Monday, January 17, 2011

J-E-T-S Rex! Rex! Rex!

I can hardly believe it. The Jets, for the first time I can remember, are going to the AFC championship game for the second straight year, having taken out their hated rivals, the New England Patriots, in the process. No need to crow about the Patriots defeat; I’ll just say it’s extremely satisfying. I would, however, like to address the controversy surrounding the architect of this magical new Jet atmosphere, one Rex Ryan.

The line on Rex Ryan is that he’s boastful, shameless, classless. The Jets talk too much, people say. They think too much of themselves. I say, they have to, because if they don’t, who will?

The Jets have been disrespected for their entire 50+ year history. Before Joe Namath’s team stepped up, Super Bowl III was predicted to be a joke. The Jets were a 19 point underdog. They were barely considered a professional team.

We all know how that turned out.

Since then, the Jets have always been second class citizens to the older, more prominent, more successful New York Giants. Anyone will tell you, New York is a Giants town. And with good reason. Except for the Namath flare and a few good Sack Exchange years in the 80s, the Jets have given their fans little reason to get excited. Then along comes Rex Ryan.

Ryan had a big job ahead of him. Get rid of that “Same Old Jets” philosophy. Dispel an atmosphere of losing that has clouded this team for decades. Get rid of that “snakebit” attitude and trade it in for a winning one.

And he’s done just that. Sure, he’s done it by being a little louder than other coaches, but he’s had to be loud to be heard over the din of nonbelievers. Last year, NFL pundits and fans alike joked that teams were throwing games to get to face the Jets in the playoffs. Rex said “It doesn’t matter how we get there, just let us in, and we’ll prove we deserve to be here.” They let him in, and he responded by taking the team one game from the Super Bowl. This year, Patriot fans couldn’t wait to get on message boards and gloat about their 45-3 shellacking of the Jets in the regular season. Rex said “We’ll go back there and play them tomorrow, if they’ll let us.” It wasn’t the next day, but they let them come back, and we know how that turned out.

All of Rex’s supposedly classless boasting is in the service of his team. Sure, Rex has said he believes his team is the best and they’re going to win the Super Bowl. Good! If you don’t think that about your team, why bother coaching? Sure, Rex has said “its personal.” That’s because he wants his team to take it personally, because you need heart to win in the NFL, especially if you’re a team that no one thinks has a chance to win, going into hostile territory against the class of the league, week after week after week.

But what’s ignored is that Rex is in fact, pretty humble. The way his eyes light up when he realizes the Jets have made the playoffs, the joy he takes in winning these games that no one believes he can win, that is earnest, that's real. And Rex takes those moments, not to tout his own impressive record, but to brag about his players and how they have stepped up and made it happen. When Rex talks about games being "personal" it's always with clear respect for the opponent. It's personal because they're the best, and he wants to beat the best.

Here are the “boasts” he had to offer before the Colts game:

"You're never going to stop Peyton Manning, but you have to contain him enough to where he doesn't beat you by himself or light the scoreboard up, which he is capable of doing."

And some boasting about the Patriots and Bill Belichick:

"I recognize that I'm never going to be a better coach than him, My job is to be a better coach than him this week."

And after both games: “That’s a great team.” “That’s a great quarterback.” There’s no “they suck, we’re going to crush them,” from Rex. There’s no “they don’t deserve to be on the field with us.” The trash talk directed by Ryan towards Tom Brady (he who “hates” the Jets, he who points towards the sideline after a touchdown) is that he’s a pretty good quarterback (for the record, Rex also describes his defense as “pretty good”) who probably doesn’t study as much as Peyton Manning. Which he probably doesn’t.

You can complain all you want about Rex Ryan and his mouth, but the fact is the Jets need Rex Ryan, and I wonder if people are more upset about someone who refuses to accept the status quo, who isn’t afraid to upset the natural order of things in the NFL, than about Rex himself. Frankly, I wouldn’t have possibly the best coach in Jets history be any other way.

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