Rex Ryan's Greatest Gift to Jets Fans Is a Clean Slate

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 29, 2014

AP Images

Rex Ryan gave Jets fans many gifts over his six seasons as head coach.    

He gave Jets fans back-to-back playoff victories over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He gave them a pair of charmed seasons in 2009 and 2010. It's easy to forget that Ryan's Jets were the NFL's most dangerous bad boys, the league's simmering Next Big Thing, from the start of the 2009 season through November of 2011, when the team was 8-5 and there were no signs of how wrong things were about to go.

He gave fans two pro wrestling-style grudge matches per year against the Patriots, an overpowering, easy-to-loathe villain. Sometimes Ryan's team won those rivalry games, always playing well enough to keep things interesting.

He gave fans great defenses, even in the worst of times. The Jets never finished lower than 11th in the NFL in yards allowed under Ryan.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

He gave fans a bullseye personality that carried over to his teams. You could love Ryan's Jets or hate them, fear them or laugh at them, but they were impossible to ignore. Ryan gave the Jets an irreverent underdog identity, perfect for a fanbase that lives in the shadow of the stuffy Giants. If you don't think identity matters, try rooting for the Dolphins or Bills.

He gave fans a lot of guarantees. But you know the trouble with guarantees: The devil is always in the fine print.

Beware of generous gift-givers: They often only share what they are willing to offer, not what you really need. Ryan did not give Jets fans championships, consistency or sustainable success beyond those heady first seasons.

He was like the absentee dad who shows up after days of silence with promises of dirt-biking and pizza. We don't want dirt-biking and pizza. We wanted a ride to soccer practice on Tuesday and help with our homework on Wednesday. In the dark days of 2011-12, Ryan was all cake and ice cream, but a steady diet of that can make you sick in a hurry. Every year, the boasts grew more hollow, the guarantees more empty, the thrills of a Jets-Patriots slugfest more meaningless and tawdry.

Dec 28, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan greets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (82) prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

But Ryan saved his greatest gift for last. Ryan and general manager John Idzik were fired on Monday, and they did not leave much behind. But at least they did not leave a mess behind. With Idzik's help, Ryan cleaned up before he left. The absentee dad settled the worst of his debts, cleared his boxes from the garage, and sat the kids down for some heart-to-heart talks.

Ryan's greatest gift to Jets fans was taking his baggage with him when he left.

Imagine if Ryan had been fired after the 2012 season, when the Jets finished 6-10. That was the year of the Tim Tebow circus and the butt fumble, Bart Scott tirades and Santonio Holmes playing peekaboo with the injured list. The Jets were the NFL's most publicly unprofessional team, a silly soap opera played out in the daily tabloids.

Ryan was King Inmate of that asylum, reluctant to suppress the brash behavior he encouraged when the team was doing well two seasons earlier. The Jets were in terrible cap shape because of faulty front-office communication, crippled by bad clubhouse karma and disorganized from the owner's box to the bottom of the depth chart. If Ryan had left in 2012, his successor would have faced a Superfund project.

Ryan did not leave in 2012. He changed. Idzik arrived, and Ryan set about reforming himself and the Jets with the help of the buttoned-down capologist from Seattle. Disgruntled, absent-minded superstar cornerbacks were shipped out of town. Unhealthy Sanchez and Holmes contracts were swallowed and digested.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Ryan toned down his public image. Idzik and Ryan corralled the media free-for-all that prevailed around the Jets of the past. There were no more HBO cameras or ESPN eyes-in-the-sky looming over Cortland in August, transforming idle talk or missed practices into national scoops.

Ryan still delivered one-liners, but they became more self-effacing. The occasional cussword or zinger stood out from Ryan's increasingly mild-mannered persona, and Jim Harbaugh replaced Ryan as the NFL's reigning blowhard-in-residence. The new Jets took on the personality of their changing coach: They were humbler, more professional and quieter.

Maybe you did not notice the difference when the team went 8-8 last year, tripped out of the gate this year, or stumbled through week after week behind Geno Smith and his defective pop-gun offense. Don't compare the 2013-14 Jets to the Patriots or Seahawks, or even the 2009-10 Jets. Compare them to the 2013-14 Redskins or Buccaneers, last year's Bully-gate Dolphins, this year's quitting Bears, the perpetually doomed Browns, or the other teams that took the Jets' place on the midday schedule when they canceled their soap opera.

Compare this year's Jets to this year's 49ers if you like. There is no dissension or strife in the Jets locker room. Ryan, Idzik and owner Woody Johnson did not spend the season sniping at each other. There were no Friday night keggers that led to Saturday search parties or suspensions. Geno and Michael Vick played poorly, but the quarterback situation never blew up into a controversy, no matter how hard we poked and stoked.

The Jets never quit. In fact, they played some darn good football in the past month. The Jets have problems, but they are no longer a punchline. Ryan pulled them out of "football Kardashian" territory. Ask the Redskins: That is no easy feat.

The Jets are also in good cap shape; that was Idzik's going-away gift. They will enter 2015 free agency at least $30 million under the cap, according to Over the Cap. There is almost no dead money for them to swallow. They have room to extend important young veterans like Mo Wilkerson or pay for Percy Harvin's hefty lease if the new regime chooses.

Idzik's infatuation with speedy has-beens—like Ryan, he appeared to be living in perpetual 2010 when he signed Vick and Chris Johnson—was always offset by his thriftiness. There are no whopper contracts to cope with except Harvin's, no Darrelle Revis malcontents to contend with, few in-house free agents that merit more than cursory haggling. Even where the Jets have the wrong player, he comes at the right price.

True, there's no quarterback. But there is no quarterback conundrum either: no Jay Cutler, Johnny Manziel or Robert Griffin III riddle to solve. Vick is a free agent. Geno Smith earns $585,000 next year. At that bargain price, the next head coach can take it, leave it or bench it.

Ryan and Idzik leave the Jets as a blank slate. Their successors can begin at the starting gate, whereas two years ago, they would have been locked in the paddock. The new regime will have to rebuild, but they will not have to fumigate or call in the toxic waste experts.

The Jets have building blocks—an excellent young defensive line, some veteran offensive linemen, an interesting-if-eclectic collection of skill position pieces—where they once had an expensive crater. They have unity and a reasonable amount of discipline, where they once had noisy, counterproductive anarchy.

Dec 7, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) celebrates his safety with teammates during the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Rex Ryan did not succeed. But with Idzik's help, he spent the last two years managing his failure. His months as a lame duck were free of drama: The wit he once used to take potshots at Bill Belichick was used to put a good-natured spin on his fate and to keep the Jets focused on their Sunday tasks. The good times had curdled into bad times long ago. Ryan faced clean-up time with surprising grace. The Jets responded by playing hard until the end.

The Jets are a bad team, but they are a real team. The next regime faces a tough task, not an impossible one. Many coaches have left their teams in far worse shape over the last five years than Ryan leaves the Jets.

It's not much, but at the end, it was the absolute best Ryan had to offer. Remember the playoffs, remember the rivalries, remember the laughs, and enjoy the lovely parting gift.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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