Rex Deflated

Illustration by André Carrilho

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.

And they were so entertaining! Ryan did all this with his trademark bluster, making the Jets more fun to watch than those boring old Giants and their elderly coach, Tom Coughlin, who seemed more likely to hand out Werther’s Originals than F-bombs. ­Ryan’s strategy has always been to make a big fuss of himself to take the pressure and spotlight off his players—to play the clown so that they can concentrate on the tasks at hand—and the media, grateful to have such a quote machine talking to them for half an hour every day, ate it up. Ryan was forever guaranteeing championships and claiming that his players were better than everybody else’s, which didn’t just keep the Jets in the papers but also had the side effect of making his players love him. As long as he kept winning, the party would never stop.

The problem was Sanchez. After those first two seasons, he stopped getting better. (This had been forecast by statistical analysts like Football Outsiders, which warned that Sanchez’s win-loss record was not indicative of his talent level.) He was roughly the same quarterback in 2011 that he was in 2010, except for the added unpleasantness of five more interceptions, absolute killers for a team that relies on ball control. A three-game losing streak to end the year, which included seven Sanchez picks, doomed the Jets to their first season out of the playoffs since Ryan took over. The season ended with star receiver Santonio Holmes in open revolt against his quarterback.

The Jets briefly flirted with Peyton Manning in the off-season—it would be more accurate to say they looked at Manning, and he ran away screaming—and, with a surprisingly small amount of attention, extended Sanchez’s contract to 2016. (Though the deal is easily ended with little to no penalty to the Jets after next season.) It was a vote of confidence in a quarterback who had perhaps not done enough to earn it, one the Jets have been accused of coddling. Just a few weeks after that extension, the Jets, stunning everyone (including, reportedly, Sanchez), traded for Tim Tebow. It was an all-in publicity move. Tebow’s arrival brought with it the slavish, creepy stalking of ESPN and more attention than even Ryan had ever managed. Ryan, doubling down, invited ESPN’s cameras to document the Jets’ training camp live—a curious move, considering Ryan had moved the Jets camp, when he first took over, to upstate Cortland to minimize distraction—and the die was cast. The Jets were the most hyped team in NFL history before they’d even played a game. You could sense the whole league cheering for them to lose.

Ryan, perhaps in reaction to this backlash (he has insisted since the trade was made that Tebow was a backup first and a backup only), has hitched his whole wagon to Sanchez, and this year, it’s been a disaster. Sanchez has reached his nadir, to the point that his frequent claims that he still has confidence in his abilities are beginning to feel vaguely Iraqi information minister. Sanchez has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in half the Jets’ games this year, and has killed several drives with red-zone turnovers. Combined with the Jets’ injuries on defense—especially the season-ending injury to cornerback Darrelle Revis, arguably the best defensive player in the league—the team has lost its margin for error. Every Sanchez mistake is now fatal.

In any other town and on any other team, Sanchez would be on the bench. But Ryan, backed into a corner by his claims that Sanchez is his guy, is stuck. Ryan has responded, in fact, by increasing the bluster, hollering just last week that the Jets would make the playoffs. Suddenly, Ryan was not the charming, blathering, slobbering crazy uncle everybody loves; he was the angry relative at Thanksgiving who refuses to believe President Obama won the election. This season, Ryan has gone from Joe Biden to Karl Rove.

Can Ryan survive this debacle of a season? Can he go from the new face of the Jets to just another guy representing the decades of futility without being shown the door? It now seems, as the years have gone by, that the Rex Ryan we all loved, the one who came in with a plan to change everything, may have had only one trick. That strategy relied on a healthy defense and a quarterback who didn’t make you worse. Ryan and the Jets now have neither. It’s possible Ryan survives this season, but to turn it around, he’s going to have to make dramatic changes—changes he’s shown no propensity or desire to make. Is he ready to give up on Sanchez? To start Tebow, and see what happens? Will he fire first-year offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to send a message? If not, it’s difficult to see how Ryan rights the ship.

For years, Ryan has entertained us and made us believe that there was something behind his bluster, that he knew what he was doing. And maybe he did. Maybe it’s not his fault that Sanchez has turned out to be so terrible. But this is where we are, and it’s going to be tough to recover. This might be over. Let’s go eat a goddamn snack.

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Rex Deflated