The Jets’ coach leads play­off run with mix of tac­tics, com­edy

Over­grown kid

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SALLY JENK­INS IN FLORHAM PARK, N. J.

The way Rex Ryan has whipped up the New York Jets, ev­ery­one acts 15 years old. Fat as­sis­tant coaches stam­pede up and down the side­line, ex­cited as wild young rhinoceroses. Jaded mil­lion­aire re­ceivers sail around with their arms thrown open wide like kids imi­tat­ing air­planes, pre­tend­ing to fly. “ The Flight Boys,” they call them­selves.

Whether or not the Jets can con­tinue their im­prob­a­ble amuse­ment ride, Ryan has al­ready proved a point: It’s pos­si­ble to laugh and play foot­ball at the same time. A lot of NFL coaches won’t ad­mit it’s pos­si­ble to do both, at least not aloud. But with his un­der­dog team in the AFC cham­pi­onship game against the

Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, Ryan is gig­gling like it’s a school­yard dare. “It’s a triple-chin­strap game,” he booms. “A straight ahead, no-fair­dodg­ing game.”

He looks and acts like an over­grown kid who has eaten too many Fudgsi­cles, a bully on the play­ground. He flips the fin­ger, gets fined by the league, and his play­ers think he’s the most fun ever. When he talks, his voice rises with zeal, his dou­ble chin flaps, and he bares a straight line of white teeth in a grin that’s over­broad, as if he’s ready to take an­other big bite out of some­thing. Some ac­cuse him of smack talk, but he de­nies it. “Just telling the truth like I al­ways try to do,” he says.

Don’t mis­take him; Ryan is ex­cel­lent at the pro­fes­sional drudgery of coach­ing, the all-night staff meet­ings and schemat­ics. “Out­stand­ing coach, ex­cel­lent tac­ti­cian, great fun­da­men­tals,” says for­mer Bal­ti­more Ravens coach Brian Bil­lick, for whom Ryan worked from 1999 till 2008.

Few are more so­phis­ti­cated strate­gists, as Ryan has proved in two

short but stun­ningly suc­cess­ful sea­sons in which he has reen­er­gized a fran­chise that hasn’t been to a Su­per Bowl since JoeNa­math in 1969. But he’s no good at the blank tech­ni­cal jar­gon that passes for NFL con­ver­sa­tion. “ That coach-speak, that non­sense, he doesn’t do that,” de­fen­sive end Trevor Pryce says.

What Ryan is re­ally good at is feel­ing — and get­ting oth­ers to feel, too. He ex­cels at con­ta­gion. He has made ador­ing be­liev­ers out of his play­ers with a blunt, ram­pant emo­tion­al­ism that he and his twin brother Rob, the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor of the Dal­las Cow­boys, in­her­ited from their fa­ther, Buddy Ryan, one of the most in­deli­bly bel­li­cose NFL coaches of the 1980s.

“You might not al­ways like what they have to say, but you won’t mis­un­der­stand them,” Buddy says of his sons. “I think his play­ers like that hon­esty. Play­ers are the first ones to know if you’re a phony.”

One moment Rex Ryan delivers com­edy, the next rous­ing speeches, and the next, sav­age pro­fan­ity. “A lot of F-bombs,” de­fen­sive line­men Shaun El­lis said. “We’ve kind of got­ten im­mune to that.”

One rea­son he uses such blue lan­guage, he tells his play­ers, is to toughen hides.

“Skin like an ar­madillo!” Ryan bays.

All of which has the Jets play­ing like the most jacked-up, nakedly emo­tional team in the play­offs. Emo­tion, and Ryan’s ge­nius for sum­mon­ing it with speechi­fy­ing and canny ma­nip­u­la­tion, has been a cru­cial fac­tor in their AFC run. Take the stir­ring cry he de­liv­ered in mid-De­cem­ber, on the eve of a reg­u­lar sea­son meet­ing with the Steel­ers. With the Jets on a two-game los­ing streak and in dan­ger of missing the play­offs, Ryan had a blunt con­fronta­tion with his team. “When things go bad, we don’t run from it,” El­lis says.

At the ho­tel on the night be­fore the game Ryan de­liv­ered a fierce, choked ex­hor­ta­tion in which he de­scribed the des­per­ate ex­pe­di­tion of con­quis­ta­dor Her­nan Cortes, who sailed off to con­quer Mex­ico in 1519. Cortes was so de­ter­mined not to re­treat, Ryan said, that he or­dered his men to set fire to their ships. “ They burned their boats!” Ryan shouted.

The fol­low­ing day, when the Jets and Steel­ers were tied at 10 at half­time, they took up the chant. “Burn the boats,” the Jets said. “Burn the boats.” Fi­nal score: Jets, 22-17.

They knew it was ju­ve­nile. They knewit was wor­thy of a high school locker room. Burn the boats? Fine. “We still got to get back to the air­port, though,” El­lis notes, wryly. Yet they ate it up any­way, and have been us­ing it ever since.

“Burn your boats,” El­lis says. “Def­i­nitely. It means go out there and leave noth­ing be­hind. I’mnot go­ing to say this is war, but ba­si­cally, just go out there and don’t in­tend on com­ing back. Just leave it all on the field.”

Sim­i­larly, Ryan made a “per­sonal” grudge match out of a seem­ingly un­winnable play­off game against the su­pe­rior New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and quar­ter­back Tom Brady, who had em­bar­rassed them in an early De­cem­ber game on Mon­day Night Foot­ball, 45-3. Ryan sum­moned ex-Jet Den­nis Byrd, par­tially par­a­lyzed in on-field in­ci­dent in 1992, to de­liver a tear jerk­ing pregame ad­dress. “I would give any­thing for one more play,” Byrd said. Ryan then pro­duced the jersey that had been cut off him while he lay prone on the field.

Ryan also messed with the heads of the op­po­si­tion. He in­sulted Brady for not study­ing and baited Pa­tri­ots Coach Bill Belichick by pro­nounc­inghimthe great­est coach in the game.

“I thought what he did against Belichick was bril­liant,” Bil­lick said. “If they lose, [Belichick’s] the best coach in foot­ball, and if they win, it’s ‘Hey we just beat the best coach in foot­ball.’ ”

By kick­off the Jets were sky­high. Mean­time the Pa­tri­ots were al­most “de­void of emo­tion,” Bil­lick ob­served, be­cause they had de­voted so much en­ergy to try­ing to ig­nore Ryan. Ryan then de­liv­ered a knock­out punch of a game plan that stymied the top of­fense in the league and left Brady spin­ning in a 28-21 up­set.

Can he do it one more time? If the Jets win Sun­day, they will have de­feated the In­di­anapo­lis Colts, Pa­tri­ots and Steel­ers — teams that in the last decade have com­bined for six Su­per Bowl rings and five league MVPs — all on the road. It’s per­haps the tough­est path to the Su­per Bowl ever. Con­sid­er­ing the prospect, Ryan grins, teeth big as pi­ano keys. His big voice comes from deep in his gut. “I think we’re just the men for the job,” he says.

But if so, it will be be­cause Ryan reached down and once again found the boy in all of them, with his child­ish and grand im­pro­vi­sa­tions. “I want that greenand-white con­fetti com­ing down,” he says. “We want to hold the tro­phy. . . . We want that to be ours. We want the hat. We want the T-shirts.”

A fa­ther’s in­flu­ence

Ryan’s own boy­hood was a suc­ces­sion of moves and brawls, as he fol­lowed his fa­ther around the league. Buddy Ryan was at once an in­no­va­tor and a pug­na­cious old schooler, a Korean War mas­ter-sergeant who de­vised new de­fenses based on the prim­i­tive idea that the more you hit peo­ple, the bet­ter. A no­madic, feud­ing ca­reer took him to the Jets, the Vik­ings, the Bears, the Ea­gles, the Oilers and the Car­di­nals, be­fore he re­tired 15 years ago to work a horse farm in Ken­tucky, where this week he an­swered the phone with a gruff, “Whacha got?”

By the time the Ryan boys reached high school age, they were so strap­ping and tru­cu­lent it was dif­fi­cult to con­trol them. Buddy and their mother Doris di­vorced in 1966, and they were liv­ing in Toronto, cut­ting school and fight­ing. “She was hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing them straight,” Buddy says. In 1976, af­ter they got kicked off their foot­ball team for their tem­pers, Buddy brought them to Min­nesota to live with him and his sec­ond wife, Joanie, full time. “I think they needed a firm hand,” Buddy says.

Buddy put them to work as ball boys for the Vik­ings. He be­gan to no­tice that when head coach Bud Grant talked, they lis­tened. “ They were ob­serv­ing when the other boys were play­ing,” he says. “ They were pay­ing at­ten­tion to what was go­ing on.”

When he shipped them off to col­lege at South­west­ern Ok­la­homa State, he urged them to study ho­tel man­age­ment and food ser­vices; he didn’t want them in the coach­ing grind. But each in­sisted, “Dad, I want to coach.”

They begged him to show them the at­tack­ing de­fenses he was renowned for. So Buddy took them to a ho­tel in Weather­ford, Okla., checked into a room, and set up an easel. He con­ducted a pri­vate clinic, “Went over the whole pack­age.” He found he didn’t have much to teach them. “I was sur­prised at what they al­ready knew,” he said.

Buddy in­sisted they start at the dirt-ground level, and made a cou­ple of calls. He placed Rex as a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant at di­vi­sion I-AA EasternKen­tucky un­der Roy Kidd, a renowned taskmas­ter who won 16 Ohio Val­ley Con­fer­ence ti­tles, and woke his play­ers for 6 a.m. runs. Rex worked for noth­ing. Buddy says, “He did his ABCs.”

If Buddy thought a taste of the grind would cure Rex, he was wrong. Rex loved it, the whole life. He got so ex­cited call­ing blitzes, he would punch other staffers in the arm.

“Ev­ery­thing’s a com­pe­ti­tion to him,” says Keith Kidd, Roy’s son, who is di­rec­tor of pro per­son­nel for the Den­ver Bron­cos. “Coaches’ kids are dif­fer­ent . . . you live and die ev­ery Satur­day, and you’re so emo­tion­ally at­tached to it, be­cause you learn the whole way of life, from the equip­ment train­ers all the way up.”

Ryan was an in­cur­able gamer — so much so, that even on the morn­ing of Keith’s wed­ding, he dragged him out­side for a game of Wif­fle ball. The rest of the wed­ding party looked out the win­dow in amaze­ment at Ryan ca­per­ing on the back lawn with a plas­tic bat and a lit­tle white ball.

Ryan wended his way to Di­vi­sion II New Mex­ico High­lands, then More­head State, Cincin­nati, Ok­la­homa and Kansas State. He fi­nally got his big NFL break in 1999, when Bil­lick heard him speak at a coach­ing clinic. Bil­lick, like ev­ery­one, was car­ried away by his gusto.

Ryan was just a warmup act, and there were only a few peo­ple in the lec­ture hall to hear him. But he stood at the podium roar­ing and ges­tur­ing with fer­vor.

“ There were about 10 peo­ple there, and you would have thought there were 100,000,” Bil­lick says. “He was clinic-ing up. He was pas­sion­ate, knowl­edge­able. AndI thought right then and there, boy, this is a guy you want on your staff.”

They were the same qual­i­ties that the Jets would even­tu­ally find so ir­re­sistible. Ryan’s se­cret, Bil­lick main­tains, is his in­fec­tious­ness.

“ The play­ers pick up on it,” Bil­ick says. “You have to match his en­ergy, and pas­sion, and verve for the game.”

‘Old guys and cast­aways’

There are a lot of high-pas­sion play­ers in the Jets’ locker room, just wait­ing to match Ryan’s. He brought them in for that very rea­son. He wanted guys with chips and re­sent­ments, such as LaDainian Tom­lin­son, the for­mer league MVP run­ning back who seemed washed up and was let go by the San Diego Charg­ers last win­ter, or Pryce, the 14th-year vet­eran for­mer Pro Bowler, re­leased in Septem­ber by the Ravens.

“ This team is built up of big of­fen­sive line­men, and old guys and cast­aways, you know what I mean?” Pryce says. “ That’s what uni­fies us: We have guys no one else wants. . . . He has in mind what a foot­ball team is sup­posed to be, what kind of parts and pieces and per­son­al­i­ties he wants.”

Not ev­ery­one wanted Ryan, ei­ther. Part of his con­nec­tion to his play­ers is based on the fact that he is a re­jected vet, too, passed over by the Mi­ami Dol­phins, At­lanta Fal­cons, San Diego Charg­ers and Ravens for head jobs, be­fore the Jets hired him in 2009 at the age of 46. By the time he got a chance to run his own team, he knew ex­actly the type of guy he wanted: high-oc­tane sore­heads. He has turned over fully half the Jets’ ros­ter in two sea­sons.

“All I can do is coach foot­ball, I’m not an ex­pert on any­thing other than this game of foot­ball,” Ryan says. “And I know the type of men it takes to play this game. I know what you look for in a guy.”

Ac­cord­ing to Pryce, Ryan keeps a vir­tual “Rolodex” of play­mak­ers who have bested him on the field.

“He wants peo­ple who beat up on him,” Pryce says. “I think the thing about Rex’s or­ga­ni­za­tion is that if you made an im­pres­sion on him, he gives you a chance no mat­ter what.”

That was the case with San­to­nio Holmes, the for­mer Su­per Bowl MVP the Steel­ers traded to the Jets last April for just a fifthround draft choice, be­cause of off-the-field is­sues that in­cluded a mar­i­juana bust and dis­or­derly con­duct. Ryan was on the phone in his of­fice when he got a mes­sage from Gen­er­alMan­agerMike Tan­nen­baum: “Give a thumbs up if you want San­to­nioHolmes, or a thumbs down if you don’t.”

Ryan slammed down the phone, and he shouted: “What? San­to­nio Holmes?” He went pounding up­stairs and told Tan­nen­baum, “Ab­so­lutely.” Three times in one sea­son, Holmes had burnedRyan’s de­fenses for losses.

“I just knew that any­body that beat me that bad, that I’d just as soon have him on our team,” he says.

Some­how, Ryan has forged a unit out of a po­ten­tially un­man­age­able bunch. His gar­ru­lous­ness ob­scures a sub­tle but su­perb tal­ent for team build­ing. He has melded all sorts of types, from ag­ing re­treads to out­spo­ken stars such as cor­ner­back An­to­nio Cro­mar­tie, who last week called Brady a hu­man ori­fice. “He’s the ul­ti­mate uniter,” says Kidd. Ryan clearly likes hav­ing all those large, dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties in the room.

“ There is no­body alike,” Ryan says. “Ev­ery­body is dif­fer­ent, but that’s the beauty of a locker room, is when you can re­spect ev­ery­body. Ev­ery­body is dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery sin­gle per­son, dif­fer­ent re­li­gious be­liefs, the way they look, fat guys, good-look­ing guys or ugly guys. Ev­ery­body comes to­gether and they have one goal.”

It’s a del­i­cate bal­ance, how­ever, and at times, Ryan’s emo­tive, freespeak­ing style has threat­ened to tip over into un­disici­plined. Dur­ing the Pro Bowl in Mi­ami, Ryan gave the fin­ger to a rau­cous crowd, and told fans to “Go [ex­ple­tive] your­self.” Wide re­ceiver Bray­lon Ed­wards was ar­rested for drunk driv­ing, and the team was fined $100,000 af­ter strength coach Sal Alosi tripped a Mi­ami Dol­phin on a punt re­turn.

“ The things you’re ap­plauded for are the ex­act same things they’ll run you out of town for,” Bil­lick notes. “Rex at top of his game is a play­ers’ coach. Play­ers love him, he’s out­spo­ken. But when you hit that tough spot — and you al­ways do — then you’ve lost con­trol, you’re ar­ro­gant, you’re boast­ful.”

But for the time be­ing, Ryan’s team is play­ing like a highly dis­ci­plined or­ga­ni­za­tion. Their loy­alty to each other is pal­pa­ble, and they say it starts with Ryan, who takes all blame when they lose and de­flects credit when they win. Af­ter they beat the Pa­tri­ots, he said, “It has noth­ing to do with me.” To which Pryce replied af­fec­tion­ately with his own ex­ple­tive: “Bull. It had ev­ery­thing to do with him.”

Then there is the mas­terly job Ryan has done with sec­ond-year quar­ter­back­Mark Sanchez, guid­ing a loose kid to im­mi­nent su­per­star­dom and four play­off vic­to­ries. Sanchez might have driven some coaches crazy. He ex­udes a surfer boy care­free-ness, with wings of curl­ing hair, Skech­ers on his feet, and rope bracelets on his wrist. But Ryan has let him be him­self.

Sanchez’s re­la­tion­ship with Ryan was de­fined by an early en­counter, when Sanchez was a draftee out of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He went to din­ner with Ryan, own­erWoody John­son and sev­eral as­sis­tant coaches, and af­ter the meal as they left the res­tau­rant a jokey Sanchez de­cided to alarm his new bosses. There was a mo­tor­cy­cle parked at the curb, and Sanchez pre­tended it was his. He said, “All right, I’ll see you guys later,” swung a leg over the bike. “I was just mess­ing around,” he says. Some­coaches would have gasped. Ryan laughed. He liked it.

Later, when Sanchez strug­gled with mis­takes on the field and doubted him­self, Ryan brought up the episode: “Be that guy that got on the mo­tor­cy­cle,” he told Sanchez. “Just be him.”

“Even in the tough­est sit­u­a­tions, he’s al­ways told me he’s never wa­vered in his con­fi­dence,” Sanchez says. “And it’s taught me to never wa­ver. You’ve got to trust your­self. When all else fails, get back to ba­sics, go with what you know and trust your in­stincts. He’ll al­ways tell me in the tough­est sit­u­a­tions, ‘Be your­self. Be the guy we drafted.’ ”

There is no tougher sit­u­a­tion than the one the Jets now face. Ryan will try to sum­mon an­other big swell of emo­tion in or­der to win in the cold, hos­tile en­vi­rons of Pitts­burgh’s Heinz Field. It will be their third straight road game as un­der­dog, and the ques­tion is whether their emo­tion is sus­tain­able.

More­over, the Jets will need se­ri­ous sub­stance to beat the fe­ro­ciously phys­i­cal Steel­ers, who have won two Su­per Bowls since the 2005 sea­son and six tro­phies over­all. If it’s a mat­ter of the Jets’ in­spi­ra­tion against the Steel­ers’ heavy hit­ting and hard­ware, it won’t be enough. Ryan is cog­nizant of that, which is why he kept his in­cen­di­ary talk to a min­i­mum. But on Fri­day, Ryan pro­nounced his team ready, and with a con­fi­dent ver­bal flour­ish sug­gested his team is ready for the play­ground again.

“ They’ve had six Su­per Bowl tro­phies,” he said. “If they want to put them on the field, we will play them, too.”

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY CHRIS RUKAN/THE WASHINGTON POST PHO­TOS BY GETTY IM­AGES

TOM CAM­METT /DI­A­MOND IM­AGES/GETTY IM­AGES

These are good times for Rex Ryan and Jets fans, who are one win from see­ing their team in the Su­per Bowl for the first time since 1969.

AL BELLO/GETTY IM­AGES

Ryan spent last week pro­claim­ing New Eng­land’s Bill Belichick, right, the great­est coach in the game, then beat him for the sec­ond time this sea­son as the Jets earned an AFC ti­tle game date with Pitts­burgh.

TOM CAM­METT/DI­A­MOND IM­AGES/GETTY IM­AGES

“I think his play­ers like that hon­esty. Play­ers are the first ones to know if you’re a phony,” Buddy Ryan, right, says of son’s per­son­al­ity.

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