This is a five part series documenting the evolution of Rex Ryan you can find 2009 here and 2010 here. Today’s installment focuses on 2011 the year where it all started to unravel. After the loss in the AFC Championship Game to the Steelers some had started to criticize Rex Ryan for putting extra pressure on his players by making his boasts and guarantees. Rex Ryan did not listen to those critics as he guaranteed that the Jets would win the Super Bowl in 2011 at the Scouting Combine.
“I guarantee we’ll win it this year, I feel we’re going to lock arms, we’re going to find a way to get it done,” he said. Ryan also said that he wanted to see if he “can will a championship.” (from NY Times February 24, 2011)
He would come to regret this guarantee and even said so before the 2012 season but that is for another day. Another problem that Rex Ryan had in his first two years that finally came back to bite him in year 3 was his lack of accountability with the players. Rex was always so positive and upbeat that if things didn’t go the Jets way he would blame himself and protect the player. That was beginning to wear on the players as they wanted to see their peers held accountable for poor play. Here is a quote after a 37-16 loss to the Patriots where Sanchez was intercepted twice including once to seal the game:
“You’re not going to beat many teams when you make the mistakes that we made,” Ryan said. “We’ve been down this road before. I apologize to our fans.”
He didn’t call out the linebackers who got abused in space or the quarterback for his turnovers. Non-specific criticism that lacked emotion was not what the team needed.
At the beginning of the season Ryan took the unprecedented step of naming his own captains instead of letting the team vote on them as is the norm. His choice of captains were interesting as well and foreshadowed events to come. Revis, Sanchez, Holmes, Eric Smith and Sione Pouha were the choices. Santonio Holmes criticized the offensive line publicly after a loss to the Ravens and then he did it again following a loss to the Patriots and this time Brandon Moore responded:
Friday, veteran right guard Brandon Moore took umbrage to Holmes’ latest criticism, telling reporters that the wide receiver’s comments were “disrespectful” and divisive and could serve to “fragment” the team. Moore was also miffed that Holmes, who initially called out the offensive line after the Jets’ loss to the Ravens two weeks ago, seemingly has carte blanche to criticize anybody just because he’s one of the team’s five captains. (From Daily News October 14, 2011)
Rex had the two shake hands then come out together as captains for the following game but the rift continued and would come back to haunt them in the season’s final game.
With all of the in-fighting and mistakes the Jets were still in control of their own destiny at 8-5 going into their final three games of the year. The team got destroyed in Philadelphia against an underperforming Eagles team then the game that broke their back was the Christmas Eve game against the Giants. After dominating the Giants defensively for the nearly the entire 1st half and having the Giants inside their own 5 Victor Cruz took an Eli Manning pass 99 yards and completely turned the game around. The Giants would go on to win 29-14 and virtually knock the Jets out of the playoffs. The final game against the Dolphins was the game in which the team’s lack of solidarity finally showed as Brandon Moore kicked Santonio Holmes out of the huddle for not giving his best effort and Holmes was benched for the Jets final drive. Ladainian Tomlinson spoke up about it after the game:
“Let me just say there were some guys in the huddle that were unhappy with Tone’’s demeanor,” Tomlinson said. “When you have a group of guys fighting their butts off and one guy, for whatever reason, their demeanors not with them, you’’re going to get some guys to say something to him and tell him how they feel. That’’s what you got today.”"It’’s tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is when teammates start to question your passion. In that huddle, that’’s what you saw. Guys looked at his eyes and he didn’t have fire in his eyes. Guys were turned off by that. … It was definitely boiling at that point. Guys had had enough.” (From ESPNNY.com on January 1, 2012)
Rex Ryan admitted that he lost the pulse of the team. He was more an administrator that would try to see everything but not be hands-on like he was in the past. Not being as close to the players turned out to be a huge mistake as team chemistry undid what could have been a promising season. At his end of the season press conference Ryan’s answer about how he could be unaware of Holmes’ benching started to bring the year’s failures into focus:
Maybe that’s a fact. I’ll say this: When you look at the specifics of what went on yesterday, we have a turnover, we are making calls on defense, making time‑outs, and all that. So it was a three‑play possession, and then a field goal, and then as the drive was going on, I’m like, where is Santonio? By then, I’m sure even if somebody had told me or was trying to get my attention on what took place or whatever, I might not even have heard it. My mind was somewhere else. My mind was we have to get a timeout so (we can) give our offense a chance to get on the field and do something. It wasn’t until later in the drive that I realized he wasn’t out there. And you know, I thought to be honest with you, that Santonio pulled himself and that’s why I wanted to gain all of the facts. I never commented directly after the game and I was very honest in what I told you then. After hearing the facts, and seeing what happened, what took place, I thought that Brian did the right thing. You can’t have that kind of situation happen. I certainly understand that you have got to correct it, and I think we did.
Later on he admitted the obvious that he had lost the pulse of the team:
Well, I just think that really taking a look at some of the things that happened, specifically in this game. I think and then really looking at it, having a chance, you know, albeit 20‑whatever hours away, really looking at it now; that maybe when I look at my performance, normally I’m a guy that really has the pulse of this team, and I’ve always felt that. I don’t think I had the pulse of our team the way I’ve done in the past. When I met with players as well today, I think that became clear to me.
An 8-8 finish and being out of the playoffs for the first time during his tenure hurt Rex Ryan. That is not a disaster for most teams but with the expectations at the start of the season, the drama during the season, and the collapse at the end of the season it felt a lot worse. Not having the pulse of the locker room hurt more. Rex was realizing he needed to back off on the guarantees and trash talk all the time as it was putting extra pressure on the players. How would he evolve in 2012? Would he go too far in dialing back his personality and be too deferential to his opponents and players that he would lose who he was? How would he attempt to solve the chemistry issues? Can he stop the slide or did the Jets have a way to fall until they hit rock-bottom?