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Aristotle Tziampiris Headshot

The Return of Rex Ryan (Orson Welles Redux?)

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The die is cast. Rex Ryan will remain the coach of the New York Jets. Owner Woody Johnson made the right call. After all, this was a team that traded Darrelle Revis -- it's biggest star and probably the league's best cornerback -- that depended on Geno Smith, a rookie QB that was passed over in the first round of the draft by every single team (including the Jets); a team that was deemed unworthy by its peers and NFL fans to have a single representative in the Pro Bowl; that was power ranked by ESPN dead last before the season began. And yet, despite a lackluster roster and nonexistent expectations, the 2013 New York Jets posted eight wins, an 0.500 record that included memorable victories over the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints. It is only within this context that the decision to retain coach Rex Ryan can be understood.

This was the right decision but it necessitates a deeper argument about passing judgement in the unpredictable, topsy-turvy world of the NFL; and it is important enough to require a brief detour to Ancient Greece and more particularly to Herodotus, the world's first historian. In his Histories, Herodotus recounts the story of how the wise Athenian Solon visited Croesus, King of Lydia and widely acknowledged as the world's richest person. Croesus who was in a smug, celebratory mood, showed Solon his treasures and asked him, rhetorically in his mind, who was the world's most fortunate person. Twice Solon opted for certain Athenian citizens, thus demonstrating a profound clash of values. As a result, he was unceremoniously kicked out of court, though not before uttering a warning that has resonated throughout the ages: "Count no man happy until the end has come" (Croesus subsequently met his downfall in the hands of the Persians).

The teaching of Herodotus and Solon is thus petty clear cut: withhold passing judgement until you know the end. Which is extremely relevant for the NFL and the case of Rex Ryan. Keep in mind, beat writers demanded his firing after Mark Sanchez suffered a season-ending injury in a preseason game against the New York Giants. In other words, they were asking for his head before a single season snap was played. Then, following the big victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Jets went 5-4 and some of the same people started musing about the possibility of Rex being a deserving candidate for Coach of the Year. A string of defeats and subpar performances ensued and the debate about firing Rex resurfaced, albeit in more nuanced and balanced terms. Unperturbed by all this noise, owner Woody Johnson made a decision only after the season had played out in its entirety. This was the wise course of action, unsurprising for a successful billionaire businessperson who is in charge of the sixth wealthiest NFL franchise. The moral is that we must not get carried away by the passion for our team (or the necessity to meet deadlines or make headlines). Decisions require the best possible information, that all data is in, that we know the way the story ends.

But how the saga of the Rex Ryan era for the New York Jets remains to be seen. Rex is without any doubt a defensive genius who has a personality tailor-made for New York (and the back pages of the tabloids). For his recent book Low Collision Crossers, (mandatory reading for all New York Jets fans and NFL devotees), writer Nicholas Dawidoff was embedded with the Jets for an entire year (2011) and was given unprecedented access to everything and everyone. The portrait that emerges of Rex Ryan is mesmerizing: a devoted family man with a long-standing crush for Heather Locklear; a coach so beloved by his players that they are willing to endanger their bodies and health to win for him; an admirer of Springsteen; loyal (to a fault) with trusted players, coaches and friends; an erudite student (of the defensive side) of the game; a spirit unshackled by conformity who does not flinch from running the bulls in Spain; the person that we all would like to hang out with.

But Rex Ryan is also maturing. Gone is the bluster and hubris of guaranteeing Super Bowl appearances. Rex 2.0 is more down-to-earth (in the press conference following the Saints victory he even refused to contemplate, wisely as it turned out, a playoff berth).

Rex Ryan is a great American but it might still turn out that he will resemble another outsized, larger-than-life American genius: Orson Welles. Welles was a brilliant and multi-talented director, actor and writer. But his greatest creative success was Citizen Cane, his first full movie. He had other good moments, but none really managed to surpass the beginning of his directorial career. It remains to be seen if Rex Ryan will ever manage to replicate or best the consecutive appearances to AFC Championship games during his first two years with the New York Jets; at least he has been given a much-deserved second chance.

Dr. Aristotle Tziampiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.

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