FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Rumors of Rex Ryan's demise might be a bit premature.
If you believe the reports, Ryan is on his last legs as coach of the Jets, ending a five-year stint that started with the franchise's first back-to-back appearances in the AFC championship game and ended with three straight seasons without the playoffs. Ryan, the gregarious and often unfiltered head coach, has found the success from his first two years with the Jets to be fleeting, but this year's 7-8 record has exceeded every expectation.
This was a team picked to be among the bottom three in the league by nearly every major media outlet. They were given three wins by most of these outlets as well, and that was with veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez under center.
But with Sanchez hurt in preseason and a raw rookie in Geno Smith starting at quarterback this year, the Jets somehow won seven games with one to go. They did it with a defense that lost six starters from the year before and an offense down four prominent players from last year, not including Sanchez.
They topped last year's 6-10 record. Now they go into the final week of the season with a shot at a .500 record. Instead of talking about a possible job loss, Ryan should be talked about as a candidate for coach of the year.
Which leads to reports that Ryan told his team he has heard he will be fired – to paraphrase Justin Timberlake, the Jets need to be about the business of "Bringing Rexy Back."
Even though mediocrity and no playoff berth won't usually cut it in New York, even with a franchise as devoid of success over the years as the Jets, Ryan is ascending.
On Sunday, his Jets beat the Cleveland Browns 24-13 and after the game, he dodged questions about his future with the team. Again on Monday he had to go through the same thing on a conference call with the media. He said he was focused on the task at hand, which might as well be code for him focusing on saving his job.
“Again guys, I’m not going there. Like I said, my focus is just on this Miami thing. We certainly had a good game against Cleveland,” Ryan said. “We have Miami left and that’s what I’m comfortable talking about. Any speculation about this or that, the only thing I can say is that we know what is in front of us and that’s a Miami Dolphins team that is a very talented team.”
A win this week to close out the season would give him his first winning streak of 2013 and on paper that should be enough to get him one more year with the Jets, to see if he can continue the progress made this year.
He's got an inexperienced roster with young players making contributions on both sides of the ball. He started a rookie quarterback in Smith who is second in the league with 21 interceptions as he learns. That Smith has been so bad this year and the Jets still were in playoff contention in Week 15 speaks to the job Ryan has done. He coached this team to play beyond its talent level, something that a number of owners in this league would like to see on their sidelines.
It also shows that he hasn't lost this Jets locker room, which hasn't splintered apart in the face of adversity like it has in years past. Despite a tough stretch after their bye week that included three straight losses, the Jets have bounced back each time.
He also should have the backing of owner Woody Johnson and his right hand man, Ira Akselrad, maybe just for financial reasons.
In years past, the Jets have doled out big money to buy out the contract of offensive coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano in addition to general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who was the fall guy for last year's disappointing record. It might be too pretty of a penny for ownership to think about spending even more to fire a reasonably successful head coach.
Ryan might not need a win on Sunday to strengthen his case to return next year. That should have been done in preseason when his roster was torn apart.
Even with two AFC title games on his resume, this year might be Ryan's finest coaching job to date.
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Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweetings on Twitter @KristianRDyer
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