The cornerback's contract holdout was a central plotline as HBO broadcast the team's training camp to the masses, and until head coach Rex Ryan injected himself into the dispute in the days leading up to the regular-season opener, it looked like the Jets might suffer the hardest knock imaginable.
As Ryan and the Jets bask in the afterglow of last weekend's stunning divisional-round upset of the New England Patriots and prepare for Sunday's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, the coach's contribution toward securing the services of the franchise's best and most important player is worth revisiting.
For all of Ryan's strategic skills and motivational magic, getting on a plane with owner Woody Johnson and flying to South Florida for a face-to-face meeting with Revis in early September might have been his most significant move of the 2010 season.
When I spoke to Revis on Wednesday, he went so far as to describe the holdout as a positive experience – and not just because he ended up with a four-year, $46 million contract that reflected his value as the NFL's premier cornerback.
[Related: Rex Ryan brags about supermodel wife]
"Rex was a big part of it and a big help to the whole situation," Revis said. "In those situations, people become closer – words might get said here and there, but at the end of the day you work it out and move on and there are no hard feelings.
"In that whole process, everybody got closer, and I definitely got closer to Rex. And I actually got to sit down and talk to Mr. Johnson one on one – and it wasn't about football. It was about simple stuff, and it was nice. Usually when you talk to Mr. Johnson, it's about football; but this was about life."
For Ryan, life without Revis was unthinkable. The cornerback's unparalleled ability to lock down the league's elite receivers, often in man-to-man coverage, allowed Ryan's exotic blitzes to be especially effective and had played a major role in the team's unlikely run to the AFC title game last year.
Coaches typically try to remain in the background during monetary disputes between players and the organization, allowing ownership or front-office executives to play the heavy in the hope of protecting a positive working relationship. Often, they make public statements designed to apply subtle pressure to the player, making it clear that he's hurting himself by missing preparation for the season and suggesting that the team is prepared to carry on without him.
Ryan took a completely different approach. Last September, in the hours following the team's final preseason game, he hosted a 2 a.m. meeting with Revis' agent, Neil Schwartz, which helped clarify the sides' negotiating positions. A day-and-a-half later, even as general manager Mike Tannenbaum was exploring trade scenarios for the fourth-year cornerback, Ryan and Johnson took to the skies and spent a weekend bonding with Revis, his mother and his uncle, former standout NFL defensive tackle Sean Gilbert.
Shortly after the coach and owner returned to New Jersey, Tannenbaum and Schwartz brokered a deal, ending a 35-day holdout and allowing the Jets to focus on backing up Ryan's brash preseason predictions of the franchise's first championship in 42 years.
"The vision was winning the Super Bowl," Revis recalled. "That was our goal; we weren't joking. A lot of people might have thought we were, but we believed we had that type of team."
The Jets have had their share of setbacks, including the hamstring injury Revis sustained early in the season which caused him to miss two games and continued to bother him for weeks thereafter. More conspicuously, strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi was suspended after tripping a Miami Dolphins player during a December game, and shortly thereafter surfaced embarrassing foot-fetish videos which seemed to feature Ryan and his wife, Michelle. The Jets also lost three of their first four games in December, including an embarrassing 45-3 defeat to the AFC East rival Patriots which essentially relegated them to competing for a wild-card berth.
Through it all, they remained confident that they could accomplish their lofty goals.
"I think Rex played a big part," Revis said. "He's the captain of the boat, and I think the way he carries himself is so important to who we are. He comes up with great schemes and he demands that we play tough-nosed football. And we had a lot of situations – not just my situation, but other things we had to go through – and Rex was in the middle of it. He's the one who set the tone that we're not going to let these distractions keep us from our ultimate goal."
[Related: Player benched for making fun of Rex Ryan] The Jets have delivered with successive road playoff victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Patriots, and Revis is a major reason they've been able to overcome the NFL's most celebrated quarterbacks, Peyton Manning(notes) and Tom Brady(notes).
In the 17-16 triumph at Indy, Revis blanketed Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne(notes), who led the AFC with 111 regular-season receptions but managed just one catch for one yard during his trip to "Revis Island." Revis spent most of last Sunday's 28-21 victory over the Pats shadowing wideout Deion Branch(notes), who was held to two receptions for the first three quarters before padding his numbers (five catches, 59 yards) during the Pats' desperate comeback attempt.
Revis, who grew up in the heart of Steelers Country (Aliquippa, Pa.), hopes to complete the trifecta against two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and Pittsburgh on Sunday. Revis may devote his energies toward shutting down veteran Hines Ward(notes), a physical, intermediate threat who lines up in the slot in three-receiver formations. He might also be matched up with young speedster Mike Wallace(notes) or explosive rookie Emmanuel Sanders(notes) – or some combination of the three.
"I'm a huge fan," Ward said of Revis. "He's a great player – he's strong and smart and he can catch. Rex blitzes so much, and [Revis] knows the ball's got to come out of the quarterback's hands soon, and he takes advantage of that."
Added star Arizona Cardinals wideout and fellow University of Pittsburgh alum Larry Fitzgerald(notes): "He went to Pitt, first off. Second, he is strong at the point of attack. He forced wideouts to stop there and restart, and then he does a great job locating the ball and playing through the receiver's hands – just to name some of his many attributes.
"Did I mention he went to Pitt?"
If Roethlisberger elects to avoid Revis at all costs, he won't be alone.
"You can be fooled when you look and see he doesn't have any interceptions," Wayne said. "The reason he doesn't have any picks is because people stay away from his side of the field. A lot of quarterbacks won't even look his way."
This was part of the message Ryan tried to impart to reporters last year when he campaigned for Revis as the NFL's defensive player of the year, an award that ultimately went to Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes). Revis' camp undoubtedly seized upon that statement during last summer's contract dispute; last week Ryan, the gift that keeps on giving, made an even stronger proclamation that the cornerback's agents will likely dredge up when his current deal expires following the 2013 campaign.
"Quite honestly, he's the best player in football," Ryan said of Revis two days after the playoff victory in Indy. "That is what you saw out there. Hold Reggie Wayne, who led the [conference] in catches, to one catch for one yard. That tells you how good Darrelle Revis is.
"I know he's probably not going to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, but the impact he has is amazing. We were able to do some coverages during the game where we actually played man coverage strictly on his side regardless of who the receiver was and roll their coverage away from it. You only do that if you have Darrelle Revis. He's an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime player and we took advantage of him."
On Wednesday, Revis sounded sincerely moved by his coach's high praise: "Ah man, I just appreciate it, man. I think it's just me working hard, trying to stay on top of my game. It's really not about individual stats for me. I'm just one piece of the puzzle to this team, trying to help the team and the organization any way I can. And hopefully I'll do that and we'll win this game and get to the ultimate game."
It's a game that Ryan envisioned his team being part of from the start – and to him, getting there without Revis wasn't an option. So the coach played "Let's Make A Deal," and both men are richer for it.
- Rex Ryan