|Julio Cortez/Associated Press|
|Fourth-year Jets coach Rex Ryan has dropped 90 pounds since undergoing lap-band surgery in March of 2010.|
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan listens to his players, sometimes compromises with them, often agrees with them. So, when a particular request came -- loudly and frequently from the locker room masses -- the coach obliged.
"Cover your skinny arms," the players chorused.
Followed by this: "Rex, go do some curls."
"My arms," Ryan will admit, "are like twigs."
Spandex, linebacker Bart Scott suggested, might best serve Ryan's newly fitter frame. "As he shrinks," Scott reasoned, "it'll go with him."
Ryan's response? "I'm going to pass on spandex."
Clearly, Ryan's fat-guy-in-a-little-coat days appear to be over. At the very least, the man requires a skilled tailor to address his suddenly oversized wardrobe.
"We tell him," nose tackle Sione Pouha said, "if he's got it, he's got to flaunt it."
Ryan's weight loss is the human-interest sidebar to what has been a fascinating offseason in Florham Park. And we're not referring solely to the acquisition of Tim Tebow.
"The lap-band surgery," Ryan said, "has been tremendous."
The skinnier Rex Ryan gets, the more his players see of him. The man who has lost 90 pounds is everywhere, almost literally spreading himself thin.
"Every single meeting we've had, he's been there," outside linebacker Aaron Maybin said, referring to the defensive classroom. "I can't remember one where he wasn't front and center."
Ryan will not only explain a play, but will provide the big-picture reason behind running it. He doesn't just want execution. He wants understanding. The young players in the room -- the Jets have devoted their first-round draft pick the past two seasons to the defensive line (Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples) -- might benefit most. But even the older guys appreciate the education. Ryan said he was most satisfied during one meeting to see Scott, who knows the defense almost as well as he does, taking notes.
"Who can teach his defense better than him?" Scott said. "He has the ability to teach young guys and talk to them in a language which is understandable to them and simplifies things."
The disappointment of the Jets' 8-8 season hasn't just taken some of the offseason bluster from the head coach, it led to self-evaluation that seemingly has left Ryan more comfortable than ever in his own skin.
"For me to be at my best," Ryan has decided, "I need to do something I'm decent at, which is coach."
Said Scott, "People forget that Rex was a great defensive line coach."
Ryan is, at his core, as much a teacher of the game as he is a voice-of-the-franchise kind of guy -- even if he has been as guilty as anyone in muddling that message in recent years.
"Sitting in the head coach's chair doesn't work for me," he told NFL.com Thursday. "I need to be in there. I need to talk to the players. Every one of these players is mine. I need to be with them."
It's as if Ryan has realized that he need not speak in tabloid-friendly headlines to be heard. For example, this is as close as he comes to a guarantee these days: "I will have the pulse of this football team. I'm saying that right now. I will be better than any coach in the league from that standpoint."
(We will take this opportunity to caution that it is June -- barely June -- and Rex could become Rex again when temptation lurks in the form of microphones and television cameras in the days before the Jets begin their season or take on the Patriots. Anything is possible. But, for now, there is calm. Whether it is the calm before another storm is a fair question.)
Ryan never knew what happened last season, he said, when his team crumbled from the inside out. The locker room, as Darrelle Revis has recollected, dissolved into "disarray." All while the head coach with the open-door policy sat in his office, ignorant to it all. As part of his offseason resolve to change, Ryan has attended more offensive meetings this year than he did all of 2011.
"A little bit more interested in the offense than he was in the past" is how right tackle Wayne Hunter, a gentle speaker not prone to exaggeration, characterized Ryan.
In the past, Ryan has expressed almost disdain for the offensive side of the ball. (He will still acknowledge it, joking in April that he just couldn't muster excitement about moving up in the second round of the draft to select a, gulp, wide receiver in Stephen Hill.) But with new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano running the show, Ryan's far more involved.
"I was in a wideout meeting one day, and I said I don't know what else I can bring to the table, but let me tell you why you're going to come off 100 mph to run a draw play," he said. "(I explained) what it does to the defense, how you recognize the coverage and whatever. I'm trying to do everything I can."
As they always do, his actions have resonated.
"When you have a head coach who's excited and passionate, it inspires a locker room," Maybin said.
Over the past two months, a Ryan press conference might last 22 minutes and alternate between a healthy dose of introspection and downright self-flagellation. Ryan says he and his team have moved past last season, but even he can't completely let it go.
"It stings me that I let the fans down," Ryan said. "I let myself down, that kills me, no question. I let the fans down. That kills me."
And he doesn't shy away from talking about his infamous Super Bowl guarantees, even if he has stopped issuing them.
"Well, I admit I made a mistake by saying all that stuff before," he said. "There's no doubt. I guess I've got to apologize for saying it all the time. I made a mistake, there's no question."
But this is, in many ways, a new Rex Ryan, one who went vanilla in describing the AFC as "a real competitive conference" and the AFC East as a division that "is going to be tough sledding."
He didn't take the bait Thursday on a question about the perception that the New England Patriots have reclaimed their dominance over the Jets. Even if it did appear that Ryan nearly bit a hole through his tongue in showing such restraint.
"Do I catch myself a little bit?" he said later. "That's probably true."
He added, "I'm not making guarantees because it doesn't help anybody, as I learned. But I'm still going to be me."
Call this a refined Rex Ryan. Determined to change since last year, he has. And in some ways, he's no longer the man who two years ago was captured by "Hard Knocks" cameras punctuating a spirited lecture to his players by saying, "Let's go eat a (expletive) snack."
No, he's not that guy anymore.
Asked if he can remember the last time he ate pretzel M&Ms, once his favorite snack by the bucketful, Ryan stares off into space and a distant look comes over his face. He finally smiles faintly and comes up with the answer.
"No," he says, "I don't."
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