FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Now that was one wacky, made-for-TV season.
Big-name players. Trash talk. Scandals. Controversies. And, another run at the Super Bowl that fell just short.
Boy, Rex Ryan and the New York Jets have their work cut out to produce a compelling sequel to this one.
"I think that our best is still yet to come," an ever-confident Ryan said Monday, a day after the Jets' 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game.
Say this much about Ryan: At least he's consistent.
He has been talking up his team since he took over as coach two years ago, so why stop now? The Jets (13-6) made it within a game of the Super Bowl in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history, although Ryan boldly scribbled "Soon To Be Champs" on an ESPN bus during training camp.
"Maybe when I said that," Ryan said, "I just don't know when that (will be), but I believe it. In my heart, I believe we'll be champs."
That confidence is what endears Ryan to his players — and also makes him such a target. He rubs some the wrong way with his bluster, while others eat up his "I'm just being me" style. But, through it all, he has already changed the perception of a franchise that lacked an identity and a winning tradition.
"The fact that we didn't reach our goal this year, clearly that's a disappointment, but it doesn't mean we had a bad season," Ryan said. "We had a heck of a season when you look at it. How close are we to realizing our goal? We're pretty darn close."
The players certainly won't argue that, not after the Jets were the only team in the NFL to be one of the last four playoff teams remaining in each of the last two seasons.
"At this point, we're right there," said quarterback Mark Sanchez, who took a significant step forward in his second season. "We're so close. As hard as it is, we're just knocking on the door."
But, Ryan and the rest of the franchise were hoping to kick in the door on a championship this year.
It all started with an aggressive offseason in which the Jets made big splashes by signing LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor and trading for Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie. They also cut popular players such as Thomas Jones and Alan Faneca and traded Leon Washington and Kerry Rhodes.
Ryan insisted the Jets were making moves that would ultimately turn them into a better team than the one that lost to Indianapolis in the AFC championship game last year. General manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson echoed their coach's declarations, and they were all almost right. If not for having to play the entire postseason on the road again, maybe New York would have taken that next elusive step — a place the Jets haven't been since Joe Namath got them there in 1969.
"We've got to find a way to win our division and that's no easy task," Ryan said. "This isn't just about beating New England because, quite honestly, we've done a pretty good job of it. It seems like nobody else in the league can beat them, so we've got to find ways to beat Green Bay, to beat Baltimore, to beat these other teams that we lost to."
There will certainly be big changes in the offseason, with several players facing uncertain futures with the team. And, with an unclear labor situation, it remains to be seen if there will even be a chance to play football next season.
"I just hope it gets worked out at the end of the day," Ryan said.
Holmes, Cromartie and Braylon Edwards are scheduled to be free agents, while veterans such as Tomlinson, Taylor, Shaun Ellis and Tony Richardson might have also played their last games in green and white.
"More than likely, it's not going to be the same team," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "You wish you could have everybody back, but we all know the business and we know things happen. We wish we could, but it won't."
That's what makes this season's ending sting even more than last year's.
"This team has assembled some great players and I've never been around a better team," guard Brandon Moore said. "I just think of all the missed opportunities that don't come around very often."
The Jets proved their resilience from early in the summer, when they refused to be distracted by the cameras that made them foul-mouthed, reality-show stars on HBO's "Hard Knocks."
They stuck together while Revis was embroiled in a bitter contract dispute that held him out of training camp.
The Jets also weathered the swirling storms of controversy that threatened to derail them: Edwards' drunken-driving arrest, the NFL investigation of the team's treatment of a female Mexican television reporter, the fallout from Brett Favre's sexual harassment case, assistant coach Sal Alosi tripping an opposing player and ordering players to form a sideline wall, and the foot-fetish videos supposedly featuring Ryan's wife.
It was one thing after another with this team, and the Jets just kept winning.
"We stood beside each other through the ups and downs of this season together," linebacker Bart Scott said. "From 'Hard Knocks' to the adversities we had, one thing we were always able to lean on was each other. That's something I believe should be commended amongst ourselves, not amongst you guys with a pat on the back, but this is a strong team with a lot of character and tremendous leadership."
After all they've been through, there was no explanation needed for all the red eyes in the Jets' locker room after their loss Sunday.
"We just want to be champions," Ryan said. "We know we're on the right path. You can't luck into two straight final fours. That doesn't happen. We know we're close and we're going to work to get that goal. We're not trying to rebuild. We want to get right back at it."