The big question – still unanswered – in the world of Jets football has been whether this is still Mark Sanchez’s team, or is it being groomed to be handed over to (depending on how you view him to this point, though I think the sample size is too small so far to call it either way) potential savior/flavor-of -the-month Tim Tebow. Ultimately though, what seems to me to be the bigger question is this: is this still Rex Ryan’s team?
Think about Ryan for a bit, and then think about the moves the Jets have made and the direction they appear to be headed. Rex is a purist, an old-school, smash-mouth football kind of guy that has made his bones almost completely on the defensive side of the game. Every position he has held in the NFL has been defense -related, up until his one season as assistant head coach for the Ravens (a title which was more of an honorific than anything else, as he continued to mainly work with the defense). So when he took the head coach position with the Jets, there was a pretty glaring gap in his resume – not one big enough to deny him the opportunity, of course, but enough of a question mark that three years later, people are noticing.
And what I’ve noticed strikes me as a bit strange. Rex Ryan suddenly finds himself working with guys like Tony Sparano, Tim Tebow, and Stephen Hill. Do those seem like the types of offensive pieces that a traditionalist like Ryan would recruit? Sparano is a guy who made his name bringing the Wildcat offense into regular usage in the NFL. Compare that to the types of offensive packages that Ryan has been around, back to the days of working with his father, Buddy Ryan. Buddy was hardly a guy looking for creative or funky schemes, going so far as to mock the run and shoot offense to the point that he got into a fistfight with his own offensive coordinator. Rex is not his father, of course, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and he has said he plans to continue focusing on ground and pound tactics. Suddenly becoming a team with unusual offensive schemes does not seem like a move that Rex would make willingly.
Yet Tebow is a guy built for unusual schemes. Everyone agrees he is much different than a traditional QB, and right now he looks more like something you’d call a utility player (if this were baseball). Sparano suggests the Jets could use Tebow as everything from a 3rd down QB to a tight end to a second running back to a guard on the punting team (!). It’s an interesting proposition, and one that could certainly change football in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that Rex Ryan would build into or around a game plan. The Jets’ drafting of Hill and Baylor running back Terrance Ganaway add to the speculation that the offense is going to be doing much wilder (no pun intended) offenses than one would expect from Ryan.
So what am I ultimately saying here? Well, I think Jets’ left guard Matt Slauson said it best a few weeks ago, when he told the press at a charity event that “it’s like we’re going to be two separate teams.” That’s exactly what it feels like Mike Tannenbaum is setting up here. In my mind, this is no longer Rex Ryan’s team. He may be the head coach, but the defense is the only part that is his. Sparano may not officially have equal standing with Rex, but the way this is playing out, he appears to be a de facto co-head coach. (Mike Westhoff, as always, is running the special teams, and deservedly so. Yes, things got shaky last season, but that’s a topic for another day.) I suspect that Tannenbaum’s plan here is to have Sparano ready as the heir apparent if Ryan brings the Jets through another lackluster season. Time will tell if this kind of design will be a new frontier or a total disaster, but one thing seems clear – Rex better start looking over his shoulder, because if the Jets get off to a rocky start, someone is waiting there to take his place.