New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan has a whole lot to commend him in his job. A stark contrast to failed martinets such as former Jets boss Eric Mangini and the recently-fired Josh McDaniels, Ryan is the NFL coach players want to work for. With his boisterous personality, Ryan is a one-man marketing department, a crucial attribute for the frontman of an organization inaugurating a new stadium this season and needing to sell expensive Personal Seat Licenses (P.S.L.'s).
One blind spot that has reared its head during the 2010-'11 season, however, has been Ryan's handling of injured players.
Ryan admitted his mistake following an October 11 Monday Night Football matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, when he re-inserted injured CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring) into the lineup three weeks after the shutdown corner first aggravated the hamstring defending then-Patriots receiver Randy Moss. After doctors medically cleared Revis, Ryan publicly left the decision up to the corner who -- of course -- said he was ready to go.
Revis played the full game, but was burned repeatedly by Vikings slot receiver Percy Harvin and finished the contest with his hamstring "very swollen" and "very sore." Ryan told ESPN New York's Rich Cimini afterward that it "probably isn't real fair" to put a player in that position. Revis would dress for the next week's tilt against the Denver Broncos but was barely himself, with Brandon Lloyd finishing with 74 yards and Jabar Gaffney with 81 yards.
Despite offering a mea culpa for the way he handled Revis in October, Ryan's decisions relating to injured tackle Damien Woody late in the season have demonstrated his failure to absorb any meaningful lessons from that incident. Woody suffered an MCL injury to his knee in Week 11 against the Houston Texans. He was questionable leading up to the Jets's game scheduled four days later, sitting out practices. Nevertheless, he suited up and started a relatively unimportant Thanksgiving Day game against the comically inept Cincinnati Bengals.
Strategically, the decision was puzzling, considering the importance of having Woody optimally healthy for the subsequent Monday night match with the New England Patriots. Health wise, though, continuing to play Woody would prove all the more disastrous. Woody -- a key component of one of the best offensive lines in football -- left Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter after re-aggravating the injury, and is now likely lost for the end of the regular season and the playoffs for surgery.
Woody's likely replacement in the Jets starting lineup, Wayne Hunter, allowed three of the six sacks the Jets surrendered against the Dolphins.
The most likely explanation for this failing is as an offshoot of Ryan's virtues -- his respect for and strong relationships with his players, when taken too far, mutates into something resembling indulgence. Ryan trusts his players, wants to see them succeed and show that they are worthy of his repeated public praise.
But ultimately, this approach shortchanges the Jets' players. Part of Ryan's responsibilities to his team include being a buffer between them and the public, and it is his responsibility to accept the odium associated with deciding to keep popular players out of the lineup. Failure to do so exposes his weaknesses as a head coach at best, and at worst needlessly compromises the safety of his players. As an entity, the National Football League may regularly show a callous indifference to the health of its athletes, but Ryan is supposed to be the outlier, the member of management who cares about his players and treats them like men. With regard to dealing with injured players, Ryan has thus far failed to live up to that reputation.