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On Tuesday, two players from New York’s stately football team, the Giants, went on a radio station to talk about their season. Antrel Rolle, a Pro Bowl safety, said he thought his team was better than the Jets despite the fact the Giants missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
So why is it the Giants are three weeks into their off-season and the Jets are one win away from reaching their first Super Bowl in 42 years?
This story first appeared in the January 20, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Rolle first pointed to chemistry — and then admitted to the real reason: the Jets’ coach, Rex Ryan.
“They would die for him,” said Rolle.
“I would love to play for a guy like Rex,” added Kenny Phillips, the other Giants safety on the show. “He goes to bat for his players. He’ll take the blame, he allows you to be you. He’s not asking you to hide. If you’re a guy who likes to talk, go out and talk, as long as you back it up. His guys are playing for him, and I’d love to be a part of that.”
And with that, the New York sports world turned upside down. The Giants…want to play for the Jets? Rolle and Phillips had to spend a day apologizing and provide half-hearted support for Tom Coughlin, the gruff, fuddy-duddy coach of the Giants who has about as much charisma as Michael Bloomberg during a blizzard, but the die was cast. Rex Ryan now stands on top of a New York sports world that still includes the Yankees and the rejuvenated Knicks.
If the Jets wind up winning the Super Bowl, Ryan will take over New York in a way that matches — and maybe exceeds — every other coaching legend in more than a century’s worth of sports. He’s Bill Parcells without the toxicity; he’s Gil Hodges without manners. Casey Stengel may have been more of a poet, but Ryan’s press conferences entertain and captivate the New York press corps like no one has since the former Yankees and Mets legend.
Every move is studied and speculated about: Why would he describe the Patriots game as a personal grudge match between him and Bill Belichick? He’s doing it to motivate his players! He’s doing it to play head games! Or maybe he’s doing it to protect his players? Yes, yes, to protect them!
He has his amanuenses in a tizzy and, like Yogi Berra or Phil Rizzuto, either he won’t let on or his genius even eludes himself.
“I’m just an average person that speaks from the heart,” he has said.
Yet his daily theatrics obscure his brilliance as an Xs and Os guy, and, even more, his ability to destroy a culture of futility.
While other teams have managed to do this in the recent past — the 2004 Red Sox and the 2010 San Francisco Giants come to mind — those teams are remembered for players (Big Papi! Those misshapen Giants!) and not for their respective middle-aged leaders on the sidelines. And unlike Joe Torre (who had Derek Jeter) or Hodges (who had Tom Seaver) or Weeb Ewbank (who had Joe Namath) or Parcells (who had Lawrence Taylor), Ryan doesn’t have a larger-than-life superstar. He has a perfectly competent team with a strong defense and an improving sophomore quarterback in Mark Sanchez. Namath long ago overshadowed his coach, but if the Jets beat the Steelers on Sunday and then win in Dallas, this team will be remembered as Rex’s Team. If the Jets beat the Steelers, they will have toppled the only teams that have won a Super Bowl from the AFC since 2002 — the Patriots, the Steelers and the Colts.
“That’s New York Jets football!” bellows Ryan from the sidelines and in pressers when he’s heaping praise on his team.
New York Jets…football? What in the world is that? Now, inexplicably, it represents something good!
If Ryan manages to topple the Jets’ second-class culture for good, it’s no small accomplishment. See, the Mets, in the late Nineties, appeared ready to take the city back after being bullied and made obscure by the Yankees. Whether it was real or perceived, the Mets seemed intimidated by their nemesis.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the duel between Mike Piazza and Roger Clemens. As the Mets were in mid-swing in a pennant-winning year, Mike Piazza had a career .583 — .583! — batting average against Clemens, the Yankees’ ace. Then Clemens, no doubt influenced by any number of performance-enhancing drugs, threw a fastball directly into Piazza’s head. It landed the Mets catcher in the hospital. The next time they faced, which happened in the 2000 World Series, Clemens took a shattered bat and flung it at Piazza. After that? Piazza’s career average against Clemens plummeted to .090. The bully won and the Mets lost.
After beating the Colts, Ryan wouldn’t go as far as to guarantee — Namath-style — that the Jets would beat their perpetual rival Patriots, but there’s one thing he kept repeating.
“One thing I can tell you right now, we have plenty of respect for them up there, but we don’t fear them,” said Ryan. “I can promise you that. We do not fear them.”
The Jets won the game, his linebacker Bart Scott vowed he would die for Rex Ryan, and New York is thisclose to having a legend.