Six weeks after enduring an embarrassing 45-3 Monday Night Football beatdown at the hands of the New England Patriots, the Jets drew a playoff rematch with the Pats that most fans and analysts foresaw as a sordid sequel. Yet as he addressed his players several days before that divisional-round game in January of 2011, Ryan, the Jets' second-year coach, projected a cocksure optimism that captivated the locker room.
"After we got stomped in New England, he was like, 'Look, that game is done, and we buried it,' " recalls retired offensive lineman Damien Woody, who spent the last of his 12 NFL seasons with the 2010 Jets. "Then, when it was time for the rematch, he said, 'Look at what's being said out there. See, nobody thinks you have a shot. The only people who believe are right here. And guess what: We're gonna go out and show everybody who we really are. And then everybody's gonna be on your nuts.' "
The man wasn't lying. Riding the strength of Ryan's motivational magic -- and, more importantly, a brilliant defensive game plan that neutralized Tom Brady and the Pats' high-powered offense -- the Jets shocked the football world with a 28-21 upset that would embed the words Can't wait! into the football lexicon.
And though few observers would confuse the 2013 Jets with the 2010 team that reached a second consecutive AFC Championship Game, many of the men who've played for or coached with Ryan believe he's capable of pulling off another stunner: Keeping his talent-deficient squad competitive enough for him to retain his job beyond this season.
Coming off a last-second 18-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last Sunday's season opener -- a triumph made possible only by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David's brain lock -- the Jets (1-0) return to Foxborough, Mass., on Thursday tied with the Patriots and Miami Dolphins atop the AFC East. While the Pats, who've dominated the division for more than a decade, are heavy favorites, Ryan certainly has a plan that he believes will give his much-maligned team a legitimate chance to win.
For all the justifiable criticism Ryan and first-year general manager John Idzik have received for a sloppily handled quarterback competition and other signs of organizational dysfunction, the head coach isn't giving in to the gloom and doom. After all, he believes he's got the chops to make his team competitive in virtually any context -- and he might not be as crazy as he sounds.
"One thing you cannot question about Rex Ryan is that his passion -- some people might call it braggadocio -- is real," says former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, for whom Ryan served as an assistant for nine years, the last three as defensive coordinator. "It is founded. Some people might say it's irrational, but he believes it to the core. In his heart of hearts, he believes that he can do this."
Says likely Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who played for Rex's Jets in 2010 and '11: "Can he coach his way off the hot seat? I think he can. He's already on the right track. Nobody expected them to beat Tampa Bay. And I think he can survive past this season. They need to recognize the lack of talent there and what he's up against. It won't be easy. But is he a good enough coach to do it? Hell yeah he is."
While the man against whom Ryan will coach on Thursday, Bill Belichick, is widely considered the foremost defensive strategist of his generation, many football insiders believe that, in terms of X's and O's, the two men are on the same level. When Woody, who played for both head coaches, says of Ryan, "He's a genius on the defensive side of the football," it's not mere hyperbole. Many of the NFL's most highly regarded coaches and talent evaluators marvel at Ryan's strategic acumen.
"Rex is an outstanding coach, as good as I've ever been around," says Billick, who coached the Ravens from 1999-2007. "His is as good a mind for defensive football as there's ever been in our league. He understands players and how to put players in the right positions -- and he understands schemes.
"He will always believe that, schematically, he can do something to beat you. We had teams in Baltimore that weren't as good, when Ray (Lewis) was hurt or when we'd lost some key players, and he found a way to stop other teams. And, more importantly, he's gonna have the players believing that their scheme will find a way -- call it a magic bullet."
Woody recalls that before the Jets' playoff upset of the Pats three seasons ago, Ryan devised an approach that was completely different from the one New York had employed in the regular-season debacle in Foxborough.
"Rex has got so many different schemes that it's crazy," Woody says. "That gives him options. The week before we played the Patriots in the playoffs, he said, 'Look, on defense, we're gonna flood the middle of the field. They love to throw between the numbers. We're gonna get all over Wes Welker. We're gonna make (Brady) go outside the numbers and we're gonna get after him. And then he'll start seeing ghosts.'
"And that's what happened: Once we started hitting Brady and nothing was good in the middle of the field, we knew we had them. On offense, we just ran the ball, kept it simple and did what we had to do to win."
That was back when quarterback Mark Sanchez had a semblance of swagger. Now Sanchez, coming off a miserable 2012 season in which his confidence was decimated, might be facing season-ending shoulder surgery that would likely end his career with the Jets. ESPN's Chris Mortensen first broke the news late Wednesday night that Sanchez has a labral tear in his right (throwing) shoulder. While surgery is a possibility, NFL Media's Albert Breer and Ian Rapoport report that Sanchez is exploring other options as opposed to immediately going under the knife.
Sanchez incurred the injury after Ryan inserted him into the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the New York Giants, a move for which he was sharply criticized. That has been a recurring theme for the Jets' fifth-year coach in recent months. Yet, despite the ominous headlines, Ryan has maintained his bravado. While outsiders scoff at the team's dearth of offensive weapons and the notion that a raw rookie (second-round draft pick Geno Smith) now appears to be the team's undisputed starting quarterback, Ryan envisions a blueprint for survival -- and, perhaps, even success.
"He believes he can take a rookie quarterback (with potential accuracy issues) and figure out a way to win -- in a division that, as he's looking at it, is very winnable," Billick says. "Now, in New England, we're gonna get a test. This isn't Tampa Bay with Josh Freeman, who's struggling. This is Tom Brady -- though he's a Tom Brady without 80 percent of his receptions from last year on the field."
Says Woody: "He really believes that he has a team that will enable him to be with the Jets beyond this year. Because he feels like his defense will keep him in the game. He feels like, if Geno Smith doesn't shoot himself in the foot and put them in bad situations, the defense will keep them in games, and he'll find a way.
"(The Tampa game) is gonna be the blueprint for them this year. It's winning ugly. They don't have the ideal personnel for offense right now. If he can win that way, there's really no reason for them to get rid of Rex. If Geno's your guy, why bring in a new system and set him back a year?"
If Ryan does survive past this season, says one NFL coach who has worked with him, "it would be pretty surprising. He believes everything he says, but at the end of the day, sometimes his beliefs are not reality. He'll tell his players they're the toughest in the league, that the other team is soft, but that's not always the case. And when you play a team like the Patriots, that whole 'keep-it-close-and-let-the-defense-win-it' thing is tough to pull off. Usually, you've got to find a way to score."
Certainly, Thursday's game at Gillette Stadium carries far less importance than that playoff clash 32 months ago -- but to Woody, it's still steeped in significance. And as someone who helped Ryan pull off that epic upset, Woody knows his former coach will project a similar sense of self-confidence to the current Jets players.
"Rex is the eternal optimist," Woody says. "He would never, ever show that he's defeated. That's just Rex. He's always looking for the positive side to spin it to the players.
"I'm really interested in this Thursday. It's a real pivotal game. They've got to go on the road, with a quick turnaround, and if they somehow can beat New England -- who is vulnerable -- they'll start to believe, and they'll feed off their coach's confidence."
Perhaps, against all odds, Ryan will coach his way out of this mess. It might not seem plausible to the outside world -- but rest assured, it does to him.