New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan loves the reclamation project. He loves to take players that no one wants—Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, Braylon Edwards, and now former Bills linebacker Aaron Maybin—and try to make them into high-level and highly respected players.
While he has done this with mixed results (Burress and Maybin combine to give Ryan an incomplete grade on this matter as of now), one has to wonder why is it Ryan feels so compelled to take such a risk and sign these misfit toys.
In the AFC East, another coach, the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, is also fascinated with reinventing players once thought finished or tough to coach; he has had enough success with this method that no one questions him much when he signs players like Chad Ochocinco or Albert Haynesworth.
However, the Jets' Ryan, despite his success with Holmes (and debatable success with Edwards), has seen many of his moves receive shakes of the head in response.
What drives coach Ryan to take these types of risks? Why is he so interested in building up troubled or under-performing players rather than building his roster with known quantities?
The answer is multi-layered.
One reason is ego, plain and simple. Ryan has built a reputation for himself as a man with confidence to spare; as the Jets' head coach, he has bluntly stated that his team will go to, and win, the Super Bowl. He believes he is one of the best coaches in the league, and it is hard to disagree with him.
In the last two seasons, the Jets have reached the AFC Championship game on a roster Ryan and his staff carefully curated. His players love him, and his confidence has rubbed off on them. He has shown that he is astute when it comes to personnel matters, and he has free reign to build his team as he sees fit. The management believes in him as much as he believes in himself.
The addition of Maybin serves to highlight this confidence. Maybin, the 2009 first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills, has been carrying the moniker of "bust" for some time now. Signed to assist the Bills with the pass rush, Maybin has accumulated zero sacks in his time in Buffalo.
This background is similar to defensive lineman Vernon Gholston, recently released from the Jets (and picked up by the Chicago Bears). Ghoston, the first-round pick of the Jets in the 2008 draft, was supposed to play a similar role. In his three years with the team, he too picked up zero sacks.
One would assume that Ryan made a ridiculous move in trading out one pass-rush bust for another, but, in Ryan's mind, this cannot be anything less than a savvy move.
For one thing, Gholston was developed by the Jets from his first day as a pro. Ryan has had his opportunity to work with him and improve his game, but much of Gholston's failure rested on his unwillingness to see plays through until the end.
With Maybin, many of his problems related to a dismal all-around Buffalo defense. Ryan looks at Maybin as a player who hasn't received the proper coaching; Gholston, to him, is a player who cannot improve no matter the quality of the coaching he has received.
This ties into the second reason that coach Ryan believes he can be successful in rehabilitating troubled players: He's a players' coach.
This does not mean, however, that he is a pushover. He is a taskmaster who demands the best out of his players, in every game and in every practice. However, he is able to coax the best out of them, he is able to convince his players that they have greatness in them, and he is able to make them want to work hard, not just for the benefit of the team, but for the benefit of him as a coach, as well.
Players want to play for him, they want to work hard, they want to be driven into the ground by him, and they seek out and cherish his praise. Not many coaches can achieve this balance of taskmaster and buddy.
Many coaches wish they could combine the easygoing demeanor of Wade Phillips with the abilities to intimidate and motivate possessed by Bill Cowher; with Ryan, he achieves this effortlessly, and his players respond accordingly. They are well-balanced, motivated, driven and they can still have a good time while being acutely aware they are there to work extremely hard.
This ability to bring the best out of his players means that Ryan can take the guys who are hard to coach and hard to motivate and turn them into household names. I am sure that with his confidence and track record, this notion crossed Ryan's mind when deciding to bring Maybin onto his squad.
Another factor motivating Ryan to take on these projects involves a level of jealousy and rivalry with division-mates New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick.
As noted earlier, Belichick is also very adept at taking troubled players and turning their careers around. He has done this with players as diverse as Randy Moss, former Bears defensive end Mark Anderson, and Jets castoff Danny Woodhead.
One would expect that Ryan has paid very close attention to the way Belichick is able to get a positive response out of even the the most dismissed of players, and would look to emulate it. Emulate it, of course, to ultimately be better at Belichick at his own game.
What is clear about Ryan's willingness to take on reclamation projects is that he is not afraid to take risks, and risk-taking has been a hallmark of his tenure with the Jets. So far, his rewards have been far greater than his losses. I'm sure this is in the forefront of his mind today as Maybin takes the practice field as a Jet for the first time.