AFC East smackdown: Is June too soon to light a fire?

Rex Ryan is pugnacious by nature.

That's the short answer for why the new coach of the New York Jets decided to launch a bizarre war of words with the rest of the AFC East and why he probably doesn't have a single regret for doing so.

But it doesn't explain everything.

For some reason, most of us don't have a problem when we hear a player shoot his mouth off. For instance, Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter was simply being true to form when, in response to someone mentioning the New England Patriots being clear favorites to win the AFC East, he said the road to the division crown runs through Miami. Ditto for when Pats wide receiver Randy Moss felt the need to declare himself the "greatest wide receiver of all time."

But it's different with the guy who wears the headset. Picking fights in June, or at any time, probably doesn't rank among the wiser choices by an NFL head coach. That's why other coaches in the division are still scratching their heads over the public shot he took at Patriots coach Bill Belichick and at Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder after Crowder first jabbed Ryan for saying he wasn't going to kiss Belichick's Super Bowl rings.

Carucci chat

"I think the optimism over the Patriots' chances is driven by their tremendous offensive potential, mainly resulting from Tom Brady's healthy return from his knee injury but also because of his supporting cast. Offense is what drove the team to its incredible run in '07, with Brady, and it is what drove it to an 11-5, near-playoff finish in '08, without him and with a suspect defense. You do the math and it still says the Patriots look as good as any candidate to win it all." More ...

Crowder made the point that June wasn't the time for big talk and sarcastically congratulated Ryan for being the "OTA Super Bowl winner." Of Crowder, Ryan said, in part, before breaking into laughter, "…I've walked over tougher guys going to a fight than Channing Crowder."

Ryan has fast become a lightning rod in the division, and even some who would prefer not to get into such trash-talking feel compelled to comment.

"You don't do that," a coach of another AFC East squad said of Ryan's back-and-forth in the media. "It's a lack of maturity. It shows a lack of knowledge of (the role of) a head coach.

"This is just about publicity. 'Look at me! Look at me!' That's all it is."

Of course, some people can't help themselves. After all, Ryan is one of Buddy Ryan's two twin sons, and both have carried on with dad's tradition of leading with his chin. As defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, Buddy Ryan got into a very public in-game sideline brawl with Kevin Gilbride, the offensive coordinator of the same team. As an NFL head coach, Buddy was known for tough talk that often offended the opposition.

Rex and Rob Ryan, who are bigger and burlier than their father, coach with the same sort of edge. It is in keeping with everything else they've done since childhood. Rex likes to tell the story of when, after Buddy and his first wife divorced, he and his brother moved with their birth mother to Toronto, where they played hockey and football. Legend has it they were kicked out of a youth hockey league after only two games for spearing and generally being too rough on the other kids.

As Rex once told a reporter, "My brother and I were a bit of a handful. We were always in trouble, always on the fringe."

In his first season at the helm of an NFL team, Rex is far more visible and audible than his brother, now the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns (whose coach, Eric Mangini, mostly shields his assistants from reporters).

Typical of Rex was what he said when, as Baltimore's defensive coordinator, he was asked about the Ravens' forcing five turnovers (including four interceptions by Chad Pennington, a little more than half of what he had thrown all season) in their 27-9 divisional-round playoff victory over the Dolphins last January: "Hey, you hit 'em hard enough, every team will turn it over. We were in (Pennington's) face. We knew that if we could get him to have to try to make throws down the field that we'd get our opportunities and we'd try to punish him as much as we could."

Bold. Brash. Boisterous.

It defined Ryan through his formative years as a person and as a coach. It continues to define him at the top of his field.

He clearly enjoys being on the largest stage of his life. Just as when he was a defensive coordinator, Ryan believes a major part of his job is to do whatever he can to raise the competitiveness of his players to the highest level possible. That means challenging his own players in the meeting room and on the practice field … and taking the same in-your-face approach with the opposition.

The question is, could it pose any larger problem for him in his current role than it did in his previous job?

It's doubtful the Patriots or Dolphins will specifically set out to raise their games to a higher level just because Ryan was talking smack in the offseason. Put it this way: If that's what they need for motivation, then it probably doesn't speak all that well about whatever else they have to bring to those games.

Still, there are some AFC East coaches who don't think Ryan did himself or the Jets any favors. They simply can't see the point in engaging with a coach or a player from any opponent, let alone those that he must face twice per year.

And they agree that he should have thought twice before tweaking the nose of Belichick, who had no response for Ryan's rings crack.

"Whatever you want to say about Bill, he has the pelts," one coach in the division said. "(Ryan) has nothing."

The Jets might very well have the sort of dominant defense that Ryan was able to build in Baltimore. Yet, their chances of having a better team than the defending AFC East-champion Dolphins or the Patriots, both of whom finished 11-5 last season, could be severely compromised by the fact they won't have an accomplished starting quarterback.

In all likelihood, the Jets will enter the year with rookie Mark Sanchez as their starter. That, alone, could easily make Ryan's first season as a head coach a very humbling experience.

"You can't win without a quarterback, and right now (the Jets) don't know what they have at that position beyond a lot of hype," an AFC East coach said. "Nobody knows what (Sanchez) is going to be. He might very well be another Matt Leinart.

"And I don't care how good a defense you have or what kind of (other offensive) weapons you have. If you don't have a quarterback, you're not going to win."

Only time will tell just how cheap all of that chatter in the AFC East will prove to be.

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