Think of the National Football League and what comes to mind? Most likely its charismatic, extrovert performers, as adept at trash-talking as executing game-winning plays, often as famous for their colourful personal habits as for what they do on the field.
Rex Ryan of the New York Jets fits that template – larger than life, mouthy, with an exotic sex life, yet a proven winner. The difference is that Ryan is not a linebacker or tight end, but the Jets' head coach, and if he can mastermind a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in tonight's AFC Championship game, he will lead the "Gang Green" to their first Super Bowl since 1969.
Where most head coaches prefer to stay low-key and preach solid virtues of modesty and hard work, last summer Ryan became the star turn in HBO's Hard Knocks, a fly-on-the-wall TV series that focused on the Jets' pre-season. Instead of clichés and platitudes about taking one game at a time, there were X-rated tirades and a promise that the team would win a Super Bowl – not to mention what has become a YouTube staple, an epic oration including a "demand that we have fun", surreally signed off with: "Let's go eat a goddam snack."
Ryan, 48, who looks as if he rarely passes up a snack, welcomed the cameras, feeling that the programme would be a recruiting video for the type of players he wanted to attract. The Jets value characters as well as character – the antithesis of the corporate, family values-oriented organisations that, one suspects, the NFL would like all its teams to be.
The league's top brass probably did not care for Ryan's profanity-laden team talks – last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggested "respect among people who play and coach the game" will be addressed during the off-season.
And they must have cringed at a video on a foot-fetish website that appeared to feature Ryan's wife Michelle, with a voiceover that may have been supplied by Ryan himself. But Woody Johnson, the Jets owner, is relaxed about any controversy and everything else about the man whom he hired in 2009, even after he turned up 45 minutes late for his interview. "That's who Rex is," Johnson said. "He is outspoken. I encourage him: 'Don't change.' We like who he is, and we like what we've got as a team."
It helps that Ryan has led the Jets out of the shadow cast by their historically more successful city rivals, the Giants – and arguably made them better representatives of their brash home town, where everyone has an opinion. And in stating his belief that the team will lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Ryan is only following the lead of "Broadway" Joe Namath, the legendary Jets quarterback who guaranteed victory before the 1969 Super Bowl against the heavily favoured Baltimore Colts – and delivered.
Last Sunday's 28-21 victory over the New England Patriots said everything about Ryan and the Jets. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the past decade, their success based on discipline, planning and team ethic. Plenty of other teams have tried to copy the blueprint, and aped the businesslike, if soulless, approach of their close-mouthed coach, Bill Belichick.
Ryan tore up that business plan. In the build-up, he and the team mouthed off as usual, but his defensive scheme ensured that the badly riled Patriots were unable to ram the words back down their throats.
Ryan is an able coach. The son of Buddy Ryan, the former Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals coach, he has already won a Super Bowl ring, as defensive line coach with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. In his two seasons as a head coach, he has a 4-1 play-off record. And he has delivered road wins against the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots in successive weeks.
His ability to motivate is beyond question. "It's his confidence in his players," Trevor Pryce, the defensive lineman, said. "He talks some stuff but it's like we're selling a heavyweight fight. If he believes in you, you find a way to rise to the occasion."
Today's occasion, away to the Steelers, who have won two of the past five Super Bowls, will be tough. Should the Jets win, either the Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers, who meet in the NFC Championship game, stand between Ryan and the destiny that he foresees for his team.
"We talk because we believe in ourselves," Ryan added. "I just know what's going to happen. In my crystal ball, I'm seeing a Super Bowl trophy in there. Now I could be wrong, but that's what I see.
"Every time I go to work, that's what I look at. I'm not embarrassed to say that I believe that will happen. The great thing is we get to prove it soon. That's the beauty of it."Reuse content