Standing at the podium discussing his team's 38-34 loss to the Bears in Week 16, Jets head coach Rex Ryan spoke with a grimace on his face and the tone of disappointment in his words. New York had just lost a game that would have clinched a postseason appearance and now was facing a must-win situation entering the final week of the season in order to continue playing.
Then, as Ryan labored to get through an answer on how Chicago QB Jay Cutler torched his team in the second half for 117 yards and three touchdown passes, a loud cheer erupted from the Jets' locker room. Ryan paused, looked around, then smiled, an expression that was as much relief as it was joy.
"By the way, I think we're in the playoffs," Ryan exclaimed, aware that the Jaguars' overtime loss to the Redskins clinched a wild-card berth for the Jets. "I'll be honest. I much rather would have won it ourselves, but I'll take it."
It wasn't the way the coach drew it up, but to the Jets, the unconventional way has become the norm. Led by Ryan, the team has backed its way into the playoffs for the second year in a row. And like they did a season ago, when they made the AFC title game, this year's squad is capable of causing havoc despite its less-than-splendid end to the regular season.
"I am excited to get in the playoffs. That's what you do, in the regular season, you try whatever you can to get in there," Ryan said. "Obviously, you want a higher seed and all of that stuff. But we're in the tournament now. I would have signed up for it in the beginning of the year because we're in the tournament and a lot of teams can't say that."
Entering the postseason with a 1-3 record in December was the least of the Jets' worries this season. Seemingly every week a new storm has blown through Jets headquarters, with Ryan in the eye of several of them. Darrelle Revis' holdout and Ryan's liberal use of profanity were the main topics of conversation in training camp, which was documented on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Inappropriate behavior by some players toward a female reporter caused a major uproar during the season's first two weeks. Strength coach Sal Alosi's foolish trip of a Dolphins player in Week 14 led to an investigation of whether or not Ryan asked his assistant to interfere with the play. And a series of online videos that recently went viral, featuring the coach's wife, has swept the media off its collective feet.
But Jets players say the off-field mess hasn't affected them at all, in their perception of their team or head coach.
"The distractions, we don't worry about them," CB Antonio Cromartie said. "We have to make sure we take care of things inside the building and make sure everyone knows we have one focus. That one focus was getting into the playoffs, and once we get in there, it's going to Dallas."
Added WR Jerricho Cotchery: "First of all, we love playing for Rex. We have each others' back in this locker room, from the players to the coaching staff. Rex has led us in a great way this year. We had a lot of things going on, but we've been focused the entire year and we always have his back."
LB Calvin Pace said that a major turning point in the season took place prior to Week 15, when the Jets faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Following a 45-3 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots on "Monday Night Football" and an embarrassing 10-6 home loss to the Dolphins, New York had the feeling of a team that was set to collapse under the weight of its own expectations. But a heartfelt speech by their head coach reminded the players of how much he wanted them to succeed and what needed to happen for that to take place.
"You've got a guy standing in front of you pouring his heart out and seeing the disappointment that he has in us is because he believes so much in us. He sticks his neck out on the line. He says a lot of things that ruffles people's feathers, but he says it and he truly believes in us," Pace said regarding the talk Ryan gave the night before the Jets' 22-17 win against the Steelers.
"He was basically just saying that what we had done up to this point, which was nine wins, just wasn't good enough. So we went out there and won the game, obviously for the franchise and what we're trying to do, but for him."
FB Tony Richardson agreed. The 16-year veteran, who has played for six head coaches in his professional career, said that the relationship the current Jets have with Ryan is unlike anything he has seen.
"Sometimes your dad believes in you more than the kid does," Richardson said. "And I think that's really what Rex's message was: 'You know what, guys? I've been saying all along that we have a good football team, but when are we going to realize it? When are you guys going to play like I know you're capable of?'
"We feel like when we don't play well, we let Rex down."
Back in the preseason, Ryan told his team, the HBO cameras and anyone else within shouting distance that the Jets were a Super Bowl-bound team. He had a physical defense, a strong running game, speed all across the field and a young quarterback ready to emerge as a star. They also had Ryan, widely regarded as one of the NFL's top defensive minds.
Now five months later, with a postseason trip officially clinched, the Jets try to make good on their coach's declaration. Following Ryan's lead, the Jets look to take the next step after coming close a year ago. The 2010 season hasn't necessarily gone according to the plan that Ryan drew up back in August, but the head coach would have it no other way.
This feature was originally published in the current print edition of Pro Football Weekly, dated Jan. 2, 2011, which also includes a feature story on Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Steelers OLB James Harrison, as well as previews of all Week 17 games, columnists and insights into the upcoming NFL draft, handicapping and fantasy football. The Pro Football Weekly print edition is on sale at retail outlets across the country and at PFWstore.com, where you can purchase either the print or electronic (PDF) version of this issue.