Rex Deflated

Illustration by André Carrilho

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?

Much of the Jets’ problems have come down to bad luck. They dominated the Broncos game and still lost. They played well enough to beat both Oakland and the Patriots on the road earlier this year but didn’t. They’ve had a difficult first half of the schedule and have faced teams (like the Raiders and the Broncos) right when they were peaking. But that ineffable “luck” is precisely what has always been on the Jets’ side over the last two years. You don’t go from a wild card to the AFC Championship Game two straight years without having luck on your side. (If you want to call luck “slight statistical aberrations,” you can do that too.) Ryan’s trick has always been mixing luck and bravado, like he knew success was going to happen the whole time. He didn’t look like that after the Tebow touchdown.

There is also the issue of the quarterback. The Jets had done so well with Mark Sanchez at the helm over his first two years that his deficiencies—accuracy, arm strength, his tendency to stare at his intended receivers—were often overlooked, particularly when he was often playing his best football in the fourth quarter. But his critical, crushing interception against the Broncos made more people believe that Sanchez, in his third season, isn’t progressing. He might actually be getting worse. Ryan even had to give Sanchez the dreaded vote of confidence last week. Sanchez’s one job is to not make mistakes, and in his third year, he just keeps making more. The man is not a lost cause; his career statistics so far compare favorably to Eli Manning’s over his first three seasons, and one shouldn’t forget how terrific he was in the second half of the title-game loss to the Steelers last year. But still-unrealized potential does the Jets no good right now.

You can make an argument that the last two years have been a bit of a Jets bubble, a curious confluence of circumstances that led to irrational exuberance. After all, the Jets still haven’t beat the Patriots for the division title, and if they somehow right the ship and make the playoffs this year, they’ll have to do so running the same wild-card, road-game gauntlet they did the last two seasons. This was supposed to be the year the Jets made the next step. To believe in the all-healing powers of Ryan, the continued upward trajectory is essential. We all have to believe. It’s pretty difficult to believe right now.

Now, true, the Jets have been in tougher spots than this one. Two years ago, they were 4-6 after ten games, and they made the AFC Championship Game that year. But one gets the sense that the Jets have used up too much of their magic, that fate has smiled on them long enough. Ryan seems to sense it himself. That’s the scariest part of all of this.

Hey: Maybe this is setting up for another crazed run from the wild-card spot, another goofy postseason confluence of circumstances, the loony Ryan-Jets kismet that has brought the team to those two consecutive AFC Championship Games. Maybe this column will end up as much a relic as Ryan’s statement two years ago, when, thinking his team had already been mathematically eliminated, he said, “We’re obviously out of the playoffs.” Maybe this is just one more big Jets setup and Ryan and his charges will emerge triumphant, and as un-Jets-like as one could imagine, once more. It’s possible.

But if it isn’t, and the Jets end up missing the playoffs and spending the offseason wondering what went wrong, the knives will be out and the Ryan mystique will be officially shattered. He’ll just be a loudmouth guy who couldn’t get the Jets where he promised us they would go. I want him to be more than that. I want him to juggle cars. I want him to flip off Bill Belichick. I want him to make more foot-fetish videos and then just laugh about it in that barrel-chested, uninhibited, genuine way. No one has been more fun than these Jets and Rex Ryan. But it might be time to say good-bye. It might be that, after all, these really are the same old Jets.

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Rex Deflated