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Ryan grates on some, but Jets swear by him

Jets coach Rex Ryan takes the wins and losses very seriously, but his players insist that he makes the game fun, too. Jets coach Rex Ryan takes the wins and losses very seriously, but his players insist that he makes the game fun, too. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — There he was on the front page of the New York Post, headphones on, orifice open.

“What now, big mouth?’’ the headline asked coach Rex Ryan two days after the New York Jets had lost their opener to his former employers from Baltimore.

What now is, Gang Green brushes off the welcome mat for some visitors from New England. Ryan told his players how disappointed he was, and then he quickly turned the page. One L doesn’t sabotage a season.

“We joke around about it,’’ quarterback Mark Sanchez said, “but there’s nothing wrong with going 15-1.’’

The Jets didn’t declare flat-out that they were going to beat their star-spangled arch rivals in this afternoon’s marquee matchup at New Meadowlands Stadium, but it’s implied. Of course they expect to beat the Patriots. Of course they expect to win the Super Bowl, even though they haven’t done it since Joe Namath wore pantyhose. Otherwise, why even bother to pull on helmets?

“If you want to win, you ought to be man enough to stand up there and say we expect to win,’’ Ryan responded after being accused of irrational exuberance before the season. “I’ve got news for you, we expect to win this week, next week, every week. Now, does it happen? No, it doesn’t happen all the time, but we expect to win. That’s how we approach every game.’’

That’s Ryan’s permanent philosophy, and his players have bought in fully.

“We all feel the same way he does,’’ said Sanchez. “That confidence he has, it’s true. He’s not blowing smoke. He’s not talking for his health. That’s really how he believes and feels, and we believe the same thing.

“We’re thrilled that he has enough confidence in us to talk like that. It’s great.’’

Ryan may be viewed as a supersized blowhard in other NFL precincts, but he is beloved in his locker room after just one season plus one game.

“Rex is going to be who he is and the players appreciate that,’’ says tackle Damien Woody, who performed for five seasons in Foxborough before he came to the Jets two years ago via Detroit. “Rex will be candid. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. That’s why we appreciate him and love him so much.

“You won’t see Rex try to imitate Bill [Belichick] or any other coach. He’s going to be who he is.’’

Forging a personality
What the Jets appreciated most about Ryan last year was that he wasn’t Eric Mangini, the drill sergeant who turned Florham Park into Parris Island before he was fired. When Ryan turned up here for his first head job after serving as the Ravens defensive coordinator, he found a team that was still in shock from losing four of its final five games and missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.

So Ryan had to pump up and back up his players, getting them to believe they could beat anybody in the league. It may not have been a coincidence that last year’s Jets were the only NFL team in history to endure two three-game losing streaks and still make it to the postseason, reaching the AFC Championship game before the Colts put a stop to things.

What the Jets have now, love it or loathe it, is a personality. They have a wheel-and-deal general manager in Mike Tannenbaum, who wasn’t afraid to trade three veterans and two draft choices for a kid quarterback out of Southern Cal or to bring in running back LaDainian Tomlinson, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, receiver Santonio Holmes, and linebacker Jason Taylor during the offseason.

They also have a visible and voluble coach who happily lets HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ cameras see all and hear all at his training camp and flies to Florida with his owner to pitch cornerback Darrelle Revis on a new contract.

“We don’t do things exactly by the books of other teams, but we do it our way,’’ said Ryan. “It’s the New York Jets Way.’’

On the field, that means sophisticated smashmouth.

“Last year, we did establish an identity,’’ Ryan said. “That was a team that was physical, a team that would play great defense, and a team that can run the football.’’

Establishing an identity is important for a franchise that has been The Other Team in town since it was born as the Titans in 1960. The Patriots have six states all to themselves. The Jets share not just a city but a building with the Giants, who historically took not only Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island but New Jersey and southern Connecticut.

While the Giants were performing in regal Yankee Stadium, the Titans were knocking about in the ramshackle Polo Grounds. It took the Jets nine years to make the playoffs and when they overturned the Colts to win Super Bowl III, it was considered the biggest shocker in pro football history.

Now it’s the Jets who have taken center stage, with five of their games scheduled for evening display. “There’s a reason we’re on prime time,’’ Ryan observed. Only three seasons after their blue-clad neighbors won the Super Bowl, the Jets have become appointment viewing.

Different styles
Belichick, who said he caught snippets of “Hard Knocks’’ amid his film studies, found the show “interesting and entertaining,’’ as he does most NFL Films offerings. But it’s more likely that the Patriots coach will hang a framed portrait of Peyton Manning in his office than let HBO roam around the premises.

Not that Belichick isn’t impressed with what Ryan has achieved in the Jersey exurbs.

“Rex has done a terrific job,’’ he said last week. “I think our styles are a little different, but I don’t think that really matters.’’

The two men have even been known to hobnob out of season.

“We’ve hung out a little bit,’’ Belichick says. “Not too much, but a little bit.’’

But they’re never going to be stylistic soulmates.

“He is who he is and that’s worked for him, obviously,’’ said Ryan, whose twin brother Rob won two Super Bowl rings as Belichick’s linebackers coach. “I know the only way things are going to work for me is if I’m myself. I can’t go out and try to clone myself into Bill Belichick.’’

More than a little body-morphing would be necessary for that to happen, although Ryan has downsized noticeably since earlier in the year when he tipped the scales at 345 pounds thanks to lap-band surgery that has trimmed him down to 285. But he hasn’t downsized his personality, which is passionate, profane, and point-blank.

“I never experienced it before, but you catch on after about a week,’’ said Sanchez, who played for Pete Carroll at USC. “Once you hear, ‘Hey, did you hear Coach say this?’ you’re like, whoa, OK, that works for me. I’m all good with it.’’

When players come to the Jets from other teams, they’re not surprised to discover that Ryan is the same man they’ve glimpsed from the opposite sideline.

“Because he’s so open about who he is and doesn’t try to deviate from that for anybody,’’ said Taylor, who signed as a free agent this year after a dozen seasons in Miami. “Pretty much what you see, even as an opponent, you see the same thing being on his team now.’’

When the Jets talk about Ryan, they’ll frequently use the F-word.

“It’s been fun,’’ said Tomlinson, who spent nine seasons in San Diego before shipping East. “He has a way of motivating his players and getting them prepared to play, but at the same time having fun. It’s been a joy to be around him.’’

Man in the middle
Like his father Buddy, who coached the Eagles and Cardinals, Ryan is a throwback to the sport’s sandlot days, before NFL teams became corporate entities. He gives his coordinators, two of whom he inherited, wide latitude with their game preparations.

“He wants to know what the plan is and he’ll have some things that he’d like to see,’’ said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, whom Ryan kept on when he arrived. “Usually with Rex it’s ground-and-pound and Brad Smith this and Brad Smith that.

“Throughout the course of the week, there are certain things where he’ll come to me and say, ‘Hey, I really don’t feel comfortable with that, I don’t really like that.’ But that’s uncommon. For the most part it’s, ‘Hey, be yourself.’ ’’

On Fridays, Ryan, Schottenheimer, and Sanchez sit down over pizza and discuss plays for Sunday.

“We play love it-like it-hate it,’’ Ryan said.

Since defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was his outside linebackers coach in Baltimore, they’re essentially on the same page.

“We come up with the plan, then I’ll get with Rex and we’ll tweak it some,’’ said Pettine. “Might add some things, might take some things out, set up a call sheet together.

“We have a pretty good system. It’s something that we feel, hey, if it’s not broken . . . ’’

Ryan’s faith in his assistants gives him the luxury to “sit back and move around,’’ taking his team’s pulse and gauging its emotional state. But on game day Ryan is front and center, the man in the middle of the maelstrom.

“He’s very fiery, very energetic on the sideline,’’ testified Taylor.

For a man who unabashedly expects to win, defeat comes hard.

“You never want to lose, even more so with Rex,’’ said tight end Dustin Keller, whose 9-yard gain on fourth and 10 ended the Jets’ last chance against the Ravens and had his coach invoking “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.’’ “If there’s anything that he hates in the world, it’s losing.’’

Losing to the Ravens by a point in the Jets’ first game in their lavish new playpen was particularly irksome.

“Our fans were into it beyond belief,’’ Ryan said. “That was the most disappointing thing to me. You can overcome a loss, but that was just a special night and it never turned out that way.’’

There was no solace that New York, despite having one of the most inept offensive nights in franchise history, still lost only 10-9 to the same team that had humbled the Patriots in the playoffs.

“We know we’re going to get criticized if we don’t produce,’’ Ryan acknowledged. “It’s as simple as that. I’d rather it be this way where people expect you to win every week than, ‘Well, hey, they played hard.’ ’’

The Jets were one game from the Super Bowl last season, which is why they’re a prime time attraction. But if they don’t play well into January again, they and their coach will be dismissed as a made-for-TV sideshow, and they understand that. The difference between Demosthenes and a big mouth is a championship ring.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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