King Rex: future Lord of the NFL?
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 17, 2011
We were working on the top 10 storylines of the conference title game weekend. But after working through it, the No. 1 storyline deserves to stand on its own – if only because it grew from a planned 150 words to about 750.
We'll be back with the rest of the list later today, including the Aaron Rodgers ascendancy, a great statistical clash about to come to a head over the next three games, and a lot more.
The NFL has a long, storied history of humbling the most bombastic chest thumpers of the football world. And nobody in recent memory thumps their man boobs as bombastically as the Mouth that Roared, Jets coach Rex Ryan.
You know the story: he came out swinging, announcing before his first game as an NFL head coach that he "never came here to kiss Belichick's rings." The new kid in town calling out the biggest, baddest punk on the block. That takes balls.
Then Ryan announced before the start of the 2010 season that his Jets were going to win the Super Bowl. There have been 1,000 other instances of Ryan talking the talk over the last two years, spattered with some truly shocking off-field incidents, namely FeetGate, that have quickly made Ryan the most compelling personality in the NFL.
But for all the bluster he's also producing, so far, where it counts: on the field. Ryan talks the talk. His Jets walk the walk, to use the old cliché. And the coach deserves all the credit in the world, even if his style flies in the face of what most consider good sportsmanship.
Ryan has pushed all the right buttons. He's certainly motivated his club, a group of young men ready to go to war with the dumpy old man. His players believe in him. They make big plays in big moments. And they play in the AFC title game for the second year in a row on Sunday – a first in franchise history.
That final fact alone makes Ryan stand out from every other coach of the Same Ol' Jets since Weeb Ewbank. Even Ryan knows that one of the hurdles he must overcome is that "Same Ol'" reputation in New York. He even referenced the phrase in his postgame press conference Sunday night, saying that the Same Ol' Jets are going back ot the AFC title game.
New York's 28-21 win over the Patriots Sunday was Ryan's signature moment to date. Quite simply, in a sport where coaching means almost everything, he and his staff delivered a tour de force performance: the Jets were humiliated on the same field, 45-3 just one month earlier. But they rebounded in truly spectacular fashion, with a victory over a dominant 14-2 team that was never as close as the final seven-point margin indicated.
And that effort came just eight days after Ryan's Jets walked into Indianapolis and quietly suffocated Peyton Manning and the Colts (we hope referencing that game doesn't offend our overly sensitive Colts fans friends).
Ryan produced a defensive game plan this Sunday that embarrassed Tom Brady, who was fresh off one of the greatest passing seasons in history. Brady looked confused Sunday night for the first time since he had to choose between Bridget and Gisele.
(By the way, our friends Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa of Boston Herald gossip sheet "The Inside Track" have been quick to point out that Brady made the wrong decision that day, too. He started dating supermodel Gisele right before New England's loss to the Colts in the 2006 AFC title game – the very game in which the old New England aura was punctured by Peyton and the dynasty started to deflate. Their take is pretty funny.)
Meanwhile, Ryan is proving a master motivator the likes of which the NFL hasn't seen since, well – dare we say, since Lombardi?
Now, hear us out. Ryan is NOT Lombardi. But like the legend, Ryan has done nothing but build confidence in his previously down-trodden team. Ryan has told everybody who will listen that he will win because he has the best football players. It's not true. There are more talented teams. But he believes it ... or he says he believes it. And now, because he believes it, the sad-sack, Same Ol' Jets now believe it, too.
Nobody has benefited more than Mark Sanchez – who's now led his team to two straight AFC title games in his first two seasons in the NFL. It's a feat last accomplished by, yes, Ben Roethlisberger, Sanchez's opposite quarterback on Sunday.
Sanchez is quickly shaping up as the John Elway of his generation. His numbers are humble at best, just like Elway's. But Sanchez is delivering in big moments – over and again – just like Elway. Happens once, you're lucky. Happens in one big game after another, it's who you are.
Look at Mark the Knife in his last three games against AFC contenders, the last three since what seemed like that crushing loss to the Patriots.
He sliced around the league's top run defense on 4th and 1 in the snow, for a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter that sparked New York's 22-17 come-from-behind win at mighty Pittsburgh in Week 15.
He cut the heart out of the Colts with a critical 18-yard throw to Braylon Edwards that turned a 50-yard game-winning field goal effort into a very makeable 32-yard effort.
He decapitated New England and its comeback hopes Sunday by quickly completing 4 of 4 passes for 76 yards and one spectacular touchdown to Santonio Holmes, minutes after the Patriots had pulled within 14-11. It is, so far, the signature drive of Sanchez's brief career.
The only loss mixed in there? The Jets lost to the Bears in Week 16, but on a day when Sanchez and the Jets put up 34 points. Sanchez is a dangerous quarterback right now: one who believes he's can make the plays to beat anybody.
Ryan's run of the last two years has set up the Jets as something they've longed to be for the first time since 1969 – relevant beyond New York.
If the Jets lose this Sunday, and right now we're guessing they do, Ryan will still have delivered impressive results: two straight AFC title game appearances for the first time in Jets history, and with a very young quarterback in his first two NFL seasons. The future looks bright win or lose.
If the Jets win Sunday, Ryan will have reached the Super Bowl by humbling Roethlisberger, Manning and Brady four times in the space of six games. Those are three future HOF quarterbacks and winners of six of the last nine Super Bowls. That's unbelievable.
And if the Jets beat their NFC opponent on February 6, King Rex, and his flamboyant style, will lord over the NFL.
Upstart coaches in the pugnacious new style will then have to tell people that they're not here to kiss Ryan's ring.
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