Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News
If he is let go, Rex Ryan can walk away from the Jets with his head held high.
If this is the end for Rex Ryan, if the best thing to happen to the Jets in a decade gets the pink slip in six days, he should take solace in knowing that this was his finest hour.
History will view 2013 as just another lost season for the star-crossed franchise. The numbers will reveal subpar statistical rankings.
Ryan, of course, will know the truth: He’s never done a better coaching job in his life.
Somehow, the embattled coach — “our leader,” as GM John Idzik said last month — has managed seven wins with a team packed with inexperience and middling talent. Somehow, a team that entered the season with 11 new starters, three new coordinators and nine new assistants remained in the playoff conversation for three months before reality intervened to end what would have been a football fairy tale.
“I’m proud of this Jets team,” Ryan said Monday. “It’s a total commitment thing from top to bottom. We don’t have the record that we wanted… but we have the effort, we have the desire and the determination.”
Ryan is no Miracle Man. He couldn’t will these Jets, an afterthought to much of the football world before the season opener, to the playoffs. He couldn’t turn Santonio Holmes into Reggie Wayne for his rookie quarterback. He couldn’t accelerate Geno Smith’s evolution to breakneck speeds.
He did everything else his superiors asked: tone down the bombastic chatter, evolve as a leader and, above all else, squeeze every bit of talent out of what he had.
Ryan won’t win Coach of the Year honors, but there’s been nobody in his profession that has done a better job of getting his players to play above their talent level this season. Like his weekly game planning, Ryan’s coaching style is unique. He’s firm and friendly, caring and stern.
“He doesn’t just bark orders at people (or) stand behind a podium and yell at guys,” wide receiver David Nelson said. “He tells guys what he wants them to do, but at the same time, he believes in them and gives them respect. Guys appreciate that.”
Ryan sheds tears in a world where grown men are supposed to be tough, not vulnerable. He has a potty mouth only suitable for cable TV when he gets angry, like over the weekend upon hearing whispers that the Jets may have already started looking for his replacement.
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Quarterback Geno Smith (l.) may have to say goodbye to Ryan after season finale in Miami.
Talent evaluators around the league know that Ryan’s cupboard needs to be restocked.
“The strength of the team is the defense,” one front office executive said. “There’s no need to go away from that. Personally, I’d keep Rex and focus on upgrading the roster on offense. He’s a damn good coach. They just need more offensive weapons.”
Ryan has won two of three games since Woody Johnson admitted earlier this month that he was “pretty happy with the way things are going.” The Jets were in a competitive game with the playoff-bound Panthers through three quarters in the lone loss.
I haven’t spoken to a player publicly or privately who believes that the Jets would be better off firing Ryan.
There have been plenty of instances when a head coach’s message becomes stale, when a fresh voice is the best course and it’s simply time to hit the reset button on a franchise.
That isn’t the case here. Ryan’s messages are as impactful on his mathematically eliminated team now as they were in the run-up to the season opener against the Buccaneers. Ryan has succeeded when so many others have failed. He’s kept his team engaged when the path of least resistance includes booking vacations and securing tee times.
Ryan is no fool. In fact, he’s a master self-preservationist, willing to conform to Idzik’s “competition” theme and change elements of his previously brash public persona.
Through all the adjustments, he preserved his core principles that have helped draw his inconsistent team closer during rough patches that could have blown the entire operation to a million little pieces.
It’s naïve to think that Johnson and Idzik haven’t formulated a strong opinion about Ryan’s future. There are fair arguments to be made in a discussion that is more complicated than it may appear.
Ryan will almost certainly be remembered for the back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010, but this season has been his most impressive coaching job since taking over five years ago.
His detractors will say he only cares about one side of the ball or he needs to sharpen his clock management or … (fill in gratuitous complaint here).
Ryan is far from perfect, but he should be proud of this Jets team — and himself — no matter what happens in six days.