"I think he's done very well...It's been great working with [him] and his staff...[He] has pulled it all together."
"He's our leader."
Those are the remarks of New York Jets general manager John Idzik, assessing the performance of his head coach Rex Ryan. His words are highly flattering and full of praise -- and why shouldn't they be? The upstart Jets are entering their Week 10 bye at a wholly improbably 5-4. Geno Smith, despite admittedly enduring the rollercoaster ups-and-downs of the rookie experience, is slowly developing into a viable QB option at the pro level. The defense is in the top ten for Total Yards Allowed, Sacks, and first overall for Rush Defense. And, perhaps most importantly, ESPN's SportsCenter has even retired the infamous ButtFumble from its lengthy reign atop the Not Top Ten List!
Things are looking up for the Gang Green, so can you blame Idzik for gushing? One thing the first-year-GM is not keen to do at this juncture, however, is speak about Ryan's long-term future with the team. When pressed on that issue, the previously rhapsodic executive falls back on empty platitudes.
"We're living in the moment and not getting too far ahead of ourselves," he says. "we have a long way to go."
Well realize this: the 2014 season will be the last on Ryan's contract. NFL franchises are often hesitant to send their coaches out onto the field in that type of situation, because the coach is then invariably perceived as a lame duck. Therefore, the widespread consensus is that Idzik and Jets owner Woody Johnson will make a final decision on Rex's tenure at the end of the season. And, despite this recent offering of praise, don't be surprised if that decision is a negative one. John Idzik is a newly-minted GM -- the one that originally hired Ryan, Mike Tannenbaum, was let go after last year's 6-10 showing -- and new GM's usually bring in a new head coach early in their reign. This is a fact of NFL front offices everywhere, and can occur regardless of the sitting coaches' results; incoming Browns GM Mike Holmgren fired Eric Mangini after a 5-11 season in 2010, sure, but just last year the Chicago Bears' Phil Emery sent Lovie Smith packing after a 10-6 effort. So don't think the seat Rex sits upon is any less hot.
However, it is my contention that Rex Ryan has earned himself a new contract from the New York Jets.
In fact, it is my contention that Rex Ryan has earned that new contract, not at this season's end, but right now.
The first and most obvious argument in favor of keeping Rex past 2013 lies in coming to grips with just how emphatically his team has defied "expert" analysts' expectations this season. If the Jets season ended today, they would be in the playoffs with a winning record and a #6 seed in the AFC. Are they world-beaters? No, but this result must seem unfathomable to the limitless hoard of football prognosticators who forecasted the Jets to be the league's basement bottom-feeders. Look at the many preseason power rankings that were available in August and early September -- the Jets come in at 30th (twice), 31st, 32nd (worse than the JAGUARS!!). Sports Illustrated was downright generous just granting them the 29th poll position.
ESPN's Mel Kiper dismissed them as a "glorified expansion team" -- an insult that's thankfully and embarrassingly been proven incorrect. All credit to Ryan for blocking out the doomsayers and rallying this team around the concerted effort of proving doubters wrong. ""If you're a competitor, how does that thing not get you? How does that not motivate you?" he said in preseason, "We're going to show you." Later on, after an improbable MNF victory on the road against Atlanta, New York's starting OLB Calvin Pace specifically referenced the team's last place ranking on ESPN as a key motivator in the team's hot start. This team plays with a chip on its shoulder, and Rex is the one that put it there.
In addition, it wasn't just the national, Bristol-based talking heads that had come to prematurely bury Rex and the Jets; the local, New York beat writers were also treating their demise as a guaranteed thing. City tabloids, including the Daily News in particular, were practically dancing of Ryan's grave in late August. They treated his trip to Clemson (to watch his own son's game) as a display of impotence and apathy -- a hatchet job so absurd even the NY Post, usually the most trigger-happy publication when it comes to dispensing of Gothamite coaches, actually came rushing to Ryan's defense. Around the same time, the News also predicted Ryan's outright firing after Mark Sanchez was unexpectedly hurt in an August 24 preseason game vs. the Giants, an outrageous verdict the national media soon piggybacked on as well. It was an incredible demonstration of hypocrisy -- this weeping, moaning, and gnashing of teeth over Sanchez's injured shoulder was coming from the same media members who had heretofore been openly relishing the end of his time as a starting quarterback dating back to the 2012 season! Furthermore, it was just a demonstrably wrong misreading of the actual cause of the injury in general, an argument I have no interest in rehashing but which has been exceptionally laid out by the indispensable Jack Dickey of Time Magazine. Between the torch mob calling for his job and the team's absymal showing on the polls and minds of football "gurus" everywhere, Rex's 5-4 showing this season doesn't just warrant a small extension -- he's arguably the league's Coach of the Year.
Rex deserves tremendous kudos for keeping his defense among the best in the league despite losing his best player and supreme talent, cornerback Darrelle Revis to the Buccs. Anyone who follows the NFL, if even only tangentially, knows how demonstrably it has become an offense-heavy and offense-driven league. As arguably the most inimitable defensive mind working today, Rex is truly a resource to valuable to send walking. As Grantland's Bill Barnwell agrees, in a league where curtailing and countering explosive offenses is so essential, Ryan leaving would be "part of the problem, not the solution." Moreover, you can no longer shake off Rex's dominance as a defensive coach by instead criticizing the stolid, conservative m.o. of his previous coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano -- in hiring former Eagles' OC Marty Mornhinweg Ryan has proven he is no longer opposed to a dynamic, pass-laden offensive mindset. Geno Smith is on pace for 3500 yards, which would be the most for any quarterback in Rex's time with the Jets.
And that defense! Even without #24 Rex has still coached up this intriguing cocktail of aging vets and eager greenhorns into an imposing, forceful unit. Have their been hiccups? Sure. But find me another coach in the NFL who can hold Tom Brady & Drew Brees to just 52% passing and 3 interceptions, as Ryan's done over three games this season. Mo Wilkerson continues to demonstrate that he is one of the best defensive lineman in the game, and Ryan (along with new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman) has done wonders developing rookie Sheldon Richardson and sophomore Quinton Coples into burgeoning studs in their own right. To Ryan's credit, he even refuses to give up on struggling corner Dee Milliner. After Milliner struggled in the aforementioned Week 8 debacle, Rex not only refused to bury the Alabama rookie, but built him back up with one of his old school, loudmouth bravura predictions. The result? Milliner responded with his best game as a pro.
The intensity and confidence with which Ryan rallies to his struggling rookie's side is indicative of the largest and most undeniable reason why Ryan deserves to continue on with the Jets -- this is a man who gets it, who gets what being a good coach means, beyond the x's & o's (and those, again, are solid in their own rights). Rex's bold predictions and provocations are often wrongly dismissed as mere hucksterism or empty, almost Looney Toons-esque bravado -- and this is incorrect. These larger than life, oft-thought-ridiculous tactics are actually a deliberate and (I would argue) effective strategy geared toward taking pressure off his team and his players at precisely when they need it most. That he's doing this in the sports tabloid capital of the world makes it even more impressive, and more valuable. Not many coaches can coach in New York -- the rabidness of the fans and media alike consumes them. But coaching on Broadway has never been too big or too daunting for Ryan -- in fact he eats it up. Isn't that what we want in our coaches, New York, to be as big, bright, and brash as a Times Square LCD screen? Ryan makes himself a big target for derision and doubt, because he has the self-possession and confidence to defy those critics, and lets the players just worry about playing. And largely it works. His players love playing for him. Ryan is 39-34 since 2009, putting him in the top 25% amongst coaches for wins in that five year span, with two AFC Championship appearances to boot. And it is simply impossible to discount how impressive his team has been this season given the multitude of buzzards in the media & television that were circling his carcass before the year even began.
Extending Ryan's contract would remove the needless uncertainty of the coming offseason, but more importantly, it would also be a clear and welcome sign to the team that the Jets organization is serious about competing for the playoffs, both for this year and beyond. In a season that's shown so much promise amidst its inconsistencies, the Jets ought to beat ahead forward with the man most equipped to handle this team, this city, and these players.
Thomas McKenna is a writer & blogger. Formerly he was an editorial fellow for the Huffington Post's sports section. Follow him @tmckenna1