- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are more ways than one to stack wood, cook a chicken, jump out of an airplane, skin a cat. (I know, I know. Who would ever want to skin a cat?)
There are also certainly more ways than one to win a football game, and, at first glance, it would appear Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan have settled on wildly divergent tactics to motivate their players (and, presumably, themselves) for the most intriguing game of the NFL season Monday night.
We love to hype these kind of matchups, and this is no meaningless regular-season game. The Jets and Patriots come in with identical 9-2 records, but if New England plans to host a playoff game in January, this victory is imperative. The Patriots are 5-0 at home this season; the Jets are 5-0 on the road. New England's defense is its question mark, and New York's defense is its exclamation point.
In a rare moment of candor some months ago, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady admitted he "hated'' the Jets. The feeling is mutual. There are enough delicious subplots in this burgeoning rivalry to keep us occupied for weeks, yet one of the most intriguing remains the two head football coaches.
Ryan is garrulous, profane and perpetually entertaining. Belichick is taciturn, profane and eternally uncommunicative.
In preparation for the Monday night tilt, bombastic Ryan declared that he wanted to "kick Bill Belichick's ass.'' Belichick, who you can be sure wants desperately to kick Ryan's ample posterior in return, merely deadpanned, "Is that a big news story? That something we didn't know?''
I was in Foxborough this week to query the Patriots about the two men. This was a tall task in itself, given that New England's players freely admitted they were ordered by their coach not to provide the media with any remotely worthwhile sound bites. It was positively excruciating to watch a visibly uncomfortable Patrick Chung squirm as he answered each and every question thusly: "We're just focusing on winning the football game.'' (What a relief to learn he isn't focused on losing the game).
Vince Wilfork has been around too long for someone to tell him what to say -- or not say. The big fella was game when I asked him what he would do if Belichick ever strolled up to the podium adorned in a blond wig with a pillow stuffed under his sweatshirt, as Ryan did three weeks ago to mock his twin brother, Rob.
"If Bill did that?" Wilfork said incredulously. "I'd laugh in his face!"
Don't mistake this as a dig at Ryan for his stand-up comedy. In fact, it is clear Wilfork holds Ryan in high regard.
"He's funny. A real funny dude,'' Wilfork said. "And he's a damn good football coach.''
In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, Rex Ryan was chosen as the coach NFL players would like to play for the most (he got 21 percent of the vote). Not surprisingly, Belichick did not garner nearly as much of the vote in that particular survey (he got 7 percent), but consider this: What if the question were, "Which coach is most likely to get you to the Super Bowl?" Aha. Now we're talking.
We've seen plenty of Super Bowl coaches come and go. We've seen Mike Ditka spit nails and Tony Dungy quote the Scriptures. We've seen Tom Landry win in a suit coat and a hat and Belichick win in sweatpants and a hoodie.
None of them has quite been like Rex Ryan. He is living on the edge, whether it's inviting America into his football team's inner sanctum in HBO's "Hard Knocks" or heaping pressure on himself and his football team with his bombastic pronouncements.
When the ESPN training camp bus parked at the Jets facility in preseason, Ryan became the first to go beyond just signing his name by writing, "Soon to be champs.'' Predictably, when the bus pulled into Foxborough, receiver Wes Welker inked his John Hancock with a postscript of "One game at a time!"
You can frown at Ryan's antics if you like, but if his approach accomplishes the same solidarity that Belichick's secret service mantra does, who's to say which way is better?
In truth, Ryan isn't really all that different from Belichick. Although the personality of each is a constant source of discussion and speculation, neither one particularly cares about his image. Their strategies are applauded when they win, but both are acutely aware that it will get ugly in a hurry if it ever goes south. For different reasons, each has managed to land a bull's-eye squarely on his own forehead, yet both seem blissfully unfazed by it.
And that is the idea, isn't it? Both coaches have adeptly discovered ways of deflecting pressure away from their players and putting the onus on themselves. Ryan and Belichick thrive on pressure; it's what separates them from their contemporaries.
Running back Danny Woodhead has the unique perspective of having played for both coaches. Just like Belichick, Woodhead confirms, Ryan puts in long hours at the facility. He studies film and designs unconventional and creative schemes that, in case you haven't noticed, tend to give Tom Brady a really, really hard time.
"Coach Belichick and Coach Ryan are certainly different,'' Woodhead said, "but the one thing about both of them is they really want to win.''
Earlier in the week, Brady likened the Patriots and the Jets to the Red Sox and the Yankees. That analogy certainly has some legs, although New England would be the team that assumed the role of the Yankees, a franchise that has come to exude consistency, excellence and, of course, winning. Brady fits seamlessly into the Derek Jeter mold by proving to be gracious, poised and exceedingly cautious in the crafting of his image.
Conversely, the Jets are the 2004 Red Sox, a band of talented, irreverent athletes who brag, boast, and do and say inappropriate things without apology. The 2004 Sox were self-proclaimed Idiots, long-haired free spirits whose shirttails flapped in the breeze all the way to the championship. As we learned in 2004, there are more ways than one to win a World Series.
Ditto for the Super Bowl -- and a very big "Monday Night Football" game.
And the good news is no cats are required.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Though opposites, Belichick and Ryan have one big thing in common: winning.