Commentary

Rex Ryan's swagger leads Jets

Updated: January 21, 2010, 5:44 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There are some who claim that Rex Ryan isn't afraid of anything. He is 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds of swagger, and when he was younger and a tad quicker, his father taught him that a Ryan didn't need to start a fight but that he'd damn well better deliver the last punch. He is incapable of displaying any pregame angst. Days before the biggest game of his life last weekend in San Diego, as Jets fans clenched and braced for the worst, Rex was on the phone with his brother Rob, cackling, trash-talking and bragging about what his team was about to accomplish.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRex Ryan, in his first season as head coach of the New York Jets, has led them to the AFC Championship against Indianapolis on Sunday.

Don't tell Peyton Manning this -- heck, go ahead and tell him, they don't care -- but the Ryans have a rather large family reunion planned for the first week of February in Miami, which happens to be Super Bowl week. The bags already are packed, Rob says. It's the only way Buddy Ryan's boys know how to operate.

"That's just us being us," Rob says. "We have ridiculous confidence. With football … we know we're great at it. I don't want to be bragging about it, but shoot, that's who we are."

Here's who the Jets are: They have evolved into a team so confident, so unified, that many New Yorkers have a hard time recognizing them. One year after missing the playoffs again, 10 months after a handful of them plotted to skip offseason workouts because of contract disputes, the upstart Jets are playing Manning's Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. "Us against the world" was the theme repeated over and over last weekend, after they knocked off the heavily favored Chargers and the tune "I Gotta Feeling" bounced through the locker room.

This New York revival has everything to do with the Rex, the Jets say. Look even deeper, and its roots go back three decades, back to Buddy.

"He was probably 20 years ahead of his time when he was coaching," Rex says of his dad, a former NFL defensive guru. "He taught me how to break down opponents' protections, all that kind of stuff.

"I think the biggest thing he taught me is always be yourself."

The Ryan boys

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Courtesy Southwestern Oklahoma State UniversityRex Ryan played defensive end at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Okla.

There is a joke among the Ryan family that Rex has read one non-sports book in his life, and that it involved material required to pass a class. By the time he was in second grade, drawing up plays in his room, Ryan knew he wanted to be a football coach, just like his dad. He was 6 when Buddy was a defensive assistant on the '68 Jets team that won the Super Bowl. Rex's older brother, Jim, was a ball boy on that team and still keeps an old picture of himself mugging with Joe Namath.

Buddy and Doris Ryan divorced in 1966, and the Ryan boys moved to Canada for eight years while their mom worked for the University of Toronto. But football was never far from the minds of Buddy's twins, Rex and Rob, even after they were kicked off their football team because they hit too hard.

"Apparently, all the tough athletes in Canada play hockey," says Jim, who is now a lawyer in St. Louis. "They didn't like the way Rex and Rob crunched the coach's son."

The boys eventually moved back to the States as teenagers and lived with Buddy, who was the defensive coordinator with the Vikings, then the Bears. The players were their friends. At night, the twins would bug Buddy, begging him to talk strategy.

One summer, Bob Mazie showed up at training camp and Buddy pulled him aside. Mazie was the football coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and a friend of a friend. Buddy pointed to two tall, skinny kids running down an adjacent field.

"They're my two boys," Buddy said to Mazie. "Why don't you take them down there and make them football players?"

So the Ryan twins went off to Weatherford, a western Oklahoma town with a population of less than 10,000. It should be noted that Buddy, a U.S. master sergeant in the Korean War, forged his toughness growing up in a tiny cotton town in Frederick, Okla.

The Ryan boys were known as tough, but not necessarily exceptional, defensive ends. But they didn't back down to anybody, on the field or in the bars.

[+] EnlargeBuddy Ryan
AP PhotoThe '85 Bears carried defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, Rex's dad, off the field after Chicago won the Super Bowl.

"Weatherford is a small town," Mazie says. "There's not a lot to do there, activity-wise, and kids would get a little rambunctious. I had a going understanding with the police that if any of my players got put in jail over a weekend, don't call me until Monday morning.

"They were hell-raisers. But they were good kids, though."

Mazie had to call Buddy at least once to bail the boys out of jail. Rob thinks it was over a fight in Amarillo, Texas. But the twins would come into Mazie's office regularly, just for chalk talk. He never had players who would do that.

And on Sundays, he'd pick the boys up for church. "They'd sit there with me, bigger than hell," Mazie says, laughing.

He didn't do it for his other players. Mazie just figured Buddy would like that.

Defensive aggressiveness

So upon Rex's exit from college, it seemed only natural that Buddy would find him a job, right? By the mid-1980s, the elder Ryan was being hailed as a hero in Chicago. When the Bears won the Super Bowl in '85, they didn't just carry coach Mike Ditka off the field. They gave Buddy a ride, too.

Ryan, who created the aggressive 46 defense to play to the strengths of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, was hot. He parlayed that Super Bowl success into a job as head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Philly fans instantly loved him when he boldly announced, "We will win the Eastern Division." Ryan collected a 43-38-1 record in five seasons.

But if Rex and Rob wanted a ticket to the NFL, they weren't getting Daddy's help. Rob went to Western Kentucky; Rex headed to the other side of the state to coach the defensive ends at Eastern Kentucky, then got the job as the defensive coordinator at New Mexico Highlands. He lived in tiny homes with his wife, Michelle, and an English bull mastiff named after Jets great Winston Hill. A Rex Ryan defense was aggressive and overachieved, just like Buddy's.

"We may not have a player over 6 feet," Rex would tell people when he was in New Mexico, "but dammit, we're going to lead the league in turnovers."

Back in Philly, Buddy was making noise, too. He led the Eagles to a 10-win season in 1988, then caused a stir in '89 when he allegedly put a bounty on Cowboys' players. The outside world viewed Buddy as a loudmouth and somewhat of a hothead. But inside that locker room, he was winning over hearts.

[+] EnlargeBart Scott
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesJets linebacker Bart Scott, who played for Ryan in Baltimore, says his teammates bought in to Ryan's reminder that football is supposed to be fun.

Seth Joyner, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Eagles, took to Buddy immediately. He bought into Ryan's defensive system because it won in Chicago. He loved the way Ryan talked tough and made his players believe they could beat anyone. If you played for Buddy, Joyner says, you either loved him or you hated him. Ryan only wanted mentally strong football players, and quickly weeded the meek out of his roster. The strong ones could make intelligent decisions in split seconds. The cocky ones didn't just want to make plays; they had to be playmakers.

"We were merciless," Joyner says. "We didn't just want to beat you. We wanted to demoralize you.

"I think very few coaches really understand the power of [the mental game]. Sometimes head coaches get so caught up in the fact that they're head coaches and they have to be in charge and create systems that players buy into. But when you create this us-against-the-world mentality, you're getting us to buy into the fact that if one of us goes down, we're all going down."

Buddy Ryan led the Eagles to three playoff appearances, but never won a postseason game. He was dumped in 1991 after conflicts with management, returned in '93 as defensive coordinator with the Houston Oilers, and caused more controversy when he punched an assistant coach on the sidelines during a "Monday Night Football" game.

In 1994, the Arizona Cardinals named him head coach, and Buddy quickly told the legions, "'You've got a winner in town." They're still snickering about that line 16 years later in Phoenix. Ryan did turn around the Cardinals' defense in '94, but was fired after compiling a 12-20 record in two seasons.

But the Arizona stint, Buddy's last, had some upside. It brought the Ryans together, as Buddy hired Rex and Rob to be his defensive assistants. Rex calls those two years "the best thing to ever happen to me."

"We might've been horrible," he says. "I think we were in third in the league in defense one year and we couldn't stop a nosebleed the next year. But it was the experience of that that really helped me."

Rex shifted back to the college ranks for three years before landing an assistant job with Baltimore in 1999, and a year later, the Ravens won the Super Bowl. But even back in '95, Joyner says, he could tell that the younger Ryan had potential. Joyner, who went to Arizona in 1994, initially saw Rex as a youngster when his dad was coaching the Eagles in the '80s.

But there he was in Arizona, polished and mature, smart and cocky.

"Those apples fell very close to the tree," Joyner says. "Buddy's persona was that he was just a hardass with everyone. But nothing could be further from the truth. When he was dealing with his players on a one-on-one basis, away from the media, there was a friendship there. With Buddy, once you're one of his guys, you're one of his guys forever. That doesn't go away.

"I would imagine with Rex and the way he's running his football team, it's the same way. When you look at some of the older veterans he has, there has got to be something more than just player-coach."

Rex, by the way, has two teenage boys. One of them is named Payton, after his boyhood hero Walter Payton. The other is named Seth, and, though Rex has never publicly said it, it is believed he named the boy after Seth Joyner.

Early in his tenure

In the early months of 2009, the New York Jets, predictably, were in trouble. They had no quarterback after the Brett Favre one-year experiment failed. They were coming off a season that started with the promise of an 8-3 record and ended with a 1-4 collapse that kept them out of the playoffs.

Rex Ryan got off to an unpredictable start. He swept into town oozing bravado, saying he wasn't here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings and that he planned on meeting the president after a Super Bowl victory in a couple of years. In March, during the first team meeting, he gathered the Jets together and said they were going to be the No. 1 defense in the NFL and No. 1 in rushing … in 2009.

"I'm like, 'Is this guy serious? Good luck,'" says Jets guard Brandon Moore, recalling that eye-opening gathering. "Everybody was just coming back off a disappointing year, we don't know who our quarterback is, and he's preaching all these things we're going to change."

But change happened quickly. In April, the Jets moved up to draft USC's Mark Sanchez, then stole Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- now a staple in the Jets' offense -- in the third round. By the time offseason workouts started in the spring, Ryan's good vibes were rubbing off on the veterans.

The first session of spring practice, Ryan admonished the players for not having enough fun.

[+] EnlargeSeth Joyner
AP Photo/Eric Gay"The apples fell very close to the tree," Seth Joyner says of Buddy and his sons.

"And they're like, 'Fun?' They had lost the sense that football is supposed to be fun," Jets linebacker Bart Scott says. "We take it very seriously, but at the end of the day, it's a game, you know? I think the guys bought in. Guys bought in quick, man."

Scott knew Ryan better than just about anybody on the team. He'd played for Ryan for seven seasons in Baltimore, and the Ravens' defense never finished lower than sixth in the league in all those years.

Ryan scrapped the team's normal training camp plans last summer and shipped the Jets north to Cortland, N.Y., to bond, trust one another, trust the coach. They withstood a midseason swoon, some growing pains from the rookie Sanchez, and a bleak outlook to earn the final wild-card spot to the playoffs. They believed in Rex, center Nick Mangold says, because he's one of them.

Rex can cry in front of his players, then laugh at himself at a news conference the next day by bringing tissues. He can get in players' faces at practice, casually straddling that touchy balance.

"He's an everyman's man," Mangold says. "He's a guy you can conceivably see yourself out at the bar having a beer with. I like that he's a real man. He doesn't hide who he is."

And he hasn't altered anything as the Jets continue this inconceivable run. In Week 3, he was laughing and joking in practice. In the days before the divisional playoffs, after the Jets beat the Bengals in Cincinnati and a Herculean task was ahead of them in San Diego, Ryan laughed and joked and kept it loose.

He plays up the underdog role, and makes backups feel as if they're All-Pro. Rex does this because he feels as if he's been there himself, turned down for jobs, left to keep scrapping. He loves guys like Marques Douglas, castoffs who keep surfacing.

Douglas is a defensive end from Howard University who went undrafted and was cut several times, but has managed to spend a decade in the league. He'd just finished up a season in Baltimore when Ryan called from New York. "Douglas, come on, let's go," Ryan said. "I got you."

"I think if people really knew who Rex was," Douglas says, "that pretty much everyone in the league would want to come and play for him. He doesn't try to make you out to be someone else. If you can play ball, you're going to be on the team.

"You've got guys in here right now willing to play for him, wanting to run through that brick wall for him. If we could line up tomorrow and play Indy, we would."

From his brother's perspective

Rob Ryan is calling from somewhere, maybe Ohio, talking a little trash.

He wants the conversation to stay on his brother, because he's the one who has captivated the NFL, adding life to a postseason that has been full of blowouts and very few surprises. But since he's Rex's twin and his best friend, it's impossible for the discussion not to veer. Rob is 47 now, an accomplished defensive coordinator in Cleveland who is still waiting for his own shot as a head coach. He is frustrated that it took the world this long to know about Rex.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Kirby Lee/US PresswireRex's twin, Rob, is the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator. "We have ridiculous confidence," Rob says of himself and his brother.

He watched his brother go through the grip-and-grin process in various stops in the NFL before finally getting his chance in New York. Now, it seems, things somehow worked out perfectly. Rex, who's larger than life, is in a city just big enough to handle him. He's with the franchise where it all started, really, for Buddy.

The elder Ryan is 75 now, owns a horse ranch in Kentucky and doesn't like to travel much. But he'll be in Indianapolis this weekend, and plans to have dinner with his boy before the next biggest game of his life.

"I'm really proud of him," Buddy says. "He's already surpassed my records [as a head coach]."

In the Ryan family, they're competitive enough to keep track of that stuff. The totals stand as this: Buddy has two Super Bowl rings as an assistant, and so does Rob. Rex has one, but he's gaining ground.

The brothers talked late into the night Tuesday, and Rob says Rex has no fear. The Ryans have coached in a lot of big games, he says. And they're just getting started.

"Sometimes, you've just got to give a guy a chance," Rob says. "My brother and I … neither one of us is a pretty guy. But that doesn't mean we can't outcoach the s--- out of anyone in the league."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.