EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rex Ryan is supposed to be the coach in the crypt, already doomed. Frankly, there are times when he looks and sounds like it. But on Sunday, Ryan showed he still can motivate a team and still can take the X's and O's from his grease board and bring them to the field, confounding the opponent's offense.
Ryan's work began Saturday night, when he put a copy of ESPN's Week 1 Power Rankings on the big screen at the team meeting. That poll ranked the New York Jets at No. 32, the worst team in the NFL. Linebacker Calvin Pace called it "the ultimate slap in the face," and others echoed that sentiment.
The Jets brought that emotion into MetLife Stadium for the season opener. They weren't the best team on the field, not on paper, but they didn't commit 13 penalties and play like an undisciplined bunch of playground goons. Greg Schiano's team did that from the first series to the final indignity, Lavonte David's stupid late-hit penalty on Geno Smith with seven seconds left.
Ryan's team stole one from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 18-17, on Nick Folk's 48-yard field goal at the end, but you know what? The Jets actually deserved the win. They outplayed the Bucs and their $96 million cornerback, Darrelle Revis. Ryan outcoached Schiano, who might have been longing for his former days at Rutgers as he trudged off the field.
"One team, one fight," an ebullient Ryan said afterward, repeating his mantra. "Holy cow."
The bombast is gone, as we all know, but it doesn't matter what Ryan says in front of the cameras. The only thing that matters is what he says to his players, in private, and whether he can properly prepare them to play each Sunday.
On the first Sunday, they were prepared. The Bucs? They behaved like it was the first week of training camp. The Jets were anything but a juggernaut, but they played with controlled emotion, especially on defense. Ryan set the tone Saturday night, rubbing his players' noses in the disrespect from ESPN.
"For whatever reason, there's a personal vendetta against the Jets," Pace said. "Thirty-second in the league? I know the last couple of years haven't been up to our standard. We might not be the best team, but I'm damn sure we're not the worst."
Pace called it "absurd." He kept going.
"I've seen the worst. We've played against some of the worst, and we're not that," he continued. "There's a team out west that I know is worse than we are." That was an obvious reference to the Oakland Raiders.
The ESPN rankings suggested that defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is the only real player on the Jets. That, too, was noted in the meeting, according to Pace, who added: "It was seen. It was taken accordingly by us. We're the ones in charge of it. We can change it by playing well."
They did -- on defense, anyway.
Ryan, the de facto defensive coordinator, cooked up a scheme that neutralized running back Doug Martin, who was held to 67 yards from scrimmage. The Jets use a 3-4 base defense, but they mixed in a lot of 4-3 fronts, confusing quarterback Josh Freeman, who was so befuddled that he took two delay penalties and burned a timeout on the opening series.
These teams had five months to prepare for the opener, and you come out with that? It was embarrassing for the Bucs and Schiano, who saves his worst for his return trips to New Jersey. See last season's amateur-hour move, blitzing Eli Manning in victory formation.
"I don't think it's undisciplined," Schiano said of his team.
Under Ryan, the Jets have been painted as an out-of-control team, even though their penalty totals never back it up. On this day, Ryan showed his prowess as a defensive coach. They held the Bucs to 12 first downs, recorded three sacks and forced two turnovers. They made Freeman look more inexperienced than rookie starter Smith, who held up reasonably well despite a few early mistakes.
Ryan did something a little bit unusual, staying in base personnel for much of the game -- even when the Bucs went to three wide receivers. He put a lot of pressure on his corners, Antonio Cromartie and rookie Dee Milliner, and there were a few hiccups. Vincent Jackson caught seven passes for 154 yards, and Mike Williams beat Milliner on a 17-yard touchdown.
The loudest hiccup came with 1:54 left in the game, when safety Dawan Landry missed a tackle on Jackson and nearly cost the Jets the game. A 10-yard completion on third-and-10 turned into a 37-yard gain, setting up a go-ahead field goal.
Ryan took the blame, claiming the call wasn't communicated clearly. They used the same call earlier in the game, resulting in an interception and a safety. This time, they didn't have a seam-flat player, "and that's trouble." Landry arrived a split-second late, but he still should've made the tackle.
"I'm responsible for it," Ryan said. "That one mistake almost cost us the game."
In the end, the Jets benefited from a "Hail Lavonte" miracle. They may not have the stuff to beat the good teams, but at least they played like they cared about winning. But maybe, just maybe, they will surprise some folks along the way.
"This team is special," Ryan said. "How many wins that is, I don't know. But I know one thing: We're going for it."