Skip to main content

America's most controversial coach

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
Jets coach Rex Ryan says Sunday's playoff game is a personal battle between him and Pats coach Bill Belichick.
Jets coach Rex Ryan says Sunday's playoff game is a personal battle between him and Pats coach Bill Belichick.
  • New York Jets coach Rex Ryan makes headlines with brash statements
  • Politi: Ryan "has brazenly talked about winning a Super Bowl from the moment he took the job"
  • Ryan has already won more playoff games than any other Jets coach

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, who has followed the Jets this season.

(CNN) -- The biggest upset of the NFL playoffs took place this week when Rex Ryan, the most controversial head coach in professional sports, stepped behind a podium and said, well, nothing.

"I don't have a whole lot to say, so let's open it up for questions," said Ryan, the man whose words have been the talk of professional football since he became the head coach of the New York Jets.

Ryan has brazenly talked about winning a Super Bowl from the moment he took the job two years ago. He called his playoff matchup against future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts "personal," then made the same statement this week about facing New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on Sunday.

He has come under fire for making an obscene gesture at a mixed martial arts event and his R-rated language during the HBO series "Hard Knocks" this summer. Each week this fall, whether it be the foot-fetish videos that apparently involve him and his wife or his constant barrage of brash talk, Ryan has been the most talked about figure in New York sports.

It is unclear how the videos, which were posted on the sports website Deadspin, ended up on the internet, but they were a rare example of something Ryan would not talk about. He repeatedly called the issue "a personal matter," but it still landed him on the front pages of the tabloids.

Depending on who you ask, he is the best thing to happen to the NFL in years: a refreshingly honest force of nature who has proven that a coach doesn't have to be a cliché-spewing robot to be successful.

Or, he is an egotistical blowhard who has put unnecessary pressure on his team with his boastful statements, especially since the Jets must beat the hottest team in football, the 14-2 Patriots, on the road Sunday to advance in the playoffs.

There is no middle ground with Ryan. Is he good for football? That is open to debate. But, no matter what you think of the 47-year-old head coach, this much is certain: Everyone is talking about him.

"The mistake any coach makes is trying to be someone he's not," said Jim Fassel, who took the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000 and worked with Ryan when Ryan was a defensive coach with the Baltimore Ravens. "Rex is always going to be Rex. That's him. You can either like it or not like it, but I like it when a coach is being himself. You won't get Bill Belichick to do that."

Belichick, the three-time Super Bowl winner in New England, is the perfect contrast. He was asked in the days leading up to this second-round playoff game his opinion about the bravado coming out of his opponent, and his response was typically subdued.

"Our job, really, is just to get ready for the game," Belichick said, "so that's what we're going to go do."

Ryan has the same job, of course, and he's doing something right. In just two seasons, he already has more playoff victories, with three, than any Jets coach to come before him. He is regarded as one of the brightest defensive minds in the game, a whiz for coming up with the perfect blitz packages to rattle the opposing quarterbacks.

Not that anybody spends much time talking about that.

"He's a sideshow to everyone outside of New York," Evan Roberts, a host of the sports-radio station WFAN, told his audience during a spirited debate about the pros and cons of Ryan's constant chatter. "They laugh at him."

They may laugh at him, but they certainly pay attention to him. Much like his father, Buddy, he has made most of his news with his outsized personality. Buddy Ryan was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, the mastermind of maybe the greatest defense in NFL history.

The Bears won the Super Bowl after the 1985 season, and Buddy Ryan went on to become a head coach in Philadelphia and Arizona. But the elder Ryan was a failure as a head coach most known for controversy. He once said a player he cut was "worth about two beers and they don't have to be cold ones." He is the coach who threw a punch at Kevin Gilbride, then the offensive coordinator on his own team.

"I'm not smart enough to lie," the now retired elder Ryan said last season when asked about his penchant for creating controversy. "If you're honest, you have nothing to worry about. If you lie, you have to watch what you say."

Rex Ryan saw that devil-may-care attitude up close. He started his slow climb up the coaching ladder in 1987, making $200 a week as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky University, before becoming part of the Baltimore Ravens staff that won the Super Bowl in 2000.

"When I was a defensive coordinator I would say the same things, but instead of having this many reporters," he said to a room with about 100 of them, "there may have been one or two. That's about it. Now, it's just a bigger stage, but I was still the same person then as I am now."

That person has continued to violate virtually every unspoken rule about coaching a football team. Coaches are never supposed to provide bulletin-board material for their opponents. Ryan does it weekly. Coaches are supposed to guard information like state secrets. Ryan is like a human WikiLeaks when it comes to injury reports, offering up more than the league requires.

Owner Woody Johnson knew a big personality came with his new coach, but even he had no idea just how big.

"When I saw that first press conference, it took my breath away a little bit," Johnson said. "I was so happy he had the confidence to state what his objective is. It's easier to lead people to someplace that you can talk about."

The Jets have followed their leader. This week, the biggest story was not how their young quarterback Mark Sanchez would do against the New England defense, but how one of their cornerbacks, Antonio Cromartie, announced that he "hated" Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (using a few unprintable words in the process).

The response from Ryan? No apology.

"You shouldn't like who you are up against right now," he said. "This is the playoffs. I can tell you our whole football team respects Brady and the Patriots. There's no question, but hey, we don't like any of them right now. You shouldn't. I think that's just part of it and trust me, the feeling is mutual."

Ryan's team has supplanted the old-school Giants as the dominant team in the New York market, maybe for the first time in its history. His team has stolen the pages of the New York tabloids for months, and as long as the Jets keep winning, that doesn't figure to change any time soon.

The NFL is a copycat league. The Patriots' success has spawned an army of Belichick clones, with only modest success. Could Rex Ryan lead a similar revolution of brash-talking coaches around the league? Even one of his longtime players isn't sure about that.

"I don't know if the NFL is ready for an onslaught of Rex Ryans," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said with a laugh. Right now, one Ryan is stirring up enough controversy all on his own.