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Why Is Rex Ryan Still The NY Jets Head Coach?

A possible explanation of the decision to replace Mike Tannenbaum but retain Rex Ryan.

Matt Sullivan

The sun had barely risen on Black Monday when the NY Jets announced that GM Mike Tannenbaum had been fired. The Jets had seen enough of his trades, his draft choices and his cap management and decided it was past time to bid Mr. T adieu. The Jets announced they have hired Jed Hughes of Korn/Ferry International, an executive consulting firm, to help guide the search for a new general manager to replace Mr. Tannenbaum. Given that the Jets will soon have a new GM, it seemed logical that Rex, along with most if not all of his coaching staff, would follow shortly, if only to make a clean break and allow the GM to choose his own head coach. But that's not what happened. Instead, Woody Johnson gave Rex a vote of confidence, said he would remain the head coach, and praised his passion, talent and drive. Then the Jets somewhat mysteriously canceled Rex's press conference originally scheduled for Monday afternoon.

So, what to make of all this? Why is Rex Ryan still the head coach of the NY Jets? Probably the most likely reason is also the most straightforward: the Jets brass truly believes Rex is the best man for the job, and places most, if not all of the blame for the last two disappointing seasons at the feet of the departed Mike Tannenbaum. Corollary to this is the idea that Rex won an internal power struggle with Mr. T., and we can expect to see Rex with increased say in personnel issues, and possibly even substantial input in the search for a new GM. If this is in fact what happened than we can expect to see Rex here in 2013, and likely also in 2014, as his contract runs two more years and given the Jets' salary cap issues, it is highly unlikely Rex will have the horses to compete before the 2014 season. In this scenario the new GM will be saddled with Rex as head coach and with Rex's hand picked coaching staff , whether or not he wants them. This approach would somewhat handicap the Jets' search for a new GM, as many of the best candidates are likely to be uncomfortable hitching their fate to a head coach they did not choose, with untalented personnel they did not choose, and a coach with major say in personnel going forward. Does that sound like the ideal situation to step into as a GM?

Fortunately, that is not the only possible explanation for why Rex is still here. Another possibility is this: the Jets are simply allowing Korn/Ferry International to do their job. Look at it this way. The search for a GM is likely to drag on for several weeks, as the Jets will not even be able to speak to many qualified candidates until after their teams are eliminated from the playoffs. During that period of limbo, other teams, particularly teams that have fired their head coach but not their GM, will be moving quickly to fill their coaching vacancies. In a somewhat underwhelming crop of head coach candidates, many of the Jets' best choices may already be tied up before the Jets new GM is even hired. If the new GM is to be given the proper authority, the kind of power within the organization that will be attractive to the best candidates, then the Jets will want to give him the authority to choose his own head coach. But the timing may make this a problematic choice. By the time the new GM is aboard many of the most attractive candidates may already be taken. Meanwhile, by retaining Rex you retain a head coach and staff that has already had considerable success at this level, albeit not lately.

Retaining Rex and staff until the new GM is chosen accomplishes several things. First, you give the new GM the latitude to keep Rex and Co. on if the new GM thinks Rex is the most qualified candidate for the job. If the Jets fired Rex before the new GM was aboard, they would not only lose Ryan but also every coach on his staff, as the current staff would immediately scramble for new coaching positions. By keeping all of them under contract, the Jets are in effect affording the new GM the greatest possible latitude to retain any or all the current staff which the new GM deems qualified. This makes the GM position a bit more desirable for the new GM, as he is allowed the widest possible latitude for choosing a new coaching staff, up to and including retaining Rex as head coach if he thinks Rex is the best man for the job. If the new GM thinks they should all be let go, he can certainly do that after he is hired. In the meantime, all his options are kept open.

The second thing retaining Rex for the time being accomplishes is to give the new GM the perfect scapegoat for a likely terrible 2013, while biding his time and positioning the Jets for a new head coach to take over in 2014 when the new GM has a much better opportunity to put his stamp on the team. Perhaps what the Jets are doing is sweetening the pot for potential GM candidates by dangling Rex the scapegoat as bait. If Rex in fact works miracles and gets an untalented Jets squad into the playoffs in 2013, the new GM can take credit for the extraordinary courage and vision he showed by sticking with Rex when it would have been simpler and easier just to fire him. If on the other hand the Jets' disastrous cap situation leads to a terrible 2013 for the Jets, the new GM will be able to point to Rex and say see, it's not my fault, Rex was never my guy. In effect you are offering the new GM a sacrificial lamb in Rex, something that might well be viewed as attractive when any GM candidate is virtually assured of a brutal 2013. The new GM then can start over with a new head coach in 2014, and if 2014 doesn't go so well, he can point to the time it takes to completely make over the organization in the new head coach's image. It is likely that the roster and cap mess Mr. T left behind will take two or three years to clean up. A built in excuse until 2015 might be just the thing to tip the scales in favor of taking the Jets GM position for a highly qualified candidate who will no doubt appreciate the breathing room to fix the mess.

Finally, there is the matter of Rex's contract. Rex has two more years left on his contract. It might be that Woody simply does not wish to pay Rex for two more years for coaching another team. But maybe the headhunters are savvy enough to view that contract as more of an asset than a liability. There is little question that Rex would quickly find another NFL position if he is fired. His defensive prowess is unmatched by anyone not named Dick Le Beau, and his overall track record as a head coach may not be superb, but it is far better than many of the other available candidates. Some other team, and likely multiple other teams, might find Rex a desirable candidate. If the Jets simply fired Rex now, they would see him in another NFL position shortly, without compensation. However, by retaining him for the moment, the Jets retain a real asset with real value. What I am suggesting is the Jets may be interested in trading Rex to another team. It's not as far fetched as it sounds. No team in the NFL has more experience in doing just that than the NY Jets. In 1997 they signed Bill Parcells away from the Patriots, and ended up paying the Patriots a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th round draft pick for doing so, at the commissioner's orders. It was in effect a trade of Parcells for draft picks. In 2000 the Patriots returned the favor, signing Bill Belichick and ending up compensating the Jets with a 1st round pick. And finally in 2006 Herm Edwards was signed by the Chiefs, who compensated the Jets with a 4th round draft pick.

So, the Jets have a alot of experience trading coaches, having been on both sides of such transactions. The level of compensation they might expect is pretty clearly delineated, as Rex fits in somewhere between Parcells and Belichick as an attractive head coach candidate (Belichick is obviously far more valuable now, but at the time he had only one playoff appearance as a head coach and was coming off an extremely strange press conference resigning as the HC of the NYJ). To be conservative, let's say Ryan is worth now what Belichick was worth in 2000 - a 1st round pick. That is a very valuable asset, one the Jets would be wise to retain until they can determine if there is the requisite level of interest from other teams. The possibility of an additional 1st round pick represents another sweetener to be dangled to candidates for the GM position. Given the liabilities of the current situation, the Jets may need any and every sweeteners they can get, so they are wise not to give this one up just yet.

Now, there remains the problem of Rex's contract. Rex is not a player, and he cannot be traded unless he approves. That, however, should not be much of a stumbling block. All the new GM would have to do is make it clear he views this as a multi-year fix, that the 2013 season is likely to be very ugly, and that he has no intention of making a single decision that sacrifices anything regarding the Jets long term prospects just to achieve a modicum of respectability in 2013. The handwriting would then be on the wall for Rex - if he stays he will be sacrificed for the future good of the team, serving as the ready made scapegoat for what is nearly certain to be a painful 2013. Rex would then almost certainly ask permission to shop around for a deal elsewhere, at which point trade possibilities open up.

To be sure, all of this is pure speculation, and the most likely explanation is usually the simplest- namely, that the Jets are committed to Rex for the 2013 season and view him as the best man for the job. But for those of you who want Rex gone, and there is a sizeable number of you, the above analysis represents an alternative explanation of the Jets plans and motives, and provides hope that there still may be a complete housecleaning, with the possibility of an added bonus of an additional draft choice in the next draft.

What do all of you think? Why are Rex and his staff still employed by the Jets?