For a moment, it appeared as if Rex Ryan was able to defy all odds, getting what some predicted to be the worst team in football, the New York Jets, to be not just relevant, but in control of their destiny just over the halfway point in the season.
However, after two straight losses to teams with losing records since their season-defining victory over the New Orleans Saints, months of tireless work to put him in such a position are all being put to waste.
The fact that the Jets have lost two games in a row is not nearly a good enough reason to put Rex Ryan back on the hot seat. If every team fired its coach for reaching 5-6, there wouldn’t be many coaches left in the NFL.
Instead, the issue for Rex over the past month has been his team’s inability to handle success—a common theme for Ryan’s Jets. Compounded with some recent personnel blunders, Ryan's strong start to the season has faded quickly from memory.
Yes, his team is young, inexperienced and perhaps even a bit overly eager to prove the doubters wrong. The Jets had poured everything they had into beating the Patriots and Saints two weeks apart, only to drop two winnable games to erase all of their rather incredible work.
Uneven play with impressive highs and mind-numbing lows is a classic mark of a talented, young team, but such inconsistencies have not been reserved to this season alone.
Surrounded by a new roster and a retooled coaching staff, Rex is supposed to be the most senior ingredient of this puzzle.
While he began the season as a humble, levelheaded man who appeared to be up to his impossible challenge, he too has fallen victim to taking too much icing off the cake of success.
Rex Ryan’s teams are dangerous underdogs. After all, being the underdog is in Rex’s blood; he still carries over the effects of losing out on the Ravens’ head-coaching job to his daily routine.
The biggest games Rex Ryan has won with the Jets came when they were all but counted out.
Few gave the Jets a chance to beat the Chargers in the divisional playoffs in 2009 or the Patriots in the same round a year later. You can bet that Ryan used the David versus Goliath angle against the Saints and Patriots earlier this year.
As a favorite, however, Ryan’s teams have crumbled.
Without the edge of having already been counted out, the Jets’ decline began in 2011, the season following Rex’s Super Bowl guarantee.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Jets are following the same pattern, albeit on a smaller scale. After beating the mighty Saints, the Jets began to take their opponents much more lightly, hinted by their trip to the arcade the night before a division game against the Buffalo Bills (in which the Jets were favored).
Every team falls victim to the occasional “trap” game once in a while, but this is a repeating occurrence under Rex’s leadership that has become less of a trend and more of a permanent fixture, which means that retaining Rex will certainly lead to more disappointing losses.
The good news for Rex is that because of the two recent losses, the “underdog” card is back in the deck.
Where Has Rex Gone Wrong?
Rex Ryan is a blue-chip football coach. Nothing more, nothing less.
Few men on the planet can get the most out of football players like Rex. Whether it be Trevor Pryce leaving the Ravens midseason in 2010 just for a chance to play for his former defensive coordinator or Ed Reed choosing to play in New York instead for the Super Bowl-contending Patriots, there is no doubt that players love playing for the man and respond to his coaching.
After all, the simple fact that Rex Ryan has been within inches of a Super Bowl berth with Mark Sanchez as his quarterback is a testament to how good of a talent-maximizer he is. He transformed Darrelle Revis and Muhammad Wilkerson to among the best players at their position and has out-schemed countless offensive coordinators in his career.
Rex Ryan is a fantastic chef, putting whatever he has in his pantry to good use. Someone else, however, needs to do the shopping for him.
For a man as football-savvy as Rex, he is flat-out awful at evaluating his own roster. He allows nostalgia and past performance to outweigh current effectiveness—a recipe for disaster in a league that completely changes from year to year.
Ryan’s ineptitude in this area was on full display not just when he acquired Ed Reed after the Texans released him and the Ravens declined to claim off waivers (which should have been a huge red flag in the first place), but when he replaced a young, promising player in Antonio Allen to do so.
It would have been one thing to add Reed in some type of rotational role to make the most of his diminishing skills, but the fact that Ed Reed is starting shows that Rex lacks an eye for exactly what players are capable of, even on the defensive side of the ball.
So far, the move has already cost the Jets at least one touchdown:
Whether it is Ed Reed in 2013, Derrick Mason in 2011 or Tim Tebow in 2012, there are far too many examples of when Rex Ryan has advocated for personnel moves after examining them only on a surface level.
Antonio Cromartie has struggled mightily in 2013, transforming into one of the league's worst starting cornerbacks just a year after being considered one of the best. He appears to be struggling from a lingering hip injury that sprung up in training camp, which is causing him to give up an inordinate amount of big plays.
Instead of replacing him with a solid player in Darrin Walls, Ryan has refused to put Walls on the field, even starting the struggling Dee Milliner in his place.
|Darrin Walls vs. Jets' Starters|
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The only reason Walls is not on the field more often is because as a former undrafted free agent, he is not making anywhere near the kind of money Cromartie is and the Jets did not invest heavily in him, as they did with Milliner.
There is a chance that Ryan is being told to play Milliner by his superiors in the front office, but that did not stop him from benching Milliner twice this season. He should have every right to bench the players he wants, especially Cromartie, whose enormous cap hit gives him a good chance to be cut by next season anyway.
If Ryan played Walls instead of Cromartie at any point in the season, he may have a lot more room for error in the coming weeks—and be much further from the hot seat.
More than any other decision he has made, his inability to see the talent in his own roster will be his downfall.
Married to the Quarterback
As unfair as it may seem, the reality is that Rex Ryan's fate rests largely in the hands of rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
After a fast start that had the Jets in contention for division supremacy at one point, Smith has thrown just one touchdown pass since Week 5 while throwing 10 interceptions in that span.
The fact that Smith is struggling is hardly a surprise. Smith was a second-round pick for a reason.
The concerning aspect of Smith's decline is that he has shown regression in just about every area, but going through such a long stretch without showing any improvement whatsoever raises questions as to whether or not Ryan is capable of developing a young quarterback.
Smith was at his best when the Jets were running Marty Mornhinweg's preferred pass-first system; however, ever since playoffs became a part of their vocabulary, the Jets have seemingly gone into a shell, hiding their young quarterback with Wildcat gimmicks rather than letting him loose.
If Rex is going to cement his job for next season, turning around the play of his rookie quarterback has to be the first item on his agenda.
How Hot Is Ryan’s Seat?
Ryan deserves to be taking some heat for some decisions he has made in recent weeks. But when examining his body of work as a whole, it is impossible to justify calling for his job given the unexpected amount of winning this team has done through the first 11 weeks of the season—which is easy to forget given the nature of the previous two losses.
Still, Rex Ryan needs to prove that he is the best man for the job, not just do enough not to embarrass the Jets. Having been selected by the previous general manager, Rex needs to not just do enough to impress his current boss—he needs to give him no other choice but to retain him as head coach.
After all, whether it's the correct move or not, every new general manager is going to want their hand-picked pieces in place, no matter what they may say to the contrary.
In essence, Rex's situation is about the same as it has been since ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on October 13 that the "arrow was pointing" towards Rex Ryan being back for next season.
Of course, that report came on the heels of a dramatic upset on Monday Night Football over the Falcons and such fond feeling may have worn off. But barring an epic collapse over these five games, Ryan has a good chance of being the Jets' coach in 2014—granted that he makes some much-needed adjustments (not overhauls) to his approach.
History has shown that betting against Rex Ryan is a losing proposition more often than not, but these last five games could very well determine his future as the Jets' head coach.
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