An Off-Broadway Play
November 5, 2011 by Neil Bright • Print Story •
Nothing's small about Rex Ryan. Hired by the Jets in 2009, his lap-banded profile has only been eclipsed by his grandiose predictions and larger than life ego. As a human lightening rod, supporters envision him a green and white messiah leading them to football's promised land, while detractors see only a saber-rattling, blowhard whose outrageous comments are a recipe for humble pie, a loss of face, and a pride before fall exit.
Yet watching the opening acts of Ryan's off-Broadway play, both characterizations seem inaccurate. The drama beginning three seasons ago depicts neither savior nor fool, neither future legend nor destined-to-fail loser. This seemingly simple man is far more than a novelty act buffoon and far less than Vince Lombardi's second coming.
Yet whoever he is, it is certain that in the unforgiving results-oriented world of the National Football League the "king of hyperbole" has given hope to fans knowing almost none. For despite his obvious foibles, in taking the Jets to the same number of conference championship games in his first two seasons as in its prior 40, Rex Ryan is also a very good football coach.
At the start of this campaign, his regular season winning percentage was .625 and two of every three playoff games ended in victory. He took a team not winning the Super Bowl since Lyndon Johnson's presidency and made them relevant for the first time since Joe Namath wore white shoes, mink jackets, and a "What, Me Worry?" smile. Yet with all of that, his detractors are legion and are not entirely unjustified. And more than anything else, such criticism is based on Ryan's bombastic and self-promoting personality.
Since bursting on the New York scene with all the subtlety of an onrushing locomotive, Ryan's high-wired act has been supremely confident at best and obsessively boastful at worst. For critics believing the latter, validation has come more often than Lindsay Lohan court appearances.
At his first news conference, he played the schoolyard bully in offering that "The Jets are coming ... and I think that's going to be more than you can handle." Shortly thereafter he stated, "I believe our team is better than every (expletive) team in the league."
In referring to Bill Belichick before playing and losing to the Patriots in 2010, he warned: "I came here to kick his ass." And the following month at a mixed martial arts event in Miami, he flipped the bird to thousands of hostile fans after predicting that the Jets would beat the Dolphins twice the following season.
Before losing in the playoffs last season, he boasted, "Regardless of who we play, we think we're better than any team out there." The next month he proclaimed, "There's no way we don't get it done next year" and, "I know we'll win it." That prophecy was followed at the scouting combine with, "I believe this is the year we're going to win the Super Bowl ... I guarantee we'll win it this year."
While confidence is necessary in a head coach, continual claims of superiority without sealing the deal quickly promote "the king has no clothes" perceptions. In not delivering on championship promises, self-assured pronouncements soon become the delusional and desperate rants of a leader lacking that quality. And in endlessly claiming dominance without supporting such assertions, faith in oneself becomes hubris and optimistic predictions become the ignored ramblings of a man crying wolf.
With no end in sight for self-aggrandizing exaggeration, Ryan's only inoculation from the worst results of foot-in-mouth disease is to win early and often. However, should he fail, he risks far more than criticism from fans and the media. He risks quickly losing control of his players and ultimately his job.
While Ryan apologists are quick to refute the notion that his over-the-top comments and frequent guarantees can backfire if wins don't soon follow, critics are notable and vocal. Joe Namath has insisted that Ryan's endless boasts of his team's dominance counterproductively allows players to think "they're better than they are." And for players buying the hype, it is only a small step to "not be preparing quite the way [they] should."
Moreover, Namath has been critical of Ryan's "Mr. Nice Guy" approach. "In bending over backward for the guys to be on their side," the greatest Jet of them all has intimated that such a players' coach in the extreme can lead to undisciplined play and an inmates running the asylum disaster. And in seeking evidence of that, critics look no further than accusations of sexual harassment toward a female reporter in the locker room, a Jet assistant tripping an opposing player during a punt return, and players criticizing members of the coaching staff and each other.
But Namath is far from alone in his criticism of Ryan's shoot from the lip "take no prisoners" verbal approach. Said Bill Cowher, since "reality should be done with your deeds and not your words ... I have concerns [that] at some point ... his words are going to become hollow." And in referring to Ryan's salty language on "Hard Knocks," Tony Dungy chided: "I don't think our young people need to hear that that's the way it's done to be successful." But in criticizing his former coach, Ray Lewis arguably said it best. "The game ain't played in tongues" and the danger of exaggerated talk "is writing a check that you can't cash."
While successful coaches come in all shapes, sizes, approaches, and temperaments, there are reasons why none have resembled Rex Ryan. At the least, in a game where emotional intensity is often the tipping point between wins and losses, it is counterproductive to add any fuel to an opponent's emotional fire through boorish statements of self-promotion and superiority.
The problem with Ryan's coaching approach is that with expectations so inflated, should adversity strike, as it inevitably will, he will be given little support and less time to recover. Victories are his Teflon protection against Schadenfreude-fueled critics who want him to fail.
Continuing his current in your face "I don't care what you think" approach, media, and fan second-guessing will be kept at bay only by heeding the "just win, baby" imperative. Should losses mount, he has little margin for error. And because of this, unless Ryan learns restraint and humility, the off-Broadway play of this very good coach will likely have an abbreviated run.