FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The first time they sat down together to discuss X's and O's, Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg didn't have much privacy. They were on television.
It was January 2007, and their teams -- the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively -- had been eliminated from the playoffs in the divisional round. They were invited to NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., to serve as guest analysts to preview the conference championships.
"I had a chance to meet him in a different way," Ryan, the New York Jets' head coach, said Thursday of his current offensive coordinator. "I really liked him. He was funny. He was smart. That was obvious."
That TV appearance turned out to be a good test of their chemistry. Host Brian Baldinger had to leave after the first segment, leaving Ryan and Mornhinweg alone on the set. They improvised, Ryan breaking down the defensive stuff, Mornhinweg handling the offensive material.
"We fed right off each other," Ryan said.
Six years later, it hasn't changed.
Hiring Mornhinweg was one of Ryan's smartest moves. One year after the Tony Sparano debacle, the Jets actually have a clue on offense. At times, they're not the prettiest, but you never get the feeling that Mornhinweg doesn't know what he's doing.
Under him, the Jets have improved in almost every offensive category, significantly in some cases. They're ranked 15th in total offense, averaging 343 yards per game (up from 299). The last time they sniffed the top 10 was 2010, when they finished 11th with Brian Schottenheimer calling the plays and a still-promising Mark Sanchez playing quarterback.
We could throw out a bunch of impressive numbers to demonstrate Mornhinweg's impact, but it's plainly obvious the Jets are running it better and throwing it better than the past two years. And -- don't underestimate this point -- they're doing it with a rookie quarterback, Geno Smith.
Plus, we're not talking about an abundance of talent here. The Jets don't have a rusher in the top 15 and they don't have a receiver in the top 50. Smith is 27th out of 33 in passer rating. Despite the lack of star power, they've played well in most of the games.
"I think he's done a great job," Ryan said of Mornhinweg. "It's been impressive, without question. He has been impressive."
Philosophically, they're a football odd couple. Mornhinweg's affinity for the passing game figured to clash with Ryan's defensive-minded, ball-control style, but they've made it work.
Recognizing how the game is changing, Ryan let his hair down, so to speak, leaving Ground & Pound in the past. Mornhinweg has adjusted, too, especially the past three weeks. Without injured wide receiver Santonio Holmes, and with Smith coming off a disastrous game in Tennessee in Week 4, Mornhinweg has leaned more on the running game, featuring his inside receivers (tight end and slot) in the passing game.
A team has to throw the ball to score points, according to the Mornhinweg doctrine, but sometimes it takes some dinosaur football to win a game. As Ryan noted in his postgame speech to the team after last Sunday's upset of the New England Patriots, "Our offensive coordinator, seems to me all he wants to do is run, because we ran it 52 times."
The players roared.
"That's funny," Mornhinweg said Thursday.
Ryan hired Mornhinweg because he wanted a coordinator who coached offense the same way he coaches defense -- aggressively. He showed that fearlessness last Sunday. Instead of babying Smith after his first-quarter interception was returned for a touchdown, Mornhinweg called a pass on the ensuing first down -- a 17-yard strike to Stephen Hill.
"We threw the ball a couple of more times right away on purpose, just a 'Let's go,'" Mornhinweg said. "That's just the way we operate."
If Sparano had been calling the plays, he would've had Smith in bubble wrap for the rest of the game.
Ryan is fortunate. Not many head coaches last long enough to hire a third coordinator. This was a make-or-break hire for Ryan, whose rear end is on the hot seat this season.
Mornhinweg, the first to interview for the job, was summoned to the Jets' facility last January. He met for three hours with Ryan, two assistant coaches and center Nick Mangold. It's unusual for a player to be present, but Mangold is respected for his offensive acumen.
The interview covered everything from "soup to nuts," Ryan recalled. Before they got into the heavy stuff, they enjoyed a good laugh, remembering their joint TV appearance at NFL Films. Mornhinweg aced the interview.
"He had me at hello," Ryan said, "but we were going to do our due diligence."
He interviewed a few others and offered the position to Mornhinweg. Once again, they're on TV. Their set is the sideline, and they're feeding off each other.
This time, without makeup.