy’s son) coaching the Jets. He spouts more brash bluster than Ditka ever did, and he could pontificate about football on TV for the rest of his life if he felt like it. But Rex Ryan can actually coach. He came into New York boasting that he’d take out the Patriots, and darn it if he didn’t do it two years in a row. Ryan has turned a franchise still reeling from the Brett Favre fiasco into not only the loudest team in the league but also one of its best. The Jets have made it to the AFC Championship Game five times in their painful history; two of them have come during Ryan’s two years coaching the team. The Jets are now expected to make the Super Bowl this year. The Jets! Even Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick working together never got that far.

What Ryan does so well is combine the two archetypes of NFL coaches—the rousing Vince Lombardi motivator and the two-steps-ahead Bill Walsh Xs-and-Os man. You don’t need to be both to be successful—Ditka had Buddy Ryan to do the homework part of the job, for example, while tactically minded coaches can rely on veteran players for the hoo-rah stuff. But Ryan is as beloved by the analysts breaking down his devious defenses on their Telestrators as he is by his players, who say they love playing for him because he puts all the media pressure on himself, leaving them free to focus on the game.

It remains to be seen whether Ryan’s approach can be as successful in the long term as that of hisrival for Northeastern footballsupremacy, Belichick, whose management approach demands discipline, rewards secrecy, and discards locker-room inspiration in favor of rule by terror. In other words, Belichick’s leadership style is the opposite of Ryan’s. But over the past two seasons, Ryan has given hope to the notion that it’s better to be loved than feared.

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Talk + Walk