Sports Nut

Rex Ryan, the Rare NFL Coach Who Understands Football Is a Game

Rex Ryan

Before I get to my favorite football program—well, maybe second favorite after Football Follies; nothing like a pennywhistle to turn a botched snap into high comedy—I’d like to risk an unnecessary roughness penalty and pile on to Roger Goodell. The “pay for performance” hooey the commissioner cited as a virtue of non-guaranteed contracts was bad enough. But what got me steroids mad was Goodell’s justification—that not guaranteeing the entirety of a player’s contract, or even a season’s pay, is “good for competition, which is what we’re all about.” This is an old canard in football: Players try harder because they have to “earn their paycheck,” as Goodell said. When I was in Denver, Mike Shanahan told me that the absence of guaranteed contracts was “the great thing about football” because it gives coaches all the leverage. But most players play because they love to play; the job is the leverage, the money the reward. As for the guaranteed signing bonuses the commish cites when he defends the NFL system? Star players—like Darrelle Revis of the Jets, who just leveraged his talent to ensure receipt of 70 percent of his four-year, $46 million contract —soak up the bulk of those guarantees. Members of the NFL’s vast rank-and-file, whose bodies break no differently than those of Pro Bowlers, aren’t cashing seven-figure bonus checks, are they Nate?

Thoughtful fans well understand, as you note, Josh, that injuries influence success in the NFL. When I talked to Shanahan after he was fired in Denver, he pointed out, somewhat bitterly, that Broncos starters missed a total of 82 games combined in 2007 and 85 games in 2008, while reserves missed 79 and 116 in those years. When the team won the Super Bowl after the 1998 season, his starters missed just 15 games and his reserves 19. Football Outsiders has a stat for that, too, which factors in not just missed games but, using league injury lists, players performing at diminished capacity. It’s undoubtedly causal; according to FO’s calculations, six of the top nine most-injured teams in 2009 had a combined record of 23-73. But injuries do not make losing a certainty; the No. 2 and No. 4 teams on the most-injured list played in the Super Bowl. In the NFL, depth helps. A lot.

Which brings me to Hard Knocks. As I wrote in Slatein 2008 about the HBO/NFL Films production, you have to read between the sound bites to glean the reality of life in the NFL. This year’s show focused on the pregame-on-field-cheeseburger-eating Jets and their potty-mouthed, happy-go-lucky, anything-eating head coach Rex Ryan, who wears a NY STRENGTH T-shirt adorned with barbells that sag precisely at the level of his man-breasts. The beauty of Ryan is that he is the rare NFL coach who understands that football is a game, not some stand-in for war. He engages with players like a human, not a humanoid. He is boyish, enthusiastic, and funny. Even when Ryan reams out his charges—”Let’s make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets, and not some fucking slapdick team!” he screams—there’s a coda that gives you, and the players, I’m sure, a good long laugh—”Let’s go and eat a goddamn snack!” (During a live blog of last night’s Hard Knocks finale on the satirical NFL site Kissing Suzy Kolber, one writer suggested the Jets put “Goddamn Snacks” above their stadium concession stands.)

For all the comedy, intentional or not, a careful study of Hard Knocks brings you closer to understanding the culture of football than a regression analysis of passing efficiency ever will. It was all there in the Jets series. The overinvolved billionaire owner analyzing talent and talking tough. (“We’re New York. You can’t hustle us,” Woody Johnson says during the stalled Revis contract negotiations.) The coaches’ disdain for players, especially injured ones. (“That fucking bicycle group. They stink,” special teams coach Mike Westhoff seethes about a group of players relegated to sideline LifeCycles.) The angry-young-man backup who knows he’s getting screwed. (The candor of soon-to-be-cut third-string fullback Jason Davis probably didn’t help his NFL job prospects. He later defended himself on Twitter.) The duplicitous coaches who rip a player privately (“As many minuses as you can put in Reamer’s box, put ‘em in there,” Westhoff says of rookie linebacker Cory Reamer) and then praise him to his face (“You should be really proud of what you’ve accomplished,” general manager Mike Tannenbaum tells him while cutting him.) And what might be the greatest mystery in football: Why do coaches and front-office staff selectively adopt good-ol’-boy accents?

As a Fran Tarkenton-era fan of the New York Football Giants, I have no emotional stake in the Jets. But if I did, I’d have no more insight about the team’s prospects after watching Hard Knocks than I did before. I heard Rex Ryan repeatedly exhort his men to “play like a Jet,” but how exactly is that different from playing like a Saint or a Brown or a Titan? I saw his second-year quarterback fidget like a second-grader when his position coach tried to have a reasonable and serious conversation about leadership. Does that mean Mark Sanchez is just goofy or that he lacks the requisite maturity to master the complexity of the NFL? Finally, I saw the prodigal cornerback, Darrelle Revis, utter the biggest lie of the show: “I can’t wait. I can’t wait to practice.” Yeah? Then why didn’t you and your agents and the Jets’ management do something about it two months ago?

In the NFL, the certainty of reporters and pundits about the state of a player or team is contrasted by the inchoate nature of the day-to-day drills and meetings and video evaluations. Sure, having players like Revis or Brees or Manning increases the likelihood of success. Whether the Jets win or lose depends less on an f-bomb-filled speech from Rex Ryan than a severed ligament or a failed Ambush. But narratives, real or imagined, are what keep customers wanting more, and the NFL, as Hard Knocks shows, does narrative extremely well.

And that’s my transition for you, Nate. Tell us the difference between how jersey-wearing, number-crunching fans evaluate players and teams and how NFL players and coaches perform those evaluations. I’ve always believed that of every NFL constituency, the players are the most rational of all. Agreed?

Off to get a goddamn snack,