Jets-Steelers preview: New York Coach Rex Ryan is big, loud and a master at his craft

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011

IN FLORHAM PARK, N.J. The way Rex Ryan has whipped up the New York Jets, everyone acts 15 years old. Fat assistant coaches stampede up and down the sideline, excited as wild young rhinoceroses. Jaded millionaire receivers sail around with their arms thrown open wide like kids imitating airplanes, pretending to fly. "The Flight Boys," they call themselves.

Whether or not the Jets can continue their improbable amusement ride, Ryan has already proved a point: It's possible to laugh and play football at the same time. A lot of NFL coaches won't admit it's possible to do both, at least not aloud. But with his underdog team in the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan is giggling like it's a schoolyard dare.

"It's a triple-chinstrap game," he booms. "A straight ahead, no-fair-dodging game."

He looks and acts like an overgrown kid who has eaten too many Fudgsicles, a bully on the playground. He flips the finger, gets fined by the league, and his players think he's the most fun ever. When he talks, his voice rises with zeal, his double chin flaps, and he bares a straight line of white teeth in a grin that's overbroad, as if he's ready to take another big bite out of something. Some accuse him of smack talk, but he denies it. "Just telling the truth like I always try to do," he says.

Don't mistake him; Ryan is excellent at the professional drudgery of coaching, the all-night staff meetings and schematics. "Outstanding coach, excellent tactician, great fundamentals," says former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, for whom Ryan worked from 1999 till 2008.

Few are more sophisticated strategists, as Ryan has proved in two short but stunningly successful seasons in which he has reenergized a franchise that hasn't been to a Super Bowl since Joe Namath in 1969. But he's no good at the blank technical jargon that passes for NFL conversation. "That coach-speak, that nonsense, he doesn't do that," defensive end Trevor Pryce says.

What Ryan is really good at is feeling - and getting others to feel, too. He excels at contagion. He has made adoring believers out of his players with a blunt, rampant emotionalism that he and his twin brother Rob, the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, inherited from their father, Buddy Ryan, one of the most indelibly bellicose NFL coaches of the 1980s.

"You might not always like what they have to say, but you won't misunderstand them," Buddy says of his sons. "I think his players like that honesty. Players are the first ones to know if you're a phony."

One moment Rex Ryan delivers comedy, the next rousing speeches, and the next, savage profanity. "A lot of F-bombs," defensive linemen Shaun Ellis said. "We've kind of gotten immune to that."

One reason he uses such blue language, he tells his players, is to toughen hides.

"Skin like an armadillo!" Ryan bays.

All of which has the Jets playing like the most jacked-up, nakedly emotional team in the playoffs. Emotion, and Ryan's genius for summoning it with speechifying and canny manipulation, has been a crucial factor in their AFC run. Take the stirring cry he delivered in mid-December, on the eve of a regular season meeting with the Steelers. With the Jets on a two-game losing streak and in danger of missing the playoffs, Ryan had a blunt confrontation with his team. "When things go bad, we don't run from it," Ellis says.

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