He lost me when he turned sideways. Tired of answering questions about the toxic spill he created, melting down in a room of New York media attack dogs who smell a self-destruction in progress, Rex Ryan cracked when the situation called for cool. He turned his back to his audience, then provided a clownish side view, transforming a post-game news conference into a countdown to an inevitable pink slip.
I have a name for this crash heap of a reality show: Train Rex.
“I can say anything I want. That’s the beauty of this country,” he said, refusing to discuss a quarterbacking catastrophe that has become the talk of the NFL preseason. “Here, I’ll stand backwards and answer the question. I’m going sideways. At the appropriate time, we’ll make the announcement, when I think it’s the appropriate time.”
It wasn’t long ago when Ryan was a burgeoning cult figure in sporting America, a compelling personality who quickly led the doormat Jets to the doorstep of consecutive Super Bowls. He was loud, bombastic, an immediate New Yorker. He was a competitive SOB, daring to publicly target Bill Belichick and the Patriot Way. He brought an instant identity to a franchise lost in the gloried glare of the Giants and without a whiff of a league championship since Joe Namath successfully guaranteed one in 1969. Rex seemed to have life and coaching in balanced perspective; no way was he working 19-hour days and sleeping every night at the stadium, not when his wife was posting videos that her husband had a foot fetish.
Just two years later, Ryan is another person. He has lost a ton of weight, which is good, but his presence has eroded, his voice is weak and scratchy and his power was commandeered after an embarrassing 2012 season when owner Woody Johnson hired John Idzik as general manager. His expertise as a defensive strategist and ability to rally a locker room whisked him to two AFC title games, but his inability to develop a quarterback has overwhelmed his fine deeds and brought the entire house down. He has linked his professional wagon to Mark Sanchez, whose performance has eroded so much that he’s known more for his on-field buffoonery (The Butt Fumble) and off-field action (The Naked Butt video) than his professional achievements. The Jets drafted Geno Smith, hoping he’d be next in the procession of terrific dual-threat QBs taking over the sport.
But Geno has yet to prove he belongs in the league. After Ryan described one of his recent practices as “brutal,” Smith still was given ample opportunity in the third preseason game to win the job — and he lost it, throwing three interceptions and inadvertently stepping out of the end zone for a safety in a horrendous rookie error. Rather than acknowledging Smith’s issues and safeguarding Sanchez, who at least has had some measure of NFL success, Ryan lost his mind and suffered the ultimate coaching brain cramp: He reinserted Sanchez early in the fourth quarter, behind inexperienced lineman and in the path of hungry third-string defenders looking to make impact by, say, pounding a starting quarterback into the turf.
That’s what happened to Sanchez, who writhed in pain after taking a hit to his shoulder — a bruised right shoulder joint, ESPN reports — and now may not play in the first regular-season against Tampa Bay. If Smith is the quarterback that day, Darrelle Revis can stand on his island with a blindfold and pick off three passes against his former team, assuming the Buccaneers would bother risking Revis’ health against such a scrub.
All of which leads to a very fair question: Is Ryan emotionally equipped to coach a bad football team in venomous New York this season? Asked Monday if he regretted his Sanchez decision, Ryan said no, meaning he’s going to ride a denial boat straight into the gutter.
“From my standpoint, I have to move forward, we have to move forward and that’s where we’re at,” Ryan said. “What’s happened in the past, you can’t do anything about. You’ve got to focus on the present and the future, and that’s where we are right now.
“Do I regret that he got injured? Of course. But again, I’m not going to say anything more about it, because I covered that already.”
He said he hadn’t spoken to Idzik or Johnson about the decision to unnecessarily endanger Sanchez. But they can’t be happy with their coach’s mindset. As it is, after presiding over the two-year demise of Sanchez, Ryan has done nothing in partnership with new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to speed Smith’s development. Funny how Pete Carroll had no problem developing Russell Wilson as a rookie, Jim Harbaugh had no problem developing Colin Kaepernick as a rookie and Mike Shanahan had no problem developing Robert Griffin III as a rookie. Funny how a rookie head coach, Doug Marrone, was on his way to developing E.J. Manuel as a rookie until an injury threw the Buffalo quarterback situation into a mess.
But Rex Ryan has turned Geno Smith into a bust before September arrives. It’s pretty bad when Sanchez, who has every right to be angry for being placed in harm’s way, had to step in and defend Ryan and Mornhinweg. “I’m not here to second-guess the coaches,” Sanchez said. “If they call you to play, you better be ready to play, and I was. So I went in and played and tried to win … Look, I’m a competitor. And as a player, it’s not my job to worry about when you’re going in, who’s in, what string, this or that. If they call your number, you’ve got to play and that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve always done. That’s not my call. That’s the coach’s decision.”
Once upon a time, Rex Ryan hoped he would coach the Jets in New York’s first Super Bowl, coming February at the Meadowlands. I’m guessing he’ll be working for ESPN or Fox by then as a studio analyst, probably sooner than later. Just as he stood “backwards” in the interview room the other night, refusing to explain the decision that will lead to his dismissal, he’s going backwards in a once-promising football life.