Rex Ryan is NFL's best leading actor

Published Jan. 17, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

The National Football League is down to its Final Four, which — with the two division championship games — is really superior to the Super Bowl. At least Sunday you will get two games and more than six hours of football, as opposed to one game and what seems like six hours of hype.

Still, focusing on the playoffs as a fan is different than looking at them from TV’s perspective. A fan might see X’s and O’s and matchups. Network producers and even print reporters see that too, but they also see “story lines,” which are crucial in padding out those endless hours of pregame hype.

So in a year when NFL ratings already have soared, the league, CBS and, possibly, Super Bowl host FOX can extend a collective “thank you” to the New York Jets, whose upset victory over New England not only launched the nation's No. 1 media market into the conference championship but gave the playoffs what is easily its best story line.

That’s because Jets coach Rex Ryan — who talked tough before his team upended New England — is a made-for-TV personality of the first order. Having already established his larger-than-life credentials with foul-mouthed monologues on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Ryan proceeded to walk the walk to accompany all that bluster.

In reality-TV terms (a genre that now dominates television), Ryan is a breakout character — think “The Apprentice’s” Omarosa, albeit on a pizza-and-carbs diet.

Despite the Patriots’ tremendous run of titles, surveying the remaining teams, the Jets’ win surely produced high-fives and hugs in TV executive suites.

In hindsight, 2010 gave the media the mother of all story lines: The long-hapless New Orleans Saints rising from the ashes after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Talk about close-up-ready, lump-in-the-throat moments.


By contrast, before the Jets’ last-game-of-the-weekend heroics, most of the playoffs’ best potential story lines had fallen by the wayside.

There was Michael Oher — the young offensive lineman whose heartwarming story inspired the hit movie “The Blind Side” — seeing his Baltimore Ravens bounced. On the flip side, Michael Vick wore the black hat as the guy who tortured dogs but also offered a streak of redemption, having rebounded from his prison term to deliver an MVP-caliber season in Philadelphia.

Most such discussions inevitably start with quarterbacks or coaches, and I suppose there’s something nifty about Aaron Rodgers stepping out of Brett Favre’s shadow at Green Bay.

By contrast, I can’t imagine the NFL yearning to dwell on Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended four games after facing allegations of sexual assault (prosecutors ultimately decided not to file charges), prompting the league to deem him in violation of its personal conduct policy.

Whatever one thinks of Roethlisberger as a player, he’s probably not the sort of role model you want to feature extensively in public-service announcements.

Chicago, meanwhile (the No. 3 TV market, incidentally, behind football-free Los Angeles), dispatched Cinderella, aka the losing-record Seattle Seahawks, who already had deprived the Saints a chance at an encore.

Imagine, though, what a giant media orgasm it’ll be if the Jets show up in Dallas for Super Bowl XLV. Forget Broadway Joe Namath guaranteeing victory in 1969. Ryan’s pearls of wisdom will keep reporters happily pounding keyboards and analysts in a state of manic bliss.

Ryan downplayed his contribution to Sunday’s upset, but in the postgame coverage, there hasn’t been a psychological plan of attack to match his “feud” with Patriots coach Bill Belichick since Gen. Patton in World War II.

Hard-core fans might pooh-pooh this idea of decorating sports in showbiz trappings, and they’re not wrong. In a perfect world, coverage wouldn’t obsess over which human-interest stories can be set to piano music.

But, remember, the Super Bowl attracts 100 million viewers, many of whom wouldn’t know Fantasy Football from “Fantasy Island.” A colorful personality like Ryan is a bridge to them. Because love him or hate him, he’s tough to ignore — like that naked guy in the first “Survivor.”

The NFL already has enjoyed a gravity-defying season ratings-wise, demonstrating TV’s massive reach as little else can. Having the Jets advance, though, is an extra bonus — one that could carry these last few games across the goal line in style.