In Rex Ryan's first two seasons as the New York Jets' head coach, his team went 20-12 in the regular season and booked trips to two straight AFC Championship games. In his most recent two seasons in that same role, however, a series of personnel disasters and bad coaching moves left the Jets with a playoff drought and a 14-18 regular season mark. Season five is Ryan's most meaningful, both for his future and his reputation, because 2011 and 2012 have taken some serious bites out of his name. Long a defensive genius as an assistant, Rex looked early on to be one of the better and more entertaining new head coaches in the game -- a bit of a modern-day John Madden -- but public perception seems to intimate that he's gone off the rails of late.
He is keenly aware of the problem, and with typical brio, Ryan believes that he is underrated and will be vindicated with time.
"I'm a hell of a lot better football coach than I'm given credit for," Ryan told Newsday's Kimberley A. Martin on Thursday afternoon, after the Jets' final OTA practice. "I don't care. I don't need the credit. But I can tell you one thing, when it's said and done, they'll look back and say, 'Oh man, this dude can coach his butt off.' And you know what? It's true. And I'll let the people that know best talk on my behalf about the kind of coach I am."
Early on, Ryan was able to balance a great defensive roster, a strong running game, and the management of young quarterback Mark Sanchez into a winning formula. But -- and this is more on former GM Mike Tannenbaum than it is on Ryan -- the defense got old, the running game atrophied, and Sanchez was asked to do more than his talent would allow. Last year's 6-10 disaster, led as it was by the unfortunate exploits of Tim Tebow and a knee injury that cost Ryan his best player in Darrelle Revis for most of the season, was the Jets' time to pay up for a lot of front office mistakes. Now, with both Tebow and Revis gone, and many believing that Ryan is coaching for his job, Ryan told Martin that last season still weighs on him.
"I'll never be able to erase that year," Ryan said, referring to 2012. "But I can learn from it. That unfortunately is going to be with me. It drives you to the point where you say, 'Look, I've learned.' And some way that might work for every other coach in the league -- 99 percent of them -- it doesn't work for me. I know what works for me now. How it will affect our team, result-wise, win-wise, all that stuff, we'll find out. But I'm certainly confident that I can help this team more in the capacity that I'm going to lead."
Ryan also said that he may not have been "driving the message" as much as he should have last year, which would seem to be true.Former offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and ex-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine seemed to lack the schematic acumen to put their players in optimal positions to win. That's less of a surprise on the offensive side, because Ryan knows what he's doing as a defensive coach, and he'll be the first one to tell you that.
"I don't have to brag, even though statistically, I can brag about anything I've ever done defensively," he told Martin.
As an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens from 1999 through 2008, absolutely. Ryan moved from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator with the Ravens in that time, and put a series of defenses on the field that never ranked lower than sixth in the league in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics when he was running them. And when he moved to the Meadowlands in 2009, the Jets went from 14th to first in the NFL in those same metrics. However, in 2012, that same defense ranked ninth, which is the lowest ranking of any defense in which he's played a major part.
So, yes. Defensively, Ryan is as good as there is. Few coaches understand the relationship between complex blitzes and front-gap responsibility better than he, and he's got a pretty long resume to prove it. However, as a head coach, his legacy so far is quite a bit more mixed, precisely because he seems to lack the overview and impulse control that all great head coaches have. That's not to say that he can't acquire those things, but as smart as he is, the most important bit of scouting Rex Ryan will do this year is on Rex Ryan. If he isn't able to fix what ails that particular prospect, few other things about the Jets will matter.