Commentary

Rex letting style overshadow substance

Gang Green's leader has accomplished a lot in two years, but his mouth speaks louder

Updated: January 12, 2011, 2:22 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Even in his Reggie-and-Billy prime, George Steinbrenner did not bluster half as much as Rex Ryan does. If the owner of the New York Yankees liked to pick his spots, the spots like to pick the coach of the New York Jets.

Ryan was back in full nor'easter mode Monday, again challenging Bill Belichick to a fight and again reminding Tom Brady that he's no Peyton Manning, who happens to be the guy the Jets just sent home.

Ryan hit the New England Patriots harder than the '85 Bears hit them in that Super Bowl, and Chicago's defensive coordinator back then, Buddy Ryan, surely was most proud. But if Buddy's boy can talk his way to a Super Bowl title, let's face it: He'll be the first coach to pull it off.

"I want to be a better head coach than my father," Rex said on his first day on the job.

He's already the best head coach in the house. Buddy talked his way to a 55-55-1 record with the Eagles and Cardinals, and an 0-3 playoff record in Philly. Rex is 20-12 in the regular season and, four games deep into his postseason career, already stands as the only coach in Jets history to win three tournament games.

Buddy was a better coordinator than head coach, and the opposite is true of his son. Why? Rex was willing to cut the familial cord to his own headset and embrace Bill Walsh's approach (if not style), that's why.

"Rex's whole idea about training camp was to have it not be about his dad," Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said by phone. "Woody [Johnson] and I thought, 'Hey, we're hiring Buddy Ryan's son, so he'll just plug in that program.' But Rex said, 'No, Coach Walsh ran a better training camp than my dad did.' Rex wasn't just trying to be loyal to his father; he just wanted to run the best possible camp."

Only here's the problem with the camp that was beamed into America's living room by "Hard Knocks": Viewers recall only Ryan's runaway profanity and some players bringing cheeseburgers onto the field. Other than the occasional shot of Ryan teaching a defensive end the swim technique, the man wasn't seen doing much, you know, coaching.

Yeah, I get it, the blocking-sled stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. But Ryan is doing the editing now, and he's the one allowing the style to overwhelm the substance.

In fact, the last coach or manager in New York to divert this much attention away from his considerable work and toward his considerable personality was Casey Stengel.

On Monday, Ryan said of Belichick, "If he slips at all, we're going to beat him." And yes, Ryan does expect the Patriots' coach to slip. "I plan on being the best coach on Sunday," Ryan said.

Just like he made it personal with Belichick (and Manning before him), Ryan made it personal with Brady, repeating his claim that no quarterback studies like Manning studies and mocking Brady's choice to attend the Broadway play "Lombardi" rather than watch the Jets on TV.

"Peyton Manning would have been watching our game," Ryan said.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan & Bill Belichick
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRex Ryan has made it clear he wants to beat Bill Belichick, just like he beat Peyton Manning.

Sure, it's a wildly entertaining show, especially in a league overrun by Belichickian automatons programmed to bore you into submission. If Eric Mangini was the face of this say-nothing plague, his successor was the cure.

But Ryan is so busy auditioning for his own Broadway play (Brian Dennehy, anyone?), or at least a gig in Vegas, that his coaching ability and accomplishments get buried under the shtick.

"We knew what we were getting when we hired Rex," Tannenbaum said. "We felt if Rex didn't say the right thing 100 percent of the time, we would live with that."

In other words, the Jets were willing to pay the public price for Rex being Rex.

"I don't really wince at all when he talks," Tannenbaum said. "I admire that he speaks in a genuine way. He's not putting on an act up there."

He isn't? Was Ryan's latest rant the real article, or was it a counterfeit bill?

Clearly Ryan was trying to relieve some pressure from his players, who were thoroughly embarrassed in Foxborough last month. But even the most naive of Jets would reject Ryan's contention that the Monday night massacre was really a 3-3 game that swung on a 42-point difference between the two coaches.

So yes, Ryan was pushing it in his news conference, manipulating the message to get the Rex-rips-Belichick, Rex-rips-Brady, Rex-rips-himself headlines he coveted.

Tannenbaum usually watches these must-see news conferences on his office computer, a safe distance from the fray. He missed the live performance Monday but promised himself to catch it later on tape.

"I'm as entertained by Rex's press conferences as the next guy," Tannenbaum said.

But way back when, the Jets didn't spend six hours in a Baltimore airport conference room interviewing a standup comic. They were grilling a football coach.

"Fast forward to two years later," Tannenbaum said, "and Rex has already delivered three road playoff wins in a league where that's really hard to do. He's so out in front with the way he talks that his record is put on the back burner. But over time, your record speaks for itself, and I think ultimately Rex will be judged on that."

It's a pretty good record so far. Two victories in four tries against Belichick. A trip to the AFC title game in Year 1. A knockout of Peyton Manning in Year 2, when the other guy under a headset, Jim Caldwell, made the fatal mistakes.

Yes, Buddy Ryan's boy is already better at this than Buddy was, even without the bounties. But when the talk turns to the Super Bowl, it's still easier to picture Rex in the halftime show.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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