Until I watched this video from the press conference after the Giants-Jets exhibition game on Saturday, I had sort of forgotten that Rex Ryan was still the coach of the Jets. Everyone is calling for him to be fired, perhaps immediately. This is a shame. He's not even gone yet, and I already miss him.
I had the good fortune to be working at New York magazine during Rex Ryan's Jets reign, and I can honestly say there has never been a more fun figure to write about on a daily basis. I'd never seen anyone like him: He was the caricature of a swaggering football coach taken so far over the top that he came back around and seemed realistic again. And, yes, I'm using past tense, because the Ryan we all knew and love isn't the Ryan we see now.
Ryan flipped off Dolphins fans at an MMA event, chugged beers in shorts at a Yankees game and, like it was nothing, like it was just another summer activity, ran with the bulls at Pamplona. He turned every public appearance into a traveling road show of madness, was the most entertaining figure in the history of HBO's "Hard Knocks" and led an ongoing joke on the site Kissing Suzy Kolber that still makes me laugh. He even had a ridiculous sex scandal … except it was with his wife, which made it more charming than anything else. (He even played Strat-o-Matic baseball.)
This guy was a gift. (All told, I've only scraped the surface of Ryan's loopiness.) And -- and this was the most important part -- he was a helluva coach. Ryan's bravado and gregariousness masked a savvy football mind, and he made it clear from his first days that he wasn't having any of this Doomed Jets business. He called out Bill Belichick - the whole not going to kiss the ring thing -- and he proclaimed the Jets were going to win every game pretty much before every game. A lot of this was clownish and silly, but Ryan knew that: I always felt he enjoyed playing the jester in large part to keep the focus and pressure on himself, allowing his players to concentrate on the business at hand. His teams obviously adored him for it; he was one of the guys, but more than that, he was the guy everyone was watching while his teams went about beating yours. He was a lunatic like a fox.
It's worth remembering, now that Ryan is in so much trouble, that he reached the AFC Championship Game in consecutive seasons, his first two seasons as Jets coach. (And the Jets were a lot closer to beating Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in January 2011 than you might recall.) He has won more playoff games than any coach in Jets history, and has the third-highest winning percentage, even with everything that has gone wrong the last two seasons. It's easy to pile on now that the Jets are being the Jets again, with the Butt Fumble and the chaos and the circus and everything, but Ryan made the Jets relevant in a way they hadn't been since Bill Parcells.
He made one major mistake, though, and it's a mistake that will sink him like it did so many other coaches before him: He picked the wrong quarterback. Mark Sanchez looked for his first two seasons like he was going to be a keeper -- remember how everyone always referred to him as "poised?" -- and then regressed dramatically every season thereafter. When you make a mistake on a quarterback, it ruins your whole franchise (ask Jacksonville, or Arizona, or Oakland, or basically any team in the league), and that's what happened to the Jets. Sanchez was so bad that everything else on the Jets fell apart; the system was built with the understanding that a careful, turnover-averse quarterback would be in charge -- the opposite of what Sanchez became. Soon, it was obvious that the center could not hold and Sanchez's collapse became the Jets' -- and then Ryan's. The machismo and backslapping boorishness was no longer funny and cute and winning; it was just another losing coach being a loser for the loser Jets.
And it probably culminated in that press conference Saturday night. How odd it is that the nadir of Ryan's Jets career probably came when he put Sanchez into the game, considering his downfall was always resisting the urge to pull him out. Ryan's decision to put Sanchez in the game in the fourth quarter -- leading to a shoulder injury, almost inevitably -- was a mistake, but the coach still must have been so bewildered. Everyone thinks Sanchez is so valuable all of a sudden? How did we get here in the first place?
This is the final year of Ryan's contract, and there's a new general manager in town, along with a second-round quarterback in Geno Smith who needs a year or so to learn and a team that might well be competing for the right to draft Jadeveon Clowney next April. That's to say: He's done, whether it's today, after the season or following a 1-6 start. (That Patriots home game on October 20 looks like a potential time for the ax to fall.) The Jets never made it to the Super Bowl that Ryan was always claiming they'd reach, and his tenure will ultimately be considered a failure, though it probably shouldn't be. (No other Jets coach reached two AFC Championship Games in two years.) It's sad to see him like this. An extinguished, defeated Rex Ryan is no Rex Ryan at all. It was grand fun while it lasted.