By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell are two first-year head coaches in the National Football League. Both proved to be very successful as assistant coaches in the NFL, Ryan as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens and Caldwell as the quarterbacks coach/associate head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Right about there is where the similarities end, however.
Caldwell is quiet, reserved, thoughtful and would much rather operate from behind the scenes. The players should be the show. He’s from the Bud Grant and Tom Landry school of coaching. Always be under control. Never let them see you sweat or show much emotion. That’s not to say that he isn’t emotional. He is. But he’s just a little more particular about where and when he shows it.
Ryan is loud, brash, boisterous, in your face. He shoots from the hip. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks and doesn’t mind being the show. He’ll even cry on occasion. He comes by it honestly, though. His dad, former Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals head coach Buddy Ryan, was known to wear his feelings on his sleeve.
Caldwell took over from a popular predecessor — Tony Dungy — and has guided Indianapolis to a 15-2 record, the top seed in the AFC playoffs, and a home AFC divisional playoff win over Baltimore. His team is just one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
Ryan, meanwhile, was hired after the Jets parted ways with former coach Eric Mangini. He has led his team to an 11-7 record, a wild-card berth in the AFC playoffs and consecutive road postseason victories over Cincinnati and San Diego. His team is also just one game away from a Super Bowl appearance.
The important thing is that both methods have worked perfectly well this year given the personality that each coach possesses. And their situations were vastly different.
The Colts are a veteran team who have a strong core of players who have been through a lot of big games over the years. They already knew how to win. New York, on the other hand, had struggled in recent seasons. The talent was there. But confidence was lacking. That’s where Rex Ryan comes in.
“Rex is exactly the way he appears in those media interviews,” Colts placekicker Matt Stover noted recently. Stover and Ryan became friends when the kicker played for the Ravens. He often spent time with the former Baltimore assistant during practices.
“That’s Rex. That’s exactly the guy that I know. That’s the way he was when he was coaching with the Ravens.”
By all reports, Ryan has won over the Jets players. His brash, braggadocio style has endeared him not only to New York’s defensive players — he has turned the Jets defensive unit into one of the league’s best in a short period of time — but also to those on the offensive side of the ball, such as rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and veteran center Nick Mangold.
“The biggest difference between [Ryan and Mangini] is, Rex wears his emotions, his thoughts and his intensity on his sleeves,” Mangold said recently. “Eric had most of that inside.”
Safety Kerry Rhodes, who was benched for a time late in the season but has since worked his way back onto the field, says that the Jets have embraced their new coach.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Rhodes said. “Not to go all out on Mangini; he was a good coach, but he did things in a different way and a lot of people didn’t agree with it.”
Ryan doesn’t apologize for his style of coaching and for the way he relates with his players.
In a recent teleconference with Indianapolis media, he was asked about comments that he had made concerning the Jets chances of making it to the Super Bowl this year. He was also questioned about the reaction to what he had said. His response was pure Rex.
“Well, it’s something that I truly believe in. I was shocked, I really was shocked, when they came out and said that we were the longest long shot out there at 50-1 or something. I was like, ‘That’s amazing,’ because most Super Bowls are won with defense and the ability to run the football. When the Colts won the Super Bowl, their defense was outstanding, probably one of the best defenses in the tournament, and they ran the football some. So, I think that formula worked for them, as well. Obviously in 2000, something I’m very familiar with, [Baltimore] had the best defense in football,” he said.
“I’m sorry and I don’t care who it offends, but our defense is the best defense in the National Football League, and we can run the ball better than anybody in the National Football League, so those are two things that I thought are critical in winning a championship. For me, to just take it in and accept the fact that we should be the biggest long shots in the tournament was ridiculous, and I still feel that way.”
As for Caldwell, he’s not about to get into a discussion about which coaching style works better — his or Ryan’s.
“I don’t want to do any comparisons between the two because one thing about this game, I think it’s very important, you might try to draw parallels between Rex and I, or our two teams, in how they handle different situations. The great thing about this game is that it requires an immense amount of authenticity. So you have to be who you are,” the Colts coach said.
“These seasons are too long to pretend; the emotion involved in this game will strip away all that veneer and you are who you are. That’s who we are. That’s how we’ve always handled things. Maybe someone chooses to do things differently, but that’s because it serves them, and that’s what they feel comfortable with. In our particular case, our guys focus in on what we have to get done, and really what we try to get done is get ourselves in the best position to function great within those white lines.”