Smarts, not schemes, are what make Rex so sexy
Rex Ryan is a better talker than any of his peers — glib, self-assured and sly as a fox — and that's just his R-rated material. If games were decided in the interview room instead of on a field, you could hand the Super Bowl trophy to the Jets right now.
Guys who play for him swear he's even funnier when the cameras are off, more profane and a whole lot more persuasive. But Rex wasn't always so sexy.
"Pffff!" Buddy Ryan practically snorted into the phone the other day. "You never saw the two of them when they were kids."
The retired head of the more-famous-by-the-day family still chuckles remembering Rex, older by five minutes, and twin brother, Rob, taking in the scenery during his own wild-and-woolly coaching odyssey across the college and NFL ranks.
If nothing else, Buddy was determined to provide an unvarnished picture. Along the way, he made them pick up dirty laundry off locker room floors, work the sidelines as ballboys and sit in the back of his office through hundreds of film sessions and meetings. Instead of being bored, they studied the schemes, got hooked on the camaraderie and learned how to curse up a storm.
"I made sure they put in the time to learn the ABCs everywhere they went with me," Ryan recalled. "All the other kids there were always playing grab-ass or just fooling around. Not Rex and Rob. They were paying attention."
A month shy of his 77th birthday, his own reputation as one of the game's best defensive coaches already secure, Buddy still feigns surprise that his sons followed him into the business (Rob Ryan is defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys). He was head coach of the Eagles in the late 1980s, when both were finishing up college and offered spots in a food industry management-training program.
"If it was up to me," Ryan said, "they'd still probably be going to school."
When he got outvoted, Buddy piled Rex and Rob into his car and drove to a motel not far from his family home in Oklahoma. He spent the next two days teaching them everything he knew, especially about the "46" scheme he perfected with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. Then Buddy wished them good luck and told them to call once they found work.
Every coach who makes his way onto an NFL staff knows how to draw up a scheme. But real schemers — the ones clever or calculating enough to sell the blueprint to their players week in and week out — are rare. It didn't take long for Highlands University coach George Martinez, who gave Rex Ryan one of his first jobs and later became an NFL assistant himself, to figure out which one he had on his hands.
"He didn't have to interview 10 minutes and I knew he was the guy," Martinez told ESPN.com recently. "I knew when I hired him that this guy is big-time stuff."
Martinez turned out to be right.
A half-dozen jobs and some 20 years later, Ryan is back at the NFL's version of the final four alongside rivals — Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Chicago's Lovie Smith and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy — whose low-key approach guarantees that few fans outside of their towns would even recognize them on the street. Rex, meanwhile, has become a star.
He is still performing a version of the same "us-against-the-world" shtick that worked wonders with college kids in New Mexico, only now he's doing it in New York and manipulating jaded professionals so smoothly that most never realized they're being played. It might be the oldest trick in the coaches' playbook, but Ryan has added a twist: he puts himself out there first, then coaxes everybody else onto the ledge.
And so in the first week of the playoffs, it was Rex vs. Peyton Manning; in the second week, him vs. Bill Belichick. The way he crafted the narrative looked and sounded familiar to anyone who watched Ryan on "Hard Knocks" in the preseason.
"I believe our team is better than every (expletive) team in the league," Ryan said in an early episode. "I believe our players are better than any players in the league. Those are true statements, that's how I believe. We ain't going to win, guys, if it's about me. I'm sitting back waiting for the team we said we were going to be. What the hell are we waiting on?"
Powerful as it can be, the con works only so many times. Buddy Ryan ran it everywhere he worked and wore out his welcome in all those places soon enough. The players quit listening, the intensity wanes and what's left are jangled nerves. Besides, a coach who acts out too often is practically daring his players to do the same. Maintaining discipline becomes tricky over the long haul.
For any of those reasons or all of them, Rex made an abrupt about-face this week ahead of the AFC championship game, and instead laid it on thick about how much he respects the Steelers franchise, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Tomlin. He was plenty convincing, nonetheless, likely because most of it was true.
"We want the T-shirt. We want the hat. We want the trophy," Ryan said. "I don't know what else I need to say. That's the truth. They've had six Super Bowl trophies — if they want to put them on the field, we'll play them, too."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org