Swagger returns for Jets' Ryan

March 19, 2013

“I am not afraid.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life.”

Almost every time I stopped by Jets coach Rex Ryan’s small group at the AFC coaches breakfast at the league meetings, which was frequently, he was uttering some version of this trope. They were in response to questions about his perceived problems, which in no particular order, are:

He has to win, or he’s fired. He has little chance of winning because of who is playing for the Jets next season. So Rex is basically fired.

To which he said: “I’m not worried about that. I think people should be worried about us a lot more than they are.”

It is nothing out of the ordinary for Ryan, this bombastic posturing and unrequited confidence and lack of fear. What is new is, for the first time maybe since he arrived in New York, his largesse has a chance of helping his team instead of hurting it.

The previous declarations of Super Bowls fueled a circus-like dysfunction that finally crashed and burned in a huge pile of mediocrity last season. The Jets won six games. They were shockingly dormant. Their calling card was their unnecessary drama — Tebow drama, unnamed locker room drama, drama about the drama. The casualties were the general manager, Mark Sanchez’s unchallenged starting quarterback status and Rex’s security.

He looked and sounded very much the part of the broken coach as 2012 wrapped up. “I was humbled,” Rex admitted, although it was fleeting. There were zero remnants of humbled Rex as he talked Tuesday, and this is how it needs to be. In the absence of tangible things to believe in going into this season, they need the galvanizing influence of a coach who still very much believes in his team.

Even if he is faking it until they make it.

There is something admirable about guys like Rex, guys who get off the mat with their optimism intact, guys who do not dial down expectations in the face of failure but rather double down, guys who do not become cynical or guarded or safe. Cynicism is the easy route after disappointment, especially when the person you are most disappointed in is yourself. It lets you off the hook for getting your expectations back up and in danger of possibly being disappointed again. It is what prompts some coaches to downplay, this idea that if you undersell and overperform, you are safe. And perhaps, this would have been the better course to say the Jets were not worth a damn and let them fight to prove him wrong. He agrees with this, at least on some level, because he listed the Super Bowl guarantee on a very short list of regrets.

The thing is this is who Rex is and who the Jets need now more than ever. The exodus of talent has been steady, most notably with safety LaRon Landry to Indy. It requires a healthy dose of optimism to spot a safety on their current roster. Then there is the Darrelle Revis saga, the cornerback Rex insisted they are not actively shopping. This translates loosely to “interest in trading for him is declining.” So what was once their best player may not be back and their once franchise quarterback, the Sanchize, Mark Sanchez will find himself battling David Garrard for the job when such battles begin.

It is not a good thing when there is any thought a 30-something quarterback who has not been actively playing in the NFL since 2010 feels like a better option. And, no, Tim Tebow is not in the conversation. That was made clear by Rex’s use of currently when describing his place on the roster.

It is a hard sell convincing anybody the Jets are contenders right now, which is why Rex doing exactly that is perfect. There is a freshness in his hubris, in his calling Baltimore the favorite but saying everybody else has a chance in the AFC, in his saying he is not afraid.

Say it even if you are.

Say it even if your voice shakes.

Say it even if people laugh.

It is the Jets’ best chance, that they buy in and believe. It is Rex’s only one.