Perhaps never before has a .500 season felt so good in New York.
Rex Ryan's Jets, playing behind a maligned rookie quarterback in an embittered football city, raced to the finish line Sunday with a resounding defeat of the archrival Miami Dolphins. Miami is eliminated from the playoffs, and Ryan is eliminated from the guillotine talk that dogged him since August. Dead coach walking is 8-8, and grinning all the way to training camp next summer.
Ryan did it the way he's always done it: with terrific defense and a remarkable buy-in from his players. The Jets beat the Dolphins with urgency and tenacity – two things that are rarely obvious in eliminated teams. Nobody would have been surprised if the Jets rolled over on Sunday; instead, they rolled a stunned Miami team into the offseason.
Jets team owner Woody Johnson said Ryan will remain the head coach for the 2014 season.
It's hard to decide who was more unfairly ridiculed this season: Ryan or quarterback Geno Smith. It was Smith who was ripped before he joined the Jets for using his phone too much in pre-draft interviews and for leaving the green room at the end of a painful first day at the draft. It was Smith who was tacitly criticized by his former head coach at West Virginia, Dana Holgorson, who said there was a lack of leadership in Smith's senior season. (The Mountaineers finished 4-8 this year.) And then there was Smith being scrutinized for every mistake, even though rookies are supposed to make errors. If you look at Smith's rookie numbers, he had a 55.3 completion percentage (coming into Sunday) compared to Ryan Tannehill's 58.3. Both had 12 passing touchdowns. And yet Tannehill was given the benefit of the doubt often as a rookie. Smith never had that comfort. Now Smith has a better winning percentage (8-8) after Year 1 than Tannehill did (7-9). Smith and the Jets won three of their last four.
Ryan turned out to be capable of leading the transition from Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith, just as he was capable of leading the transition from Darrelle Revis to Dee Milliner. His coaching tactics work on rookies and veterans alike (just like Rob Ryan's methods have worked on the New Orleans Saints defense). He can call a game on defense and he can motivate; how many NFL head coaches can do both those things?
Does this mean Ryan is off the hot seat? No. Never in the New York circus. (Remember, we're only months removed from the Tim Tebow experiment.) But if general manager John Idzik can bring in better pieces around Smith on offense, he can count on Ryan putting together a strong defense. That's the key mixture for a playoff team, even in the age of big-armed throwers and pinball stats.
Ryan did a lot with a little this season, and that was symbolized perfectly on two fourth-quarter plays Sunday: running back Bilal Powell taking a direct snap and throwing a 30-yard completion to set up a key field goal; and, a little over two minutes later, Ed Reed making a crucial interception of Tannehill to announce the beginning of the end of the Dolphins' season. The acquisition of Reed was only one punchline in a season full of them.
Even at 8-8, a coach who gets highlights out of those guys deserves another season. To borrow Ryan's much-mocked phrase from "Hard Knocks": the coach has earned a (expletive) snack.