By Pete Baxter
This year’s season of HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ features the 2021 Dallas Cowboys. It has had its share of highlights, from Dak Prescott drama to Zeke Elliot comic relief. Watching a young defensive star develop before our eyes in Micah Parsons has been a treat. As predicted, Jerry Jones and his stream of consciousness rants have provided brief moments of entertainment.
However, something is missing. I’ve spent some time reminiscing about my own favorite past ‘Hard Knocks’ moments. I realize that to truly maximize the show’s potential, a charismatic, entertaining head coach is a necessity.
Mike McCarthy is a Super Bowl winning head coach. Regardless of where his Cowboys tenure ultimately takes him, he will always have a strong resume and legacy. However, he has the charisma of a piece of plywood. His attempts at humor and motivational speech fall flat and border on embarrassing.
Watching McCarthy sleepwalk through the daily life of an NFL head coach has me missing one ‘Hard Knocks’ alum in particular. A head coach with a less distinguished overall resume, but a considerably deeper volume of memorable anecdotes and controversial moments. That coach is Rex Ryan.
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The Man, The Myth, The Troll
Rex Ryan has been one of the most polarizing coaches of the past several decades. His boisterous, filter-free style of coaching led to mixed results throughout his career.
He began his NFL head coaching run by reaching unprecedented success with a long-suffering Jets franchise. He ended it by losing a locker room in Buffalo. In between he made for some often hilarious, sometimes cringe-worthy soundbites (and some really bad tattoos). He managed to parlay his infectious personality, skill as a speaker and penchant for generating tabloid fodder into a successful run as an ESPN football commentator.
However, if we take a closer look at his resume, it becomes clear that this man is more than just a talking head. He should still be in the league. Rex Ryan deserves one more shot at leading a team.
Rex Ryan began his NFL coaching career as a defensive assistant on his father’s staff with the Arizona Cardinals in 1994. Despite helping drive improvement on the defensive side of the ball for an otherwise terrible franchise, Buddy Ryan and his entire staff were fired after the 1995 season.
Rex would bounce between several college coaching positions through the remainder of the 90’s. He would eventually land on Brian Billick’s coaching staff in Baltimore in 1999. Ryan would be the defensive line coach and would immediately help build one of the most dominant defenses of all time.
In his first season in Baltimore, the defense finished second in the league in points and rushing yards allowed. His second season would see the Ravens set records for fewest points and rushing yards allowed in NFL history. This dominant defense would carry Trent Dilfer and company to a huge win in Super Bowl XXXV. This was Rex Ryan’s first and only championship ring up to this point.
Ryan would eventually be promoted to defensive coordinator in 2005. He would continue to lead a dominant defense, and even survived a head coaching change as he stayed on under John Harbaugh. He was also promoted to assistant head coach at this point.
Ryan was able to turn this consistent success as an assistant into his first head coaching gig in 2009. Ryan came in like a wrecking ball, leading the Jets to a 9-7 record and a wildcard playoff berth in his first season. Ryan continued to prove himself as a defensive mastermind, building the top ranked overall defense in the NFL. This dominant defense carried a mediocre offensive attack led by rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The Jets would upset the Bengals and then the Chargers en route to the AFC Championship game. They would ultimately fall to Peyton Manning’s Colts. However, they had far exceeded anyone’s expectations in making it so deep into the playoffs.
Rex Ryan was the real deal, and the Jets had reemerged from obscurity to one of the most promising franchises in the league. Ryan also had several of his early trademark controversies at this time, including mistakenly announcing his team had been eliminated from playoff contention and flipping off Colts’ fans after his championship game loss. We dig into the tattoo of his wife in a Mark Sanchez jersey or any of the “foot stuff” at this point.
Year two in New York was even better for Rex. As mentioned, the Jets were featured on Hard Knocks, and the world was fully introduced to the trash talking maniac that was coaching the Jets. To this day, Ryan remains the most entertaining coach ever featured on the show.
The Jets started 9-2, finished 11-5 and once again qualified for the playoffs as a wildcard team. Ryan would lead his team to massive upset victories over Peyton Manning’s Colts and then Tom Brady’s Patriots en route to a second consecutive AFC Championship game. The Jets would ultimately fall to the Steelers in the conference championship. This would be the pinnacle of Rex Ryan’s head coaching career up to this point.
His last three seasons in New York would go from mediocre to bad. Ryan would never find a true starting quarterback. Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and the ghost of Mike Vick would all struggle to generate any semblance of an offense to support a generally strong defense. Ryan’s antics, now that the team was not winning, would go from endearing and fun to a distraction. Ultimately, Ryan was fired by the Jets after the 2014 season after going 4-12.
Ryan would quickly land on his feet and was hired by the Buffalo Bills for the 2014 season. Ryan led the Bills to a mediocre 8-8 record in 2015 with Tyrod Taylor as his quarterback. The team would miss the playoffs, as they had for the past decade and a half.
Year two in Buffalo was more of the same, and Ryan would ultimately be fired after week 16. This was the last time we would see Rex Ryan on the sideline.
So, what do we know about Rex Ryan?
He is undoubtably one of the best defensive coaches of the modern era. He is charismatic and a player’s coach, and when times are good, he can galvanize and inspire a team.
When things aren’t going well, his antics go from charming and inspiring to distracting and demoralizing. He was criticized by LaDainian Tomlinson for the undue pressure he had placed on Jets’ players after guaranteeing a championship. He has also never built an offense with any ongoing success, though he has never had a viable starting quarterback to speak of.
Rex Ryan never had the chance to work for a great franchise. He never had the opportunity to work with a great quarterback. Rex Ryan deserves another shot.
The Perfect Job on the Horizon
Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears may have the hottest seat in the NFL. After a promising first season in 2018 in which he led the team to 12-4, he has underachieved in back-to-back 8-8 seasons. Last season saw a once dominant defense take a huge step back. This preseason has been marred by a seemingly mishandled quarterback controversy. If the Bears can’t get back to the playoffs and go on a run this season, Nagy is likely out the door.
Enter Rex Ryan. There is no question that Ryan would get the defense back on track. Most preseason rankings put the Bears as a mid-level defense in terms of talent, somewhere between 15 and 20. Add in Rex Ryan’s coaching and schemes, with some offseason tinkering next year, and this defensive should instantly jump to top-10 or better.
On the offensive side, Rex Ryan would finally have his franchise quarterback to generate an offense to match his defense. All signs seem to point to Justin Fields being the real deal. If the Bear’s head coaching gig opens up for the 2022 season, Fields will have a full year of development under his belt. At that point, it would be no surprise if Justin Fields is a top-10 quarterback.
Rex Ryan would potentially enter the 2022 NFL season as the head coach of a Chicago Bears team with a top-10 defense and top-10 offense. He made back-to-back conference championship games with Mark Sanchez, imagine what he could do with Justin Fields?
And is there a city more suited for Rex Ryan’s brand of in-your-face, smashmouth football than Chicago? He exemplifies the blue-collar toughness of the Mid-West better than any coach in recent memory.
Rex Ryan to the Chicago Bears would be a match made in heaven.
Success in the NFL is about two things.
The first is winning. Rex Ryan, while he never quite reached the promised land, proved, despite coaching for two losing franchises, that he knows what it takes to win. He led two of the most successful Jets campaigns of the last half century in his first two years as head coach. The Jets have never made the playoffs since.
The second key to NFL success if keeping the fans hooked and providing an entertaining product. Rex Ryan is pure entertainment. From ‘Hard Knocks’ to exchanging trash talk with fans to dropping hot takes on ESPN, Ryan is addicting to watch. He will help sell tickets.
Rex Ryan deserves one last shot. The fans deserve the chance to see him on the sidelines flipping birds and dropping one-liners one last time. And hey, even if he crashes and burns, it will make for a hell of a show.
Consider this my endorsement for Rex Ryan as the next head coach of the Chicago Bears.