FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Rex Ryan promised a different attitude around the New York Jets the day he became head coach.
Sure enough, he delivered.
Ryan has his team in the playoffs in his first season, with a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez, a dominant running game and the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
“Our goals were not to make the playoffs,” Ryan said Monday. “You guys know what our goals are as an organization, and we’re just one step closer.”
After pulling off a must-win, 37-0 victory over Cincinnati to get into the postseason Sunday, New York is looking for much more, starting Saturday in a first-round rematch with the Bengals.
“We’re trying to win the thing,” Ryan said. “That’s our goal. To get to this point and not have that as your ultimate goal, then I don’t think you’re going to be successful. I think you have to visualize yourself being successful and then try to go out and make it happen.”
Ryan made that clear when he walked into his introductory news conference almost a year ago and declared that the Jets would meet the president someday as champions. The franchise hadn’t seen that sort of boldness in a coach since perhaps Bill Parcells.
“Rex is one of a kind,” linebacker Calvin Pace said. “It’s been a blast playing for him.”
And, Ryan is doing his best to Rexorcise the “Same Old Jets” demons of the franchise’s mostly disappointing past, one in which they’ve had trouble winning when it has mattered most. He has been a big, brash breath of fresh air since leaving the Baltimore Ravens and joining the team his father, Buddy, helped lead to its only Super Bowl title in 1969.
“I want a team that our opponents can respect,” Ryan said, “and I think we’ve earned that this year.”
Ryan has regularly made headlines with his mouth, and his “I’m just being myself” act has been lauded by some and despised by others, mostly outside the organization and fanbase.
“I think people hate me, which is fine,” Ryan said. “I want to be that guy that comes into your town and all that kind of stuff. I want the negative focus put it on me, that’s fine.”
The loquacious coach has talked up his team all season, even when it was 4-6 and looked nothing like a playoff team.
“We stubbed our toe along the way, but we got back on track,” Pace said. “It was good to see it all come together.”
The players believed in Ryan’s message, and the coach insisted he was good karma for a franchise sorely lacking it.
“A lot of people wrote us off early and we kept fighting and sticking together,” running back Thomas Jones said. “These are the kinds of things that happen when you stick together after 16 games.”
Pace said several members of the team started hanging out socially around Thanksgiving, and would get together on Monday nights. Around 10-15 players would meet at someone’s house, with linebacker Bart Scott’s place perhaps the most popular spot.
“He’s probably got the best setup,” Pace said. “It was probably like Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch or whatever.”
They would sit around watching football, eating wings and pizza and talking about life. The Jets had lost six of seven when that started, and have won five of six since.
“It really did bring guys closer together,” Pace said. “We just became better friends.”
And a better team. If not for a disappointing performance against Atlanta in Week 15 — a 10-7 loss — New York would be roaring into the postseason on a six-game winning streak.
“It’s been a total roller coaster,” defensive tackle Marques Douglas said.
The Jets caught several breaks along the way, including previously undefeated Indianapolis pulling Peyton Manning and others early in the second half of New York’s 29-15 win last week. Other teams in contention lost, setting up the win-and-in scenario against Cincinnati.
“Being 4-6 and everybody saying that we needed a total rehaul of the team, we really took that to heart because we have some guys in the locker room with experience, with the knowledge of how to win in this league,” Douglas said. “When you have people writing things like that, you have to man up and understand that if you don’t get it done, there will be changes.”
Pace said the team felt as though it was letting Ryan down during the skid, and needed to play at the level the coach insisted they should.
“There were a lot of times that we could have folded it in and said it’s over, but guys kept fighting and now it’s a new season,” Pace said. “We’re going to take it up another notch.”