Ryan has chance to outshine predecessors
Rex Ryan has seen the inexactitude of it before, this idea of transferring heart and emotion and cloning historical coaching greatness. Coaches change geography, embrace new duties, and suddenly their genius label becomes an annoyance to the outside world – like a mattress tag waiting to be ripped away.
It’s been as true with Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinators as anyone else. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has never been a better defensive mind than he appeared to be with the Ravens. Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was less than mediocre in his stint as a head coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Now Ryan, arguably the most beloved Ravens coordinator of that trio, will be put to the test with the New York Jets. And he’s doing so in a city, and with a veteran roster, that won’t sleep on championship-level expectations.
“We’re talking about two totally different teams when you talk about the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers,” said Jets linebacker Bart Scott(notes), a Ravens defector who was Ryan’s centerpiece free-agent signing in the offseason. “Those guys inherited bad teams. … What allows this story to be different is the personnel. Rex inherits [talent]. That’s a testament to [general manager Mike] Tannenbaum and even [former coach Eric] Mangini, for the type of players they brought in here. You’re not starting with nothing and have to mold guys or start young. You already have a great mix of veterans who have been there and done that. It’s not like they have to go have some magical draft. You’ve just got to put your stamp on it with how you want them to play in your system.”
So this is where Ryan and the Jets sit heading toward training camp, presiding under a microscope that will be focused on rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes), but thriving under a veteran defense that has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best. It’s a position of inherent danger for Ryan, who operated under rare circumstances last season, with the Ravens improbably rounding into a Super Bowl-caliber team with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco(notes). To experience it once is to basically find a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk. To hope for similar results a second time is far more dangerous, like reaching for the same winning ticket while simultaneously hoping to dodge a 500-pound safe that is plummeting from above.
But this is where Ryan and Scott find themselves, with a solid offense that will eventually surround Sanchez, and a loaded defense that has the talent to give him the same breathing room Flacco was gifted last season. And perhaps that’s what sets Ryan’s fortunes apart from Lewis and Nolan. Rather than talking about building and weaning, the Jets head coach has been playing expectations up since February. Asked shortly after his hiring how quickly fans could expect the Jets’ defense to look something like the one he presided over with the Ravens, Ryan’s message was next season, if not sooner.
“If we bring in the kind of players we’re talking about, we only need to add one or two guys,” Ryan said in February. “The foundation is already there. Maybe the mentality we’re going to play with, the style we’re going to play with, it’s going to help the guys we already have. The proof will be in the pudding. You know me – I’m not one to shy away from expectations. I think we’ll be terrific. I think we’ll have a defense our fans can be proud of.”
The Jets landed the “one or two guys” Ryan was talking about, when they signed former Ravens Scott and safety Jim Leonhard(notes) in free agency, and then traded for Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard(notes). Beyond those moves, Ryan hasn’t been faced with a remaking of his roster. And unlike Nolan and Lewis in their head coaching debuts, Ryan is taking over a team that ran a 3-4 defensive alignment the year before his arrival.
As Scott is quick to point out, five starters on the defense have been to Pro Bowls (Scott, Sheppard, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins(notes), cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) and defensive end Shaun Ellis(notes)) while others have the ability to ascend to that level (safety Kerry Rhodes(notes), and linebackers David Harris(notes) and Calvin Pace(notes)). That’s a significant head start for a newly minted head coach, and the one that helped John Harbaugh to such a successful beginning in Baltimore last season.
While Flacco and the Ravens rekindled offense was a popular story line, there were clear bedrock principles in Baltimore that fostered fast success: A dedicated, pulverizing running game that wore opponents down and often dominated tempo, and an aggressive defense that covered for Flacco’s mistakes while also affording him time to slowly develop. Whenever Sanchez eventually earns the starting nod for the Jets, Scott and Ryan will be able to relate first-hand experiences inside the locker room.
“This year I can go in wholeheartedly and absolutely know that I have a chance to win [with an inexperienced quarterback] – instantly,” Scott said. “Because I know what it takes and I know the formula for it. Now, every situation is unique, but I know what it looks like and I know what you have to do and what you better do if you’re going to put a young quarterback in there.”
Added Jenkins, “If the offense has some adjustments that they need to make, it’s up to us as a defense to make sure that we have their back.”
While the headlines about the offeseason program have focused on running backs Thomas Jones(notes) and Leon Washington(notes) staying away from workouts, every key defensive player has spent significant time in the team’s facility this offseason. That time has translated into a mission statement for the unit, which mirrors what Ryan and Scott embraced with the Ravens. Scott described it as a charter loaded with unbreakable principals like having “skin like an armadillo” (don’t let outside opinion impact the group), “10 swinging you-know-whats to the football” (attack the ball), and “Play like a Jet.” That last principle actually required the defensive players sitting down and defining expectations of a “Jet.”
“What a Jet is this year, may not be what one was last year,” Scott said. “A Jet is fearless, ferocious. He’s a guy that’s going to fly to the football, not back down from anybody. He’s going to be very physical, but he’s going to be a smart football player and work at his craft every day. Not for own personal accolades, but for the accolades of the group.
“This is what we are and this is what we expect. And if you’re not [abiding by it], you won’t be here, simple as that. If you don’t think you can live up to it, you can just raise your hand and they’ll kindly escort you to the nearest airport.”
The goal is to take a defense that was largely unspectacular last season (18th in points surrendered and 16th in yardage allowed) and build an atmosphere of mutual accountability, which has been part of the fundamental defensive DNA in Baltimore for years. Perhaps no other unit in the NFL has been better at creating internal pressure and accountability than what the Ravens fostered with Scott, Ray Lewis(notes), Terrell Suggs(notes) and other veterans. And maybe no player from that group – including Lewis – was as vocal as Scott in holding teammates accountable.
“I think it is great,” Ryan said of Scott’s mentality. “You have to let everyone express themselves as long as it is not detrimental to the football team. They are having a good time out there. [Offensive lineman] Damien Woody(notes) told me the other day, ‘I never heard someone get on someone so much.’ It’s a good thing. [Bart] is trying to pick up everyone’s game. If he can get the offense riled up and ready to go, we are going to get everything the offense has. They are going to compete. That’s all he is looking for, everybody to compete.”
But competition in May doesn’t necessarily translate into wins in September and beyond. So while he might have the defensive talent to compete, and the offensive talent to cope, championships are built on heart and mentality, too. The history of his defensive coordinating brethren has taught Ryan that much.