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Don't boo Rex Ryan; appreciate his imperfect beauty

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As the pregame clock on the scoreboard counted down, it became clear: Rex Ryan, making his return to MetLife Stadium for the first time since his dismissal from the Jets last December, would not be coming on the field for warmups.

Normally, he couldn't be pried away. Ryan was a staple here, snaking his way through the stretching line and bear-hugging his current and former players. It was in those moments that he was truly complete, fully immersed in the aspects of the game he enjoyed the most -- the atmosphere, the music, the banter, the camaraderie.

On Thursday night, that changed, but perhaps not for the reasons everyone expected. From the outside, it looked like another classic Ryan stunt. By not making a grand entrance, he was making a grand entrance. As a horde of photographers waited by the northeast tunnel, Ryan was sequestered inside the locker room, once again leaving them to want more.

But the truth, the one that many refuse to believe about the Bills head coach to this day, was that he was thinking of his players.

He was thinking of them earlier this week when he came out in a Clemson helmet and when he peppered his news conferences with jokes and jabs at the Patriots. Ryan has always been willing to make himself the punching bag because in his mind -- regardless of whether or not it's true -- he believes there is an advantage in removing attention from his players. It was a lesson he learned early on during his tenure as Jets head coach.

He was thinking of them Thursday night, opting not to subject them to the cacophony of snapping cameras and the trail of reporters. He didn't want them to break focus amid what could have been a spectacle.

"You guys made it all about me (this week) and that's why I stayed in," he said with a nod to his master plan after a 22-17 win. "It had jack s--- to do about me."

When he eventually crossed the threshold and toed the artificial FieldTurf, it was 8:12 p.m. ET. A light rain began soaking the spotted crowd and Ryan was booed.

Outside in the parking lot, fans burned an effigy of Ryan wearing Bills gear. The person holding the Tiki Torch held out his middle finger with his free hand while the cardboard caught fire and a group of fans circled around chanting "F--- YOU REX!" Through the stadium, there were televisions tuned to a local sports channel that played some of the coach's "greatest hits," including the time he dressed up like his brother, Rob, wig and all before the Jets took on the Browns in 2010. People laughed, because in so many minds, Ryan's tenure here was just a running joke.

Perhaps these fans conveniently forgot about the time they waited for hours just to shake Ryan's hand and deliver him some Pretzel M&Ms at a Barnes & Noble during his book tour back in 2011. Maybe they forgot about the two straight AFC title game appearances and how Ryan's rock-star persona lifted the franchise from irrelevance and loaded the team with superstar free agents.

At one point in 2010, the Jets' roster contained Bart Scott, LaDainian Tomlinson, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Jayson Taylor, Darrelle Revis, Trevor Pryce, Shaun Ellis and Antonio Cromartie. Maybe the team was imperfect, but for a few years, it was fun as hell to be a Jets fan again.

"You know what? Now I can talk the truth," Ryan said Thursday when asked if it was satisfying to beat the team that fired him. "This thing is kind of like being dumped by some girl you had the hots for and all that stuff ... that's really what it feels like. But hey, you move on and every now and then they call you back, but they can't get you back."

Ryan gave those in attendance Thursday the same mix of good and bad. This rendition of the Bills is probably the best team he's coached since his final playoff run in 2010. LeSean McCoy went for 112 yards and Karlos Williams caught a 26-yard touchdown pass. Sammy Watkins out-muscled Darrelle Revis for a catch that sealed the game. Ryan's postgame news conference was a masterpiece; the perfect amalgamation of jokes, a touching tribute to the Jets and the Hampton family after the loss of their legendary father, Bill, and a gentle middle finger to all his critics assembled in the room.

"(New York papers should) recognize your coach, not the one who used to coach here," Ryan said. "I'm on the front page and all that stuff and you know I love that, but really? But I'm still smiling too, New York Post."

But there was also the same Ryan that frustrated and confounded fans for the better part of a decade. With 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, he was already out of timeouts and coaching challenges. Maybe it was the added adrenaline that caused him to spike his headset and Bills cap once Bacarri Rambo picked off a pass with 24 seconds to go, cementing the win.

There's no telling exactly what was going through Ryan's mind as he walked an empty locker room during Thursday's pregame, but those who know him well insist the game meant more to him than he was letting on. Ryan associated an immense amount of pride with coaching in New York. He was hired as an overweight, foul-mouthed, near-college dropout during a particular era where executives preferred a CEO more than a football coach. Jets owner Woody Johnson took a tremendous risk at the time and Ryan earnestly wanted to pay him back.

He was not perfect. But Ryan was always himself -- as long as he was allowed to be. Jets fans writing him off as nothing more than a .500 football coach were missing the point, and hopefully, amid a manic, pacing performance where Ryan cursed and punched and spiked his way to a win, they rediscovered Thursday some of what they once loved.

After the game, he walked back through the Bills' locker room and McCoy, screaming Ryan's name louder and louder by the second, wrapped his coach in a giant hug.

Every game, all season

Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham laughed when he heard Ryan compared getting let go by the Jets to getting dumped by a hot girl.

"Well, hopefully he's got a hotter one now," he said, laughing.

Bradham was more serious, though, when he was asked about what this game really meant to Ryan. Almost every player talked about the victory like it was a gift. A win for Rex. A win we gave him.

They were thinking of him, too.

"It probably meant everything to him, man," Bradham said. "For all the hard work he put in and the way they sent him out? It wasn't right for the kind of person he is. He's a great person."

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