Occasionally, Jets fan David Aitken will contribute to the site or write an article for TheJetsBlog. In his latest piece below, Aitken explores the conflicted notions of what the Jets ought to do with head coach Rex Ryan.
If the game in San Diego was the nail in the coffin for any thought this Jets team could turn their season around, this Sunday’s debacle versus Buffalo felt like the final straw for Rex Ryan’s chances of walking into next September still coaching the New York Jets. Fooling fans into thinking the Jets could beat a decent Buffalo team after dominating New England on the road in a close loss, the Jets, instead, reverted to the all-too-familiar pastime of playing down to an opponent after (nearly) rising to a big occasion. Ryan, who has seen his job come under close scrutiny on more than one occasion over the past six seasons, seems to have finally found a hole out of which he can’t dig himself.
For Jets fans, this is a naturally controversial topic. Rex has been the coach for three (and soon to be four) consecutive seasons without postseason play and he wasn’t the first choice of current general manager John Idzik. He’s also the man that nearly brought the Jets to the Super Bowl in his first two seasons and did so without consistent quarterback play, marveling Jets fans and confusing the opposition with exotic defensive schemes that elevated the Jets to the next level and made Darrelle Revis nearly invincible. Perhaps most of all, his unique personality and approach to coaching made being a Jets fan something to take pride in. The excitement in being involved with the team and the confidence he exuberated publicly was palpable, and the results on the field at first matched it. I think I can speak for all Jets fans when I say those moments were some of the most exciting times we have ever experienced.
It seems unfair to fire Rex at this point, given that he was kept on board with John Idzik’s hiring in 2013. Since Idzik’s hiring came with Ryan’s say in personnel decisions marginalized and with a “patient” approach to rebuilding a franchise, it seems illogical to judge Ryan without holding Idzik equally if not more accountable. As much time Idzik is allotted for his project, surely Ryan should receive the same. However, there comes a time when you have to look at where Rex is at -- six years into his head coaching tenure -- and wonder if he is ever going to change: the lack of discipline, the inconsistent motivation and preparation, the lack of player accountability, the over-focus on defense and the same sputtering offense. It may not be fair, but we’re at a situation where Woody Johnson can say to Rex Ryan “we just want to go in a different direction” and actually mean it.
Rex is responsible for some of my best memories as a Jets fan. He is also responsible for some of my worst. The Jets under Rex have typically found a way to rise to big occasions and play their best with an “us against the world” mentality -- it was practically the backbone of both playoff runs. No one believed in the lucky 9-7 Jets with a rookie quarterback, or the overrated Jets that were found out on Monday Night Football against a much better Patriots team. That emotional rollercoaster culminated in steamrolling New England in the playoffs, but crashed and burned after that. After that victory, the Jets went from playoff underdogs to the Team of Destiny that couldn’t possibly be stopped. We, as fans, all believed it, and foolishly so did Rex and the team. They lost their edge, they came into that game unmotivated and ill prepared, and received a wake-up call none of us will ever forget.
While that loss still stings, there was hope that Rex Ryan would learn from that loss and begin to keep the team on a more even-keel. Yet, this same path continued. There could not have been a more up-and-down season than last year, and nothing highlighted it more than midseason. The Jets had just come off a big overtime victory over New England, and at 4-3 it wasn’t crazy to mention the playoffs with a big game that could have Wild Card implications against Cincinnati. What happened in that game does not need mentioning, yet it was followed by a signature victory over Drew Brees and the Saints to bring the Jets to 5-4 into the bye week. With a decent schedule and confidence high, playoffs felt like a possibility. But the team would drop four of their next five, including an embarrassment in Buffalo immediately following the bye week.
Once again, the past few weeks showed a similar script. The Jets came to play the previous two weeks with a gutsy -- albeit not good enough -- performances against Peyton Manning's Broncos and followed it up with what had to be the Jets’ best performance of the season in a losing effort, to the Brady and Belichick led Patriots, but when the under-the-radar Bills came to town in a game the Jets were “supposed to win,” the team put forth their worst performance of the season. Rex lives for the big challenges and often shows why, but he has also made Kyle Orton and Chad Henne look like the Hall of Famers in the team’s lack of preparation.
Transcending the Defensive Coordinator Mentality
Rex won the respect of Jets fans, not only with his unique personality and promises of success, but also with his unrivaled acumen as a defensive mind. Rex took the foundations in place in 2009 and instantly shot the Jets to among the elite defenses in the NFL, essentially reinventing the shutdown corner with Darrelle Revis. The reasons for Rex staying so heavily involved with the defense as a head coach were obvious, but also a little strange, given that most head coaches entrust their coordinators with such tasks.
While basically every head coach has a side of the ball they are more familiar with, most do not get as involved with that group when they become a head coach. Of course, some other head coaches reprise their roles as play callers and focus more on the side of the ball they are more comfortable, but the head coach’s role first and foremost is to be the head of the entire team, to establish and maintain team rules and culture, to make sure the team is motivated and prepared, and to be prepared himself to manage in-game every Sunday. Being a head coach is as much an administrative position as much as it is a hands-on job. Most of all, being a head coach is setting a vision for the franchise, and doing what it takes to fulfill it.
Building a Team
It is a common defense of Rex Ryan’s current situation that he is not the one making the personnel calls -- he simply coaches the team. While that is true, it was not always the case. Rex Ryan earned it.
From 2006 to 2008, the combination of Mike Tannenbaum and Eric Mangini did a great job of setting the overall foundation for the team, particularly up fron,t on both sides of the ball. Rex Ryan didn’t really build the foundations of the team he took close to the Super Bowl twice, but he did take it to the next level. A good running attack became a great one; a solid defense became elite.
Tannenbaum, for all his creativity with the cap and navigating trades, was never a true personnel guy. He was more the executive hand of the head coach, identifying the players the coach wanted and going to get them. The moves during Mangini’s tenure had his name all over them. Mangini put a priority of smart, hardworking, relatively clean off-the-field players like Thomas Jones, former Patriots, and Parcells/Belichick type talents like the all-around linebacker skills of Calvin Pace and two-gapping grunt work of Kenyon Coleman.
When Ryan became the head coach, the aggressiveness was evident immediately in free agency: a trade for Lito Sheppard, a big money deal for the brash, energetic Bart Scott, the targeting of other Ravens like Jim Leonhard and Marques Douglas. It was nothing compared to the draft though, where the story of the draft was the Jets’ move up to get their quarterback Mark Sanchez and another trade up in round three for Shonn Greene. What also became evident was Ryan putting little weight on character, as the Jets would go after a number of other team’s want-away players. The Jets would trade for Braylon Edwards amid off-the-field issues in Cleveland, and the next offseason would follow with trades for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes. Balancing the trades with smart stopgaps though like Ladainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor, the Jets for 2010 would boast one of the most talented rosters in the league.
It began to fall apart immediately after, though. Career Jet Jerricho Cotchery was awarded his release upon request, and the team decided to commit big money to the mercurial Santonio Holmes while letting Braylon Edwards walk, which proved to be a massive failure both on and off the field. Damien Woody retired following 2010, and Brandon Moore would follow suit after the 2012 season. The running game and supporting cast for Mark Sanchez began to disintegrate just as he was being asked to take on a bigger role as a third-year starter.
Mike Tannenbaum took the fall after the 2012 season, but fundamentally all he was doing was fulfilling Rex Ryan’s vision. They were aggressive in pursuing certain prospects and trade opportunities, but the big moves were made in spite of methodical team building and it showed. The depth in draft picks weren’t there to replace the aging right side of the offensive line, the trades for Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes proved to be short term fixes (with Holmes in particular being the classic case of a player playing for a contract), and the first-round picks following 2009 would all center around defense.
Perhaps it could be said that Tannenbaum lacked the spine (or the personnel savvy himself) to call Rex Ryan out on questionable moves and the short-term outlook, but it nonetheless is reflective of Rex Ryan and his inability to be entrusted with building a franchise. Rex believed that 2010 would last forever when the team was relying heavily on short-term veterans and players on expiring contracts, and there was little foresight to plan ahead.
While few coaches run everything top-to-bottom in the way Belichick does in New England or the way Mike Shanahan did in Denver, the majority expect to have some level of say in personnel decision making. Rex Ryan showed with Mike Tannenbaum that while he could coach a winning team with the right players, that he couldn’t properly build and maintain a franchise with personnel input.
Developing a Quarterback
The number one defense of Rex Ryan is that his entire career as the coach of the New York Jets has been mired by poor quarterback play. While this is indeed true, it is not holding him accountable for his role as the team’s head coach if the poor quarterback play is not considered at least partially his fault. As the head coach of a professional football team, it is not only Rex Ryan’s responsibility to develop a quarterback, it is arguably the single most important responsibility.
Rex Ryan did not inherit a good quarterback (not counting Favre). Ryan knew, like most rookie head coaches, that he would have to go out and draft his own guy. That is exactly what Rex did, identifying Mark Sanchez as his man – liking him enough to move from 17 to 5 in the draft to make him a Jet.
Sanchez’s career with the Jets was filled with ups and downs. He had clutch moments and plenty of bonehead moments. From a teambuilding perspective, he started with a strong situation and saw it get even stronger in 2010. Following that year though, the Jets lost two of his favorite targets and committed big money to Santonio Holmes who would finally show his true colors. With a straight-out-of-prison stopgap in Plaxico Burress for 2011 and a 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill, Sanchez saw a different pair of starting receivers every single season, and an offensive line and running game that deteriorated as his career went on. Lacking depth in draft picks, wiggle room in finances and going with a consistent lean on defense in the first round of the draft, the offense following the 2012 season looked unrecognizable compared to what Sanchez had started with. The consistent support and resources to develop a quarterback simply weren’t there, with the defense getting the prime college talent every year and a lack of focus on keeping the right players around Sanchez.
Of course, Sanchez may just have never had it in the first place, but in gambling on those types of players many coaches can lose their job. It must not be forgotten that Sanchez was not only a Rex Ryan pick, but also a player Rex loved enough to make a major leap in the draft for. Rex Ryan cannot escape blame for the failure of Mark Sanchez as a New York Jet. Sanchez was identified as his guy via the draft, he was the head coach and overseeing his development.
In terms of Geno Smith, it is hard to say whether Rex Ryan had any say at all in bringing him in, so it is hard to blame Ryan for Smith’s development. However, the 2013 Giants preseason debacle that Rex Ryan was responsible for may have cost the Jets the opportunity to sit Geno Smith behind Sanchez for a season, a move that could have made a difference in Smith’s development. It is good for quarterbacks to learn through experience, but only if the situation can allow for it. Games like Cincinnati and Baltimore last season do little for a rookie quarterback’s progression, but can derail confidence and encourage bad habits. Although to be fair, the quarterback decision last year (and this year’s) may have been a call out of Rex Ryan’s control.
Can Rex Ryan Make It?
It seems a simple question. Can Rex Ryan be a successful head coach? Some would argue that he already proven he can be, but it’s not as easy as that. Every coach and the organization he works for are different. Some coaches run everything from top-to-bottom, some like Rex are essentially a coordinator in addition to a head coach, and others like to delegate responsibilities and are more administrators. I believe there are plenty of coaches out there that can be successful because there are plenty of formulas for success, and the right organization can mask deficiencies.
Rex Ryan has shown that he cannot be heavily involved in personnel decisions. He has also shown that he is going to be heavily involved with the defensive side of the ball, for all the good and bad that comes of it. So, can Rex Ryan be successful? The flaws he possesses seem to be something so fundamentally rooted in his personality that I don’t know if they can ever be improved upon. Rex Ryan is who he is at this point. If he lands on a team with a personnel guru at GM and finds big-time offensive coordinator to run his offense, then success certainly can come.
But if you need a top general manager and offensive coordinator to mask your flaws, are you really a good head coach?