FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Rex Ryan was furious. For all the foolishness, the vows of winning the Super Bowl and the urge to forever snack, the New York Jets coach can bring the fury. And on Wednesday morning as he stood before his team, two of the players would later say he was as angry as they had ever seen.
This was enough, he yelled.
There sat Braylon Edwards(notes), the wide receiver who police say blew a .16 on a breathalyzer test about an hour before sunrise on Tuesday. There too were teammates D'Brickashaw Ferguson(notes) and Vernon Gholston(notes), who had been in the car with him. Also in attendance: the players who had tossed bawdy comments at a woman from TV Azteca in the locker room two weeks before, a misdeed that unleashed international outrage.
Ryan stormed. Players out until 5 a.m. on the week of a game against the Miami Dolphins, a division rival? Harassing a female reporter?
[Photos: Jets head coach Rex Ryan]
"We don't need to be THAT team," Ryan later said at a news conference.
It is something nobody wants to be. THAT team. The unruly team. The rogue team. The team with more troubles than victories. In the past the Cincinnati Bengals have been THAT team. So have the Minnesota Vikings. They become part of a lexicon for all that is wrong in football: the Bengals and their arrests or the Love Boat Vikings. Teams that are known as THAT team usually implode, blown apart by more serious teammates and public relations pressure.
And yet THAT team is what the Jets are becoming.
Until the first weekend of the season the Jets had been the fun team, with their rotund coach wobbling around "Hard Knocks"-clad in a Jets bowling shirt and athletic shorts. He let players run sprints with hamburgers spilling from their mouths. He promised the Super Bowl and scrawled "Soon to be Champs" on the back of an ESPN bus.
But then two days before the first game, the fun team ran a drill intended to put players in proximity of TV Azteca reporter Ines Sainz. They made comments about her. The comments grew improper. Then a few days later Braylon Edwards was being led to jail, and suddenly the Jets were learning just how thin a line there is between being the fun team and THAT team.
It's always been a difficult thing what Ryan is trying to do with the Jets. NFL coaches do not often deal in joy. In recent years, as the league's popularity has grown and public scrutiny has increased, coaches have turned cautious. Gone are the swashbuckling characters like Ryan's father Buddy or Mike Ditka or Jerry Glanville. They've been replaced by more men cast in the mold of Bill Belichick, coaches incapable of a smile, let alone a cheeseburger on the field.
Ryan stands as an Everest in the flat landscape of androids who prowl the league's sidelines. He does not offer "no comments." He doesn't shy from pranks or a chance to laugh. The NFL dearly needs a few men in charge who don't glower under their headsets.
But to most NFL coaches there is safety in being uptight. They keep their players on rigid schedules. They allow no limits. They don't dare talk about games two weeks in advance, let alone Super Bowls. They do everything they can to create the most sterilized environments possible with the hope their players won't let their focus stray. Quietly they shake their heads at the carnival atmosphere Ryan permits much the way the neighbors might cluck their tongues over the children down the street who are allowed to stay outside after dark. It will just lead to trouble, they say.
And so trouble has arrived to the Jets. Ryan kept talking on Wednesday about controlling it. He used the old line favored by coaches of misbehaving players for decades, that it is a privilege to play in the NFL. He told them not to embarrass team owner Woody Johnson, who built them a practice facility so beautiful it should be in architecture magazines. He told them they had a chance to do something great this season.
The question is, will they listen? Several players said on Wednesday that Ryan's words hit them hard.
"He is so passionate," Revis said.
Still Ryan has been loose in trying to build his Super Bowl team, importing players like Edwards and receiver Santonio Holmes(notes) (currently on a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy) who have been flagged as problems. This always comes with risk for it's usually THOSE players who turn a club into THAT team.
On Wednesday, Edwards said he had a long, somber ride back to New Jersey after he had been released from jail in Manhattan the day before. He said he was thinking about the reputation he had built and how he wanted so desperately to prove it wasn't true. That will be much harder now.
And the coach who took the chance on him in hopes of landing the Super Bowl was left to demand the Jets clean themselves up before they bury themselves. He has to hope his plea will be enough.
"I think Rex has control," Revis said. "Even with this situation with Braylon, we're grown men, this is our job. You got to be smarter. You've got to be able to do what you have to do."
Most NFL coaches don't make that assumption. Most NFL coaches don't give their players the credit of believing they are grown men. That's why they discourage fun. One prominent NFL coach even forbids his players from going to shopping malls on the days before games, lest their feet grow tired from the exertion of walking around.
Rather than restrict his players, Ryan has urged them to take a whole bite of the world just as he has. It's wonderful and refreshing and something the NFL needs more.
And yet, Wednesday, he was screaming at his players.
"Let's end it," he told them of their indiscretions.
It might be too late for the good-time Jets, quickly destined to become this year's THAT team.