'Old guys and castaways'
There are a lot of high-passion players in the Jets' locker room, just waiting to match Ryan's. He brought them in for that very reason. He wanted guys with chips and resentments, such as LaDainian Tomlinson, the former league MVP running back who seemed washed up and was let go by the San Diego Chargers last winter, or Pryce, the 14th-year veteran former Pro Bowler, released in September by the Ravens.
"This team is built up of big offensive linemen, and old guys and castaways, you know what I mean?" Pryce says. "That's what unifies us: We have guys no one else wants. . . . He has in mind what a football team is supposed to be, what kind of parts and pieces and personalities he wants."
Not everyone wanted Ryan, either. Part of his connection to his players is based on the fact that he is a rejected vet, too, passed over by the Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers and Ravens for head jobs, before the Jets hired him in 2009 at the age of 46. By the time he got a chance to run his own team, he knew exactly the type of guy he wanted: high-octane soreheads. He has turned over fully half the Jets' roster in two seasons.
"All I can do is coach football, I'm not an expert on anything other than this game of football," Ryan says. "And I know the type of men it takes to play this game. I know what you look for in a guy."
According to Pryce, Ryan keeps a virtual "Rolodex" of playmakers who have bested him on the field.
"He wants people who beat up on him," Pryce says. "I think the thing about Rex's organization is that if you made an impression on him, he gives you a chance no matter what."
That was the case with Santonio Holmes, the former Super Bowl MVP the Steelers traded to the Jets last April for just a fifth-round draft choice, because of off-the-field issues that included a marijuana bust and disorderly conduct. Ryan was on the phone in his office when he got a message from General Manager Mike Tannenbaum: "Give a thumbs up if you want Santonio Holmes, or a thumbs down if you don't."
Ryan slammed down the phone, and he shouted: "What? Santonio Holmes?" He went pounding upstairs and told Tannenbaum, "Absolutely." Three times in one season, Holmes had burned Ryan's defenses for losses.
"I just knew that anybody that beat me that bad, that I'd just as soon have him on our team," he says.
Somehow, Ryan has forged a unit out of a potentially unmanageable bunch. His garrulousness obscures a subtle but superb talent for team building. He has melded all sorts of types, from aging retreads to outspoken stars such as cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who last week called Brady a human orifice. "He's the ultimate uniter," says Kidd. Ryan clearly likes having all those large, different personalities in the room.
"There is nobody alike," Ryan says. "Everybody is different, but that's the beauty of a locker room, is when you can respect everybody. Everybody is different. Every single person, different religious beliefs, the way they look, fat guys, good-looking guys or ugly guys. Everybody comes together and they have one goal."