There are some Jets fans who have firm opinions on Rex Ryan. To some he is a genius who led the team on deep postseason runs without top shelf quarterback play. His demise came as the team's talent declined in his later years. To others he is a buffoon who lucked his way into early success because the Colts benched their starters in Week 16 of 2009, and he oversaw the descent of the Jets into a laughingstock.
I think most of us are somewhere between these two extremes. Both have some element of truth to them, and we are still trying to sort out conflicting pieces of evidence about Rex.
Rex led the Jets to two straight AFC Championship Games. This was no small feat for a franchise with so little success. His four postseason wins double any other coach in Jets history. At the same time, the team did not build on these achievements. They were a high point. Instead of becoming a team like Green Bay or Pittsburgh building and sustaining a consistent winner, this early success became something of a curse. A team that needed a reset kept trying to recapture glory one last time. Tim Tebow was supposed to be the new Brad Smith. Tony Sparano was supposed to bring back the ground and pound style the team rode on offense. Mark Sanchez's late season collapse in 2011 was not a warning sign. The team could double down with an extension because he had four postseason wins.
Rex accomplished the most difficult task in the NFL, winning without high quality quarterback play. He was handed two young quarterbacks who failed to develop. How much of that was his fault, though? Handed two raw quarterback prospects, he collectively gave them three offensive coordinators and two quarterback coaches, none of whom had much of a track record of developing young quarterbacks successfully. Only one of those five, Marty Mornhinweg had a track record of any sort of NFL success.
Rex was a defensive mastermind with extremely creative designs tailored to bother even the most seasoned quarterback. He also could not figure out a way to get his team to have even a functional offense for long stretches. Furthermore, he frequently seemed disconnected with his offense, expressing surprise over an offensive gameplan in postgame press conferences as though he as head coach was helpless to do anything about it.
Rex was robbed of any realistic chance to save his job by an inept general manager who gave him a bottom tier roster. Yet the talent drain began well before John Idzik came to town. It started under his predecessor who gave Rex much more input into the roster. Idzik's hiring was also a direct result of better candidates being driven away from the job by the owner's insistence Rex remain as head coach.
Rex didn't just beat the two greatest quarterbacks of a generation in back to back Playoff games. He totally befuddled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In the following two seasons, the Jets blew chances to make the postseason with season-ending three game losing streaks to suspect opponents.
These are the conflicting pieces of Rex's tenure. Many of us struggled to figure out how good or bad Rex was during his time year, and we really do not have enough distance to say for sure.
One thing most can agree is that Rex's time with the Jets had run its course, and it was time for a change after last season. Some would argue it was two years overdue.
When we think about the traits that brought Rex's tenure to an ugly end, two in particular really speak to me.
Trevor Pryce, who played for Rex in both Baltimore and New York penned a piece on him in the New York Times during the turbulent 2012 season. He said the following.
The two personality traits that are stopping him from being a great head coach are the same two that make him a great human being: he is loyal to the point of defiance, and he cares enormously about the people around him.
I think Rex believes in loyalty. What I don't think he appreciated is that there are different types of loyalty, and they sometimes are mutually exclusive. Rex loves the people around him and will always fight for them. There is another, more important type of loyalty for NFL head coaches, though. That is the loyalty to the owner, the fans, and the entire team. This loyalty requires a head coach to do what is in the best interest of everybody, even if it comes at the expense of one person.
Rex made the team pick Scotty McKnight in the 2011 Draft. It was out of loyalty to Mark Sanchez. He promised Sanchez the Jets would draft the quarterback's friend. In doing so, how loyal was he to his colleagues in the scouting department who logged countless miles and put in countless hours of work to provide him with the best information?
Rex hired his friend Jeff Weeks as a position coach even though he was widely viewed as not deserving of the job. What Rex did was loyal to his friend. Was it loyal to the players who strived to reach their maximum potential, some of whom were just trying to become good enough to make a decent career in the NFL?
How many underperforming players did Rex offer effusive praise for and refuse to bench? It might have been nice for these players, but did it help the team?
When Brian Schottenheimer's game plan was not effective, Rex would not change things. He didn't fire Schottenheimer until long after it was clear Schottenheimer was a liability dragging the offense and the team down. Was this loyal to Schottenheimer? Sure, but it came at the expense of everybody else.
This brings me to the second Rex trait that might have hurt him, his belief. Rex became legendary in press conferences for the way he would talk people up. He genuinely believed in his guys at any cost.
In just his fifth game as head coach of the Jets, he showed signs of this becoming a liability. With the Dolphins driving for a go-ahead score in the final moments of the fourth quarter, Rex did not use his timeouts to leave his offense a chance to score. His reasoning?
"I really was shocked. I do have a lot of confidence in that [defensive] group. I just thought it was going to go into overtime or we were going to stop them. I just assumed we’d stop them.
Confidence is important in sports, but there is a fine line between confidence and hubris. Believing in people is great, but you also need to have an ability to properly assess situations.
Rex believed in Santonio Holmes enough to make him a captain. This was a poor decision that helped divide a locker room. Rex believed in the coaches I talked about above like Schottenheimer and Weeks. He believed in Matt Cavanaugh. They let him down.
His loyalty and his belief in people let him down. The sad part is these are admirable traits when channeled correctly. These traits served Rex well at times. The bond he has with some of his players because of his belief and loyalty can be moving. If you don't believe me, read about the difference he has made in Antonio Cromartie's life off the field. Like any trait, these need to have the proper balance. Rex couldn't find it. You can be a great, loyal person and still make the tough decisions necessary to be a good football coach.
If the Bills come away with a win Thursday night, I am sure we will hear some people say things like, "Wait, I thought Rex was a terrible coach." This is not a proper response, though. Rex Ryan's firing was about him proving he was not the guy to build the Jets into a winner over the long haul, not about one game in November. As the flaws in Todd Bowles begin to show halfway through his first year just as they do in any rookie coach no matter how successful, there are sure to be comments like, "Wait, I thought Bowles was much better than Rex." Again, this is not a proper response. Even if Bowles proves to not be a successful coach, that will not give Rex a pass for his faults any more than John Idzik's failures justified Mike Tannenbaum moves like the Tebow trade or the Sanchez extension.
The real question with Rex is not the end of his Jets tenure but whether he can grow. What makes his flaws particularly frustrating are the legitimately special traits as a coach which Rex possesses. I remember right after Rex was fired last year, Smackdad said to me one of the most difficult parts of letting Rex go was knowing there was greatness in him. It's true. Rex's ability to scheme on defense is second to none. His creativity and flexibility week to week are once in a generation talents. His ability to motivate is also off the charts. Just look at the way he captivated Bills fans after he was hired. They passed the 60 thousand mark in season ticket sales. And this was a fanbase that saw Rex's flaws with the Jets. They mocked him. Their team beat him 81-26 in two games just a season ago. Yet his words had that fanbase running through a wall for him. Just imagine how he can inspire people who play for him and actually deal with him day to day.
This is why you can't count him out. Maybe he can learn from his mistakes and correct his flaws.
There is still time. There are some disturbing signs, though. Rex seems to be repeating many of the same mistakes early in his Bills tenure. By simply taking the Buffalo job, he might have displayed some of the hubris that did him in with the Jets. After a long relationship ends, sometimes it is good to take a step back and assess what went wrong. The two coaches in last year's Super Bowl were both fired after their first NFL head coaching jobs. One was fired twice. Both guys got some distance to assess what went wrong and learned from their failure. Rex believed in himself to jump right back in. Again, it is still early, but some disturbing signs of bad loyalty have popped up, such as praising his team after a 17 penalty fiasco against the Giants.
Maybe Rex will learn. Maybe he will turn it around.
Maybe this just is who he is. Maybe he is both the genius of his first two seasons and the failed coach of his last four.