FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) -- John Idzik handed the game ball to a teary Rex Ryan as the New York Jets players cheered wildly.
Then, the general manager shouted above them, making a declaration that said it all for the franchise.
''This is our coach!'' Idzik yelled. ''This is our coach!''
That was the raucous scene moments after the Jets ended their season Sunday with a 20-7 win over the Miami Dolphins - and owner Woody Johnson announced that Ryan would return as coach.
As the players cleared out their lockers Monday at the team's facility and headed into the offseason, they were feeling pretty good about their future despite an 8-8 season and a third straight year of missing the playoffs.
''Obviously, as a team you want to peak at the end of the season,'' wide receiver David Nelson said. ''You want to play your best ball at the end of the season and right now we're doing that. It's just unfortunate that we weren't able to make the playoffs because, the way we're playing right now, I feel like we could run the table.''
The Jets won three of their last four games to finish at .500 and perhaps save Ryan's job. Ryan was retained as coach after a few months of speculation that he could be done after five seasons.
''When we found out, it was pure joy in the locker room,'' quarterback Geno Smith said. ''We were all happy for him and also selfishly, I'm happy to have my coach back because we really enjoy playing for him and we just look forward to the future here.''
Now, the Jets will focus on that future, with several issues to consider, including whether Smith is their starting quarterback.
''I've got plenty of room to improve,'' he said. ''I'm going to use this offseason to be extremely critical of myself and find every single way to get better.''
He was forced into action when he won the training camp competition by default when Mark Sanchez suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the third preseason game. The second-round pick was up and down all season, looking at times like a bona fide playmaker with four winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven games. But at many others, Smith was a mistake-prone turnover machine.
Ryan benched him at halftime of a brutal showing against Miami on Dec. 1, a move that could prove to be a turning point in the young quarterback's development.
''I think it just lit a fire in me and just gave me that competitive edge that was always there, but maybe needed to be pulled to the forefront,'' Smith said. ''It just allowed me to see things from a better perspective and ultimately it was the right decision.''
In his final four games, Smith threw for 790 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions with three victories. He finished with just 12 touchdown throws and 21 interceptions, but the last quarter of the season has some thinking the Jets have their franchise quarterback in place.
''I think this team believes in Geno,'' Nelson said, ''and the way he's played the last few weeks speaks for itself.''
Added receiver Josh Cribbs: ''He's been improving all year. He's been making rookie mistakes, but he's been making errors that you expect a new quarterback to make in this league. I think that he will only get better.''
Smith acknowledged that it's ''extremely important'' to know that he'll have the same coaches and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's system in place as he heads into his second season. He also knows he has come a long way from his draft-day disappointment when he slipped from the top 10 to the second round.
''It couldn't (have) happened in a better way,'' Smith said. ''Not only did it give me that fuel that I needed to go out and to be that hard working guy every single day, but I landed in a great spot, with a great team, great organization and I have a bright future here.''
Idzik and Ryan will have plenty of other decisions to make, including the likely moves to part ways with quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes to save money on the salary cap. There are also several potential key free agents, including right tackle Austin Howard, right guard Willie Colon and kicker Nick Folk.
The Jets will also look to build on the momentum that capped a season that they're far from satisfied with despite grim preseason expectations.
''Obviously, finishing with two (straight) wins, which is something we weren't able to do all year, was a good sign,'' center Nick Mangold said. ''It's unfortunate, you hate to miss the playoffs. That's obviously one of the big downsides. But I love how this team kept fighting, stuck together.
''It makes you excited to get the offseason going, get back in here and get back to work.''
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