Rex Ryan thought Brian Schottenheimer was a goner.
A few days before the New York Jets' AFC divisional playoff game this past January in San Diego, Ryan summoned his offensive coordinator to his office to let him know the Buffalo Bills wanted to interview him for their head-coaching vacancy.
Schottenheimer, who orchestrated the NFL's best rushing attacks in 2009, decided to pass.
"I was shocked," Ryan said.
Schottenheimer: "I kind of floored Rex."
Head-coaching opportunities don't come along that often, but Schottenheimer pledged his allegiance to Ryan and the Jets, cementing a relationship that appeared a bit tenuous at one point. Actually, the final layer of cement was poured a few days later, when Ryan made a thoughtful gesture that nearly brought Schottenheimer to tears.
Ryan's mouth, Mark Sanchez's right arm and Darrelle Revis' bank account have been the big stories around the Jets, who open the season Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens, but one of the keys to 2010 will be Schottenheimer's brain.
You know what you're going to get from the Jets' vaunted defense, especially with Revis back on his island, but Schottenheimer's offense is the wild card. Will he mess with the smashmouth personality by letting Sanchez throw more than last season? Can he turn Sanchez into a consistent passer? Can he handle the egos and personalities in the offensive meeting room?
Schottenheimer has experienced a lot in his relatively short career as a coordinator -- Brett Favre, anyone? -- but this could be his toughest challenge, molding a Super Bowl-caliber offense around a second-year quarterback.
"You have a very young quarterback," said Marty Schottenheimer, Brian's father and a former NFL coach. "Offensively, that will be the focal point. I know there's going to be pressure on Brian, but I've always said he's very mature for his age. He knows what needs to be done."
In four seasons as the Jets' coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, 36, has finished 25th, 26th, 16th and 20th in total offense. Those rankings aren't great, but he's had four starting quarterbacks and an unsettling lack of continuity. Barring injury, this will be the first time he's had the same starter in back-to-back seasons -- and he's prepared to reveal never-before-seen parts of his playbook.
"There are so many more options -- one with personnel, two with the playbook," Sanchez said. "[We can] open it up a bit."
One of Schottenheimer's biggest challenges will be finding the right balance between the run and the pass. The Jets ran a league-high 607 times last season. Basically, he out-Marty'd Marty.
In 21 years as a head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, whose conservative style became known as "Marty Ball," never ran more than 559 times. It's ironic, considering Brian Schottenheimer, who played quarterback and coached the position, is a passing guy at heart. But Ryan wanted to ground and pound, so they grounded and pounded and swaggered all the way to the AFC Championship Game.
The objective this season, according to Schottenheimer, is to be a 50-50 offense. Based on last season's play total (1,030), that would mean 122 more pass attempts -- about eight per game. Schottenheimer devoted about five months of his life -- February through June -- making sure Sanchez is ready for that jump.
They worked side by side for countless hours, pouring over every nuance of the position. They forged a close bond, playing golf together, going to dinner and sharing family time. Sanchez got to know Schottenheimer's wife, Gemmi, so well that she started dispensing relationship advice to the bachelor quarterback.
The quarterback and his coach are only 13 years apart, so it became a big brother-little brother thing.
"I like to mess with Schotty, telling him those gray hairs came from one year with me," Sanchez said.
Truth be told, Sanchez is one of the reasons Schottenheimer decided to say no to the Bills. After investing a year in the young quarterback, he didn't want to bail out with so much potential still untapped. He immediately called Sanchez at home to let him know he wasn't interested in the job.
"His commitment to me gave me a lot of confidence," Sanchez said. "I still remember how he phrased it: 'I'm coming back. I want to be here. We're going to win a lot of games together.'"
They weren't winning last November, when Ryan announced he was getting involved in the offense, attending meetings and making suggestions. Previously, he had stayed away, letting Schottenheimer run the show with no one looking over his shoulder. At the time, Schottenheimer said he was "stung" by Ryan's decision, fueling speculation that the relationship was on the rocks.
"I was unhappy with the situation in that Rex felt like he had to get involved," Schottenheimer recalled. "We all take pride in what we do. It was never that I was unhappy with Rex. He was great. He came to me and said, 'This is what I feel.' I said, 'No problem.'"
Ryan hatched the color-coded play-calling system, which might have helped Sanchez's decision-making. Schottenheimer also streamlined the game plans for Sanchez, who blossomed into an efficient quarterback for the stretch drive.
They won a playoff game, and another. Ryan was telling the media he expected to lose Schottenheimer after the season, almost pushing him to leave. Schottenheimer was comfortable with his decision to stay, but he didn't realize how comfortable until after the San Diego game.
Marty Schottenheimer was watching the Jets-Chargers game from a bar in Orlando, Fla., where he was attending a college all-star game. This was personal for him on two levels. The Chargers were the organization that unceremoniously fired him after a 14-win season in 2006, and now his son had a chance to exact family revenge.
"I wouldn't insult your intelligence and say it was just another game, because it wasn't," Schottenheimer said. "I was like a caged animal, marching up and down behind the bar."
The Jets pulled a stunning upset. A couple of days later, Ryan, knowing how much the victory meant to the Schottenheimer family, told Brian he was sending a game ball to his father. And he did. The ball is proudly displayed in Marty's home office in North Carolina.
"That made me realize I made the right decision," Brian Schottenheimer said. "Anybody who thinks about something like that, as we're getting ready to go to the AFC Championship Game. ... It showed how much respect and admiration Rex has for people. It reinforced that, hey, I'm working for a great guy. I'd do anything for the guy."