Rex Ryan is brash and fearless and all football. He was born into the game, the son of a famous coach, Buddy Ryan, who changed the way defense is played and passed the knowledge down to his sons -- along with the family swagger.
Mike Tannenbaum is the cerebral type, guarded with his words, the last guy you'd expect to wear a wig to a news conference (See: Ryan, Nov. 10). He's the son of an electrical engineer, Richie Tannenbaum, who has worked in the railroad industry for more than 40 years. Mike didn't learn football from his dad, but he inherited his work ethic and loyalty.
Tannenbaum graduated cum laude from Tulane Law School. Ryan? He's closer to loud than laude.
Ryan's defense reflects his personality -- aggressive and in-your-face. If Tannenbaum were a defensive coach, he'd use a read-and-react system -- safe and sound.
In personality and style, the two men who run the New York Jets are as different as heavy metal and easy listening, but they've combined their diverse backgrounds and approaches to create a formidable tandem.
Ryan, 47, and Tannenbaum, 41, have raised the Jets to the league's elite, 9-2, needing a win Monday night over the New England Patriots to hyperlaunch them into rarefied air. For nearly two years, they've worked tirelessly, hoping for this moment -- expecting this moment, as Ryan would say.
It's a showdown with Bill Belichick, creator of The Patriot Way. It's The Brain versus the Jets' Two Minds. Tannenbaum procured the talent and Ryan coaches it, an odd-couple partnership that ... well, works. By midnight Monday, we'll know if two heads are better than one.
"We're like ants," Ryan said of his relationship with his general manager. "You can shake us up, throw us down and we get right back in line together."
• • •
After every game, Tannenbaum and the coaches compile an AAR -- an After Action Report, a detailed analysis of offense, defense and special teams. It's an old military technique, specific and exhaustive, but Tannenbaum believes it serves a purpose.
Sometimes it drives Ryan a little nuts.
"He looks at everything, the attention to detail," Ryan said, sighing and smiling at the same time. "The little things, he nails. I'm more of a big-picture guy."
Maybe that's why they complement each other so well. "The perfect match," Ryan said. The coach is impulsive, willing to take chances with personnel moves. Tannenbaum is fastidious, the kind of person who measures five times before cutting.
Over the past two years, they've made some of the splashiest personnel moves in the NFL -- trading up to draft Mark Sanchez; taking chances on Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie; and gambling that LaDainian Tomlinson still has something left.
In each move, there was a little bit of Tannenbaum, a little bit of Ryan.
"They like each other, and I think that's important," owner Woody Johnson said in a phone interview. "I think they appreciate each other's individual talents ... It's a fit that's working out really well for the team. We're winning, and they've created that environment."
Tannenbaum has the final say on personnel, but he always solicits Ryan's input. The best example occurred last April, when Tannenbaum received a call from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were shopping the talented but troubled Holmes. Tannenbaum said he "was going to kill it as much as anything," but he called Ryan's office to run it past him before he gave a no to the Steelers.
Ryan was in the middle of a closed-door interview. Tannenbaum asked Ryan's assistant to buzz into the glass-enclosed office and ask for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Holmes.
"I put the phone down and if you had counted to 20 ... he comes bursting through my door and he says, 'Hell, yes, get that SOB. He cost me one, maybe two rings.'"
OK, fine, but Tannenbaum wanted to research the move. He suggested to Ryan that he watch tape of Holmes.
Not necessary, Ryan told him. Just get him.
And he did. Holmes, acquired for the meager price of a fifth-round pick, has been Mr. Clutch, delivering huge plays in several wins.
The Holmes trade was more impulsive than most of the Jets' moves, a case of Tannenbaum trusting Ryan's instincts. Most times, there's a checks-and-balances system, Tannenbaum's methodical nature counteracting Ryan's aggressiveness.
"I may not be as outgoing and brash as he is, but I think we're similar in that we'll both do whatever it takes to make the team better," Tannenbaum said. "If there was a way to make the team better, we'd be on the next plane to go there -- no questions asked, tell the wives about it later and we're going."
They did that at the end of Darrelle Revis' summer-long holdout. Hopelessly deadlocked in negotiations, with the regular season a week away, Tannenbaum dispatched Ryan to Revis' home in Florida. The tactic raised some eyebrows around the league. Some executives thought the Jets were capitulating to a player in breach of contract, but Tannenbaum felt it was a necessary move.
"If Rex didn't do that, Darrelle wouldn't have signed," he said. "I absolutely [believe that]."
Ryan's forceful personality also played a role in the Sanchez trade. Before acquiring the Cleveland Browns' pick (No. 5 overall) to select their quarterback, the Jets were involved in trade talks with the St. Louis Rams, who owned the No. 2 pick and were threatening to select Sanchez. The Jets were willing to move into that spot, but they felt the Rams' asking price was exorbitant.
The Jets didn't want to lose Sanchez, but they also didn't want to be victimized by highway robbery. Tannenbaum had done his homework and, in perhaps the biggest gamble he will ever take as the GM, he decided to hold off. Throughout the decision-making process, Ryan was on the phone with the Rams, engaged in high-stakes poker.
"We called their bluff," Ryan said.
Said Tannenbaum: "Rex is a good poker player."
• • •
Tannenbaum was impressed with Ryan from the outset of his interview with the Jets, but there was something in particular that struck him -- Ryan's training-camp philosophy. He assumed Ryan would run a Buddy Ryan-style camp -- old-school, physically demanding -- but Rex said he preferred the Bill Walsh approach. That's how they did it in Baltimore under Brian Billick, a Walsh disciple.
"When he answered that question," Tannenbaum said, "I knew he was beholden to winning and not just being Buddy Ryan Jr."
They hit it off. There have been some trying times over the two-year relationship, including a pair of three-game losing streaks last season, but both men claim they've never argued. If there's a difference of opinion, Ryan always defers, according to Tannenbaum.
"It has to work because of the situation," said Ryan, who signed a two-year extension that matches Tannenbaum's five-year deal in length. "As a GM, he's had a couple of shots. This one has to work for him. It has to work for me. I'm only going to get one shot. We're all in together. We have to make it work or we're done."
It's working. The Jets are 18-9 under the Ryan/Tannenbaum regime, plus a 2-1 mark in the postseason. Along the way, they've shared plenty of laughs.
Tannenbaum's favorite story occurred in March 2009, when Ryan showed up in a suit and tie as they got ready to leave on a pre-draft visit to see Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. When his laughter subsided, Tannenbaum told Ryan to dress casually. Minutes later, Ryan emerged in a sweatsuit -- his dress sweats, as he liked to call them.
After the interview, Ryan insisted on a drive-through stop at one of his favorite fast-food joints, Sonic Burger. They were accompanied by assistant coaches Brian Schottenheimer and Matt Cavanaugh. In addition to 20,000 calories of food for the group, Ryan ordered a 64 oz. lime CreamSlush. He created a water main break, or something close to it, when the foam cup was pierced by the cup holder.
Ryan tried to escape, but he couldn't because his door was pinned against the drive-through. It was no use; he was soaked.
"Oh, no!" Schottenheimer and Cavanaugh said from the backseat, feigning concern. "Not the dress sweats!"
They still laugh about that day, when they still were honeymooners, perhaps wondering how the marriage would work.
It works. If the winning keeps up, Ryan and Tannenbaum will be laughing over champagne, not a lime CreamSlush.