You read that correctly.
Brace yourselves, haters.
He is polarizing. He can be lovable and loathsome, depending on which team you root for. But when you get past the bluster, you have to respect Rex Ryan as a winner.
He's George Steinbrenner, Barney Rubble, Barnum and Bailey and Bill Belichick rolled into one. He will rub you the wrong way, trying to win while making sure his team simultaneously dominates the back pages in New York and gets plenty of national exposure. He's a cartoon character, a true showman and genuine ringmaster for the Jets' big-top circus.
But don't overlook the comparison to Belichick; he's also a great defensive-minded head coach. Players love playing for him. He is fueled and motivated by the epic collapse that killed the Jets' playoff hopes in 2011. The key is that he's smart enough to implement the changes he needs while staying true to his core beliefs.
I spoke at length with Ryan on a hot Friday morning at training camp in Cortland, N.Y., for an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio. He was literally and figuratively different than he's been before. He's lost 100 pounds. He is healthier, sharper, more energized. He was also humbled. That's not a characteristic one would ever have associated with the loudmouth in the past.
Ryan called last season "embarrassing, frustrating, and humbling," and meant every single word. He learned a valuable lesson while losing the pulse of the Jets, who bickered and bumbled their way to an 8-8 finish by dropping three straight to the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. The Jets missed the playoffs for the first time in Ryan's three years coaching in New York. He vowed they wouldn't miss the postseason again.
"I build teams," Ryan said. "I trusted our team last year. We were coming off of back-to-back AFC title games. I assumed we had the chemistry. We didn't have the chemistry. We didn't go to Cortland last year with the lockout. We lost control. And of course, the Super Bowl guarantee thing."
Last year, at the NFL Scouting Combine, with an NFL Network camera following him into the interview room, Ryan walked to the interview stage like a WWE wrestler before declaring the Jets would win the big one. Remember, this was February of 2011, just weeks before labor Armageddon ground the offseason to a halt. Everyone in the room knew the free-agency period wasn't going to start on time. Ryan didn't know who was going to be on his team. As I watched the scene unfold, my jaw dropped to the floor. Ryan had officially jumped the shark, securing his future as the boy who cried Super Bowl.
Ryan said he's learned since then. And there's good reason to believe him. Perhaps you haven't noticed -- thanks to the insanity surrounding the addition of Tim Tebow -- but there have been no guarantees this year.
The "new Rex" has been seriously tested this offseason. Santonio Holmes has put forth nonsense on a seemingly daily basis, but Ryan has handled the receiver's comments with aplomb. Ryan had a ripe opportunity to gin up controversy when President Obama recently offered his take on Tebow, Mark Sanchez and the Jets' quarterback situation, creating headlines that screamed for an appearance by the old Rex. Can't you just imagine the back pages of the New York tabloids? Would he talk politics? Would he challenge the president to a fight -- or a football game -- on the White House lawn? Instead, Ryan refused to comment on the matter. It was a rather significant turning point.
Most recently, Ryan has had to deal with some attention-grabbing fist-fights erupting during practices. Ryan broke up a brawl on Monday, then forced the team to run laps after a pair of skirmishes interrupted Tuesday's workouts. He's sending a clear message that he won't tolerate anything but a disciplined approach.
In addition to changing his appearance and his ways, Ryan has changed his coaching staff. Brian Schottenheimer is a good offensive coordinator. He just wasn't a mirror image of Rex Ryan. Exit Schottenheimer and enter Tony Sparano. Ryan raved about the incredible energy Sparano has brought to the team since he was hired. Ryan stumbled as a head coach by trusting Schottenheimer with the offense in 2011, failing to ensure he would implement the team's signature "ground-and-pound" approach. There will be no such problems with Sparano. Ryan took similar steps to address the Jets' sporadic pass rush, hiring defensive-line coach Karl Dunbar, who maximized the abilities of Jared Allen with the Minnesota Vikings. Watch second-year pro Muhammad Wilkerson thrive under his guidance.
Here's the key. Ryan has attempted to be less controversial, but he remains super confident, recently saying he's the best defensive mind in the NFL. OK, he's not Belichick or Dick LeBeau, but I'd put Ryan next on that list. His body of work speaks for itself. He has worked hand-in-hand with coordinator -- and longtime friend -- Mike Pettine to coach the defense. Now Ryan is taking ownership, planning to call plays. With Sparano implementing Ryan's offensive plan, he can focus more intensely on defense and on improving his in-game management.
Ryan was livid that his defense finished fifth last year, though frankly, if you watched the Jets play, you wondered how they ranked that high. The Jets showed poor tackling fundamentals and struggled in the fourth quarter, and it made Ryan sick. He vowed that his defense wouldn't finish that low again. He has the fire. He has the résumé. He has player support; as linebacker David Harris said, "We refuse to let him down again."
Please don't misinterpret my point. The New England Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC, let alone the AFC East, and an improved Buffalo Bills squad will only make the division tougher. But Ryan has transformed a squad that had the life sucked out of it by his predecessor, Eric Mangini. Ryan has given the Jets a chance to win big every year since he took over.
He doesn't do it like Belichick, or, for that matter, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin or Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy. Ryan has learned and grown while staying true to himself. It will help the Jets win the Super Bowl one day. And once they do, he won't ever stop talking.