The first time Brian Billick met Rex Ryan was at a coaching clinic in Montreal. Ryan was a college defensive coordinator at the time and he was the speaker slated to address the audience before Billick.
As Billick remembers it, there were only four people in attendance at the clinic but that didn’t stop Ryan from selling his wares.
“I come down into the lecture hall and there’s Rex and you would have thought there was 4,000 people there,” Billick told Metro. “He was coaching his ass off.”
When the Ravens hired Billick as their head coach in 1999, he made sure to look up Ryan and offer him an assistant job. From there, Ryan would progress from defensive line coach to coordinator to associate head coach before he left to become the Jets’ head coach following the 2008 season.
Ryan has survived six years with the Jets and is currently tied for fourth all-time on the franchise’s list of coaches with the most wins. He won over the jaded Jets fanbase early, not just because of consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances but because of his unique passion and bravado off the field.
“There are very few people I know who have a better sense of the game, especially on the defensive side, than Ryan,” Billick said. “Rex is what you see, what you got. When he tells you something — he can be right, he can be wrong — but he believes what he is telling you. When he tells you that Geno Smith can be a quarterback, he means it. He can be right, he can be wrong, but he means it.”
On the record, off the record or on the moon, the players in the Jets locker room are behind their head coach. There is universal respect for the man they simply call “Rex.” He isn’t coach, he’s “Rex.”
Ryan cried in front of his team in 2009 when he thought their playoff dreams were dashed. He has stood at the podium time after time and painted a positive image of his team in a losing season. He got a penalty in 2010 during the playoffs for celebrating a touchdown on the field with his team. “Rex is always Rex,” linebacker Bryan Thomas once said.
The 2014 season hasn’t gone according to plan. After a surprising 8-8 record last year, Ryan was rewarded with a one-year contract extension by general manager John Idzik, who is in his second year with the team. There were hopes of a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Instead, the Jets are 1-5 and staring another loss in the face on Thursday night at the Patriots.
It doesn’t help that the Jets had a relatively poor free agency period, which has handicapped them with a lack of talent and depth. Bart Scott, now an analyst on “The NFL Today” on CBS and a former player of Ryan’s at the Ravens and the Jets, thinks the Jets head coach will fall on the sword for their poor offseason.
Scott blames management for a talent deficiency he says gives the Jets “the worst talent in the division.”
“Why spend money when he’s not your guy?” Scott told Metro. “I don’t think Rex is [Idzik’s] guy. I think he has a guy; I don’t know if he’s available. Everybody has a guy. When Rex got the job, everyone knew [Mike] Pettine was going to be defensive coordinator; Dennis Thurman was going to employed. It’s just human nature. You’re always going to bring in people you trust. I’m not saying he’s pushing Rex off the cliff but he’s not giving him a lifeline either.
“Rex essentially won last year with his players and the roster he had previous players on. Now those guys are leaving and now Idzik is saving the money I believe for who he is going to hire next. Of course they are going to deny. But anyone who understands human nature knows you want to hire the guy you’re comfortable with.”
Cole Proctor remembers Ryan before he hired him to be his defensive coordinator in 1990 at Morehead State. He was impressed immediately with his coordinator’s knowledge of the game, even if his coaching resume was light. He’d spent two years at Eastern Kentucky as a graduate assistant and one season at New Mexico Highlands as a coordinator. Ryan, of course, had grown up in a football family. His father, Buddy Ryan, was one of the greatest minds in the game and his twin brother Rob would also become a renowned defensive coordinator.
In 1993, Proctor had just suffered a heart attack and was recovering at his house when he heard a noise and took a peak out his window.
“Rex was out there, mowing my lawn,” Proctor said. “He saw a need and he did it. That’s Rex.”
Proctor remembers Ryan as a coordinator who was the first to arrive at the team’s facility every day. He was a closer on the recruiting trail.
“Rex came on board and took over as defensive coordinator. He did an excellent job for us,” Proctor said. “He’d been around this all of his life. His dad coaching the New York Jets [as an assistant] and of course with the Bears and the Eagles. Rex was around it all of his life. As a kid, I didn’t know him as a kid, but I imagine he was like a sponge and the things he incorporated into his coaching. You could tell by his work ethic and when Buddy got the job with the Cardinals, he brought Rex and his brother Rob on staff. A lot of people were thinking nepotism, but he was working harder than a lot of those veteran coaches.”
There were times, Proctor says, he had to tell Ryan to scale back his defenses. Ryan had to remember he was dealing with students, some of whom were teenagers, who also had a course load to deal with.
Billick, now a popular analyst with the NFL Network and a noted author, gives praise to Ryan for his coaching job in 2013.
Now at 1-5, the Jets postseason dreams might be dashed before the midpoint of the NFL season. Ryan is supposedly on the hot seat.
“Sometimes the best job you do is when the expectations are so low. It’s one thing to have a good team, a top-flite quarterback and a top-flite defense and head towards the playoff,” Billick said. “Then you have a team void of talent. Two years after our Super Bowl winner, we had the youngest team we ever played; we had 19 rookies. That team I think went 7-9 and I think that’s the best coaching I ever had. The job Rex did last year given the talent they had was outstanding.”
Given the injury crunch in the secondary, a quarter of this year’s draft class being cut by Week 5 and a struggling quarterback, there might be a built-in excuse for Ryan. The expectation level was ridiculously high but of the Jets’ five losses, only one was a blowout. It is hard to fire a head coach with the talent Ryan was handed, but Idzik might have other plans.
This team under Ryan hasn’t given up, despite their record.
“There is no way I would have thought that we’d have the record that we have right now at the beginning of the year, but it is what it is,” Ryan said on Tuesday. “It’s what we have, but I can’t dwell on it, I’ve just got to go forward, and get ready to give our best effort, and give our players the best chance to be successful, and that’s what you do as a coach, and that’s certainly what I am going to do.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.