Sports

Man, you gotta love this guy!

Reggie Bush showed off some of the prettiest open-field juke moves since the prime of Gale Sayers.

The Colts proved how failing to exert their best effort during a couple of late-season games with nothing riding on the outcome doesn’t necessarily rob them of momentum in games that count the most.

By throwing a touchdown pass long after victory was assured, Brett Favre and the Vikings symbolically danced on the Cowboys star.

But the best story of the second weekend of NFL playoffs had to be that guy with the wide smile and the even wider waistline pumping his fist Sunday, looking a little bit like Ralph Kramden pondering one of his we’re-gonna-be-rich-for-the-rest-of-our-lives schemes with Ed Norton.

The New York Jets’ Rex Ryan has become my favorite coach. I don’t mean my favorite coach of the NFL’s version of a final four. I mean my favorite coach, all-time, any category. He’s got it all: smarts, confidence, enthusiasm, and a football acumen that came from the cradle – Ryan’s father, Buddy, was a Hall of Fame caliber defensive assistant who had the misfortune of realizing his ambition to work as a head coach.

Of the many moments that have distinguished Rex Ryan’s wild-horse ride of a rookie season, none was as illustrative of his moxie than the decision he made Sunday to stick it to the Chargers. The Jets were leading 17-14 in the final minute of the fourth quarter. Facing a fourth down and one at the San Diego 30-yard line, Ryan could have either called for the field goal worth a six-point lead or the pooch punt that might have the backed the Chargers inside their 10.

Football coaches in a such a situation typically think: What can I do to give my team the least chance to lose? Rex Ryan thinks: What can I do give my team the best chance to win?

The best chance for the Jets to win, it turned out, was for them to line up in a power formation and knock the defense on its collective keister. A field goal isn’t going to settle anything because San Diego gets the ball back with the opportunity to score the winning touchdown. And a pooch punt isn’t going to settle anything because the Chargers then need only a field goal to send the issue into overtime.

But running the ball off tackle for 1 yard and a first down – simple, fundamental football, without gimmicks or trickery – that settles everything. The Jets ran the ball off tackle, earned the first down, silenced the crowd, then walked off the field to prepare for the AFC championship game against the Colts.

Especially refreshing was Ryan’s demeanor on the sideline moments before the Jets lined up. He said something to the effect of “Let’s go for it” into the mouthpiece of his headset. (Which is something else I like about him: He doesn’t use a play chart over his mouth to prevent the opposition from reading his lips. What you see is what you get.)

Then he bunched his right hand into a fist. What red-blooded, adrenaline-charged football player could not want to bust his tail for this person?

The Seahawks’ hiring of Pete Carroll last week revived the debate over whether rah-rah types commonly known as “players’ coaches” can succeed in the NFL. Ryan fits into this category, which might be all the big guy that he fits into. He’s got his dad’s fierce competitive streak, but where Buddy masked the tender side of his personality, Rex doesn’t have the imagination – maybe it’s a skill – required to pretend to be somebody he isn’t.

After a debilitating defeat to Jacksonville this season, Ryan cried in the Jets’ locker room. Think about this: Here’s a high-profile coach working in the most populated market in America – the home of famously hostile fans and media critics who regard grumpiness as a badge of honor – as broken up by a bad day as the 15-year-old figure skater who takes a tumble in the midway through the finals program of the Winter Olympics.

And what happened when New York learned of Rex Ryan’s tearful reaction to the Jets’ losing a regular-season football game? Pretty much nothing happened. The newspapers reported it – and I’m sure there was a flood of calls on the radio talk shows – but the world went on turning as the coach resumed his mission of reconfiguring the Jets into an old-school operation that stresses robust defense (first in the league in points allowed, first in the league in yards allowed) with just enough offense.

Given Ryan’s unashamedly gregarious nature, it’s convenient to dwell on a personality that makes him unique among NFL coaches. What’s overlooked is his strength as a tactician. The Jets’ unconventional blitzing schemes on Sunday flummoxed Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, who rarely gets flummoxed.

Rivers’ indecision got to the point where was difficult to determine which team was starting the rookie quarterback (that would be the Jets, with Mark Sanchez) and which team was starting a veteran touted for his poise.

Now comes the rematch with the Colts, who on Dec. 27 turned down the opportunity to chase perfection when head coach Jim Caldwell benched most of his key players midway through the second half of a game against the Jets that devolved into a tank job.

Caldwell’s motives can be argued – personally, I thought it reeked, although I also can’t deny the Colts haven’t lost any of their mojo – but here’s what’s beyond debate: When Indianapolis was presented with a chance to go 16-0 and the coach proceeded with caution, the New York Jets were the recipients of a back-door invitation into the playoffs.

Go Jets, and go Rex. The clenched fist you displayed on the sideline after you decided to run on fourth down did more than make my day. It made my season.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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