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Rex Ryan lacks usual bluster in critical year with New York Jets

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When he finally agreed to an audience, at the dawn of the fifth year in his reign, on the eve of yet another confrontation with the hated New York Giants, it occurred to me that that only two New York Jets have ever issued Super Bowl guarantees. The other was Joe Namath.

Rex Ryan, of course, has famously sworn off championship promises, which, unlike Namath, he proclaimed soberly, repeatedly and with the highest degree of premeditation.

"That was probably a mistake," Ryan reiterated last week.

At 50, Rex appeared skinny and chastened. The erstwhile protagonist of HBO's "Hard Knocks" has retired his profane persona. And I find myself only mildly ashamed to admit that the world is poorer for it.

People like me -- especially me, to be frank -- have made an industry of lampooning the Jets (or, as the great Dan Jenkins once referred to them, "the dog-ass Jets") and their eternally tragic, occasionally comic quest to find a successor to Broadway Joe.

Just the same, no one needs a circumspect Rex Ryan. No one needs another football coach who sounds like he needs a bran muffin. You can love Rex. You can loathe him. Either position is easily justified. Just be honest: You miss that perceptive prince of bombast. And, perhaps, the Jets will, too.

A while back, Ryan explained his many guarantees as an attempt to "will a championship." He came close, going to consecutive AFC championship games with a woefully undermanned (I would argue; he would not) roster. But now I can't help but wonder if his authority and will have diminished with his girth.

"The only thing that's different about me is my physical appearance," he said. "I'm 120 pounds lighter. If I could get more wins by being heavier, I'd go back. But I'm the exact same person. The same passion. The same energy. The same drive. Maybe even more so."

Maybe he's right. Nevertheless, the beast he fed now threatens to devour him. It's not just the media, but the expectations he himself engendered with all the tough talk and guarantees. Ryan spoke of this season as "a new beginning." But I know from experience how this works. He's officially entered the "embattled" stage of his tenure with the Jets.

The papers and blogs have been forecasting his doom. He's a lame duck, they say. He lost his best player when Darrelle Revis was traded, and his ally when general manager Mike Tannenbaum was fired. As my former colleague, Steve Serby of the New York Post, put it: "If the owner didn't love Rex, he'd be out of a job, too."

Still, Woody Johnson's patronage can't save the coach forever. Tannenbaum's replacement, John Idzik, is not "Rex's guy." Then again, even if Rex had a guy, he doesn't have a quarterback. Rookie Geno Smith threw three picks in the first half against the Giants. He also ran out of the end zone for a safety. By contrast, Mark Sanchez's preseason offenses merely include a pick-six and a red-zone interception. Even the idea that he's led the league in turnovers the past two years now seems moot. After inexplicably coming on in the fourth quarter, Sanchez left with his shoulder wrapped in ice.

Yes, what Shakespeare wrote of kings also applies to coaches named Rex: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

That's from Henry IV, Part II -- a story of fathers, sons and succession. Kind of like Rex and his old man, Buddy.

Buddy Ryan, it's worth mentioning, was the defensive line coach on the Jets' only Super Bowl team. Not long after Rex's hiring, Buddy admonished his son: "That's my team. Don't screw it up."

Four and a half years later, you wonder, not if Rex has screwed it up, but rather, if he was destined to repeat the sins of the father. As the inventor of the 46 scheme, and some of the game's most extravagantly aggressive blitz packages, Buddy ranks among football's greatest defensive minds. But as a head coach, he'd announce himself by congratulating the local media: "You've got a winner in town."

Hubris. And defense. They're in the Ryan DNA.

Actually, the Jets' quarterbacking fiasco obscures Rex's best work. It's not just the consecutive AFC title games. Until 2012, he never had a defense -- either as a coordinator or a head coach -- finish worse than sixth in the league. Even last season, with a lackluster pass rush and Revis lost in Week 3, the Jets still finished second in pass defense.

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You get the idea that Rex's real conceit is the notion that the quarterback doesn't matter all that much. If he's to prove people wrong, he'll do it with defense.

He's heard what's being said: that Sheldon Richardson, drafted with the 13th overall pick, doesn't fit his scheme; that Quinton Coples is too big to play linebacker.

"Are you going to surprise us?" I asked last week.

"With a defense?" he said. "I don't think it'll be a surprise because I think we'll be outstanding. How can that surprise anybody? There's no way that's going to surprise people when we have a great defense."

That's the Rex I'm talking about. That's the guy I missed.

Still, you hear he's less than a year from a television gig. Makes sense in theory. After all, it's not a medium that rewards subtlety.

Where are you going to be this time next year, I asked, still coaching the New York Jets?

"I certainly anticipate that."

That a guarantee?

"I'm out of the guarantee business."

A few nights later, following his team's disastrous quarterback showing against the Giants, Ryan was asked about his signal-callers. This was a Rex I hadn't seen before: neither confident nor composed, neither chastened nor braggadocious, more petulant than defiant. "I can say anything I want," he said to the assembled press. "That's the beauty of this country ... Here, I'll stand backwards and answer the question. I'm going sideways ..."

Rex Ryan was tempting the beast, daring it, laying his uneasy head squarely in its jaws.

Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.

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