- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was understandable when New York Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson reacted to the news that the Jets had released nine-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, a mentor and friend who played beside him the past two years, by hurrying onto Twitter this past weekend and wailing, "Whyyyyy?" But deep down, Ferguson and the rest of the Jets know the answer. When the Jets hired Rex Ryan, they didn't just get a head coach. They got a guy who, in less than a year, has created a cult of personality: the Cult of Rex.
Ryan even has a catch-all phrase he has kept repeating as the Jets' daring roster moves and pronouncements just kept coming this weekend, same as they did in the days leading up to last week's three-day NFL draft.
"It's on now," Ryan has said over and over again.
Ryan repeated the phrase after Leon Washington, a game-breaking back for the Jets still rehabbing from a season-ending broken leg, followed Faneca out the door just hours later Saturday. Ryan said draft picks Vlad Ducasse and Joe McKnight will be counted on to step right in although both veterans they're replacing were revered team leaders. Thomas Jones, a 1,400-yard rusher on the NFL's best ground attack a year ago, is another locker room pillar and Jets star who is gone.
The Jets got rid of Jones but traded for wideout Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, two wildly talented stars who have to show they can stay out of trouble off the field. They signed once-great running back LaDainian Tomlinson and 35-year-old pass rusher Jason Taylor although both have to prove they're not washed up. (Dolphins boss Bill Parcells let Taylor walk away after sending him a desultory contract offer via a Post-it note.)
"The fire is still burning, trust me," Taylor said last week when he arrived in New York. "It's burning hot."
None of these moves happens if Ryan didn't bring the sort of personality that seems capable of bending tableware, not just the will of some fifth-round draft pick who's desperate to win a job.
Even the Jets' most decorated veterans, been-there, done-that guys such as Bart Scott, Taylor and Tomlinson, say Ryan has a way of goosing the excitement level and building swagger and making you want to play for him -- all no small things in the NFL.
Still, Ryan is just new enough in his role as a front man for an entire organization that we're still learning about him as he goes. What has become abundantly clear is that Ryan the head coach plays his roster the way Ryan the defensive coordinator dials up a roulette wheel of blitzes: No risk, no big reward.
Most coaches or GMs wouldn't dare tinker with a team that had the NFL's top-ranked defense and best rushing attack and finished one half short of making the Super Bowl. When people started to question the Jets' moves further -- noting that Cromartie, Holmes, Taylor and Tomlinson could all be gone after just one year -- Ryan countered that the Jets are going all out to win the Super Bowl "this year."
But do one-year plans really work in the NFL the same way baseball teams sell out to get to a World Series?
That's another thing we'll see this season. The Jets aren't reckless as much as they are cocksure. Rex is in a hurry to get rings. So the rest of the operation has fallen in line behind him and begun to operate more boldly too.
Before the draft, Jets senior personnel director Terry Bradway spoke about how the scouting department knows "exactly what Rex likes." Bradway kidded Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum about transforming into a "quality over quantity" guy when it comes to keeping draft picks versus coughing them up in trades now that Rex is on board, and Tannenbaum laughed at that, then later told a story about calling his Baltimore Ravens counterpart Ozzie Newsome after he hired Ryan away from the Ravens, asking Newsome what to expect.
Tannenbaum recalled, "[Newsome] said, 'I'm shipping him up I-95, and he has a little sign around his neck that says, 'I need corners.' That's just who Rex is. He cannot have enough corners. It's crazy. [But then] we go into the first New England Patriot game [last season] and we have only four defensive linemen active. I'm like, 'This is unbelievable.' He's like, 'Small ball.'
"It worked. We won the game."
Ryan's successes (Rex-cesses?) like that still resonate.
When the Jets got to their 29th pick Thursday in the NFL draft's first round, they already had Cromartie to bookend with Darrelle Revis. Yet whom did they pick?
Kyle Wilson. A cornerback. From Boise State.
You can't help but notice there's a glass-half-full feel to all the Jets' explanations for their offseason moves. That's going to make this season fascinating to watch, too.
Remember, just about everything the Jets have done is based on just a one-year sample of Ryan as a head coach. But how will his career play out over the long haul?
Will the passage of time show that Rex is the smart guy who got a Jets team with a rookie quarterback to the AFC title game, or the up-and-down coach whose smack-talking ignores that his club was 9-7 in the regular season and needed help to sneak into the playoffs?
Were the Jets smart and proactive to decide the 6.5 sacks the 33-year-old Faneca allowed in 2009 signaled the beginning of his slide? Or were they foolish not to hold on to at least Faneca for even one more season, given that Ducasse is unproven and the $2.5 million additional salary they would have had to shell out to keep Faneca looks like a pittance for a big-market team in the Jets' situation?
You can agree or disagree with all of it. But it's easy to see what the Jets are thinking. They think that whether they have added more knuckleheads than they subtracted is beside the point because Rex can still make the chemistry thing work. And after all the moves they've made this offseason with that thought in mind, the Jets should put that catch-all slogan of Ryan's on the side of their training facility in Florham Park, N.J. Paint it on the side of the building in 10-foot type.
It's "on" now, all right.
This season is on Rex. Super Bowl or bust.
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