FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As he sat in his office earlier this week, Rex Ryan received a text message from an old friend. It was actually a photo of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole –- aka Bruddah Iz, the late Hawaiian singer-songwriter. The New York Jets head coach laughed.
The text came from his former defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, who now holds the same title with the Buffalo Bills. Ryan and Pettine used to listen to Bruddah Iz’s music during their long nights of game planning at the Jets’ facility. Pettine was so into Iz that he owned a book about him and made T-shirts.
You might say Ryan and Pettine were the Wizards of Iz, because those brainstorming sessions produced four seasons of terrific defense.
Their working relationship, which began as mentor/pupil in 2002 with the Baltimore Ravens, ended in January after 11 years. It was time.
After years of coaching in Ryan’s shadow, Pettine wanted to go out on his own, knowing his best chance to become a head coach would be to run his own defense. That way, he wouldn’t be viewed as Ryan’s puppet. He left with Ryan’s blessing, although Ryan wasn’t thrilled that he remained in the AFC East.
Their coaching marriage ran its course, which happens sometimes in sports. Once upon a time, Bill Belichick felt the need to break away from Bill Parcells. Years later, Eric Mangini decided to leave the Belichick nest, although that was hardly a fond farewell.
Pettine’s departure probably was good for the Jets as well because, according to several sources, his personality grated on some of the players. Ryan handed the defense to Pettine last season, and there was unrest in the defensive room, the sources said. One former defensive player described Pettine as “arrogant,” adding, “A bunch of players didn’t particularly care for him.”
That he made a lateral career move raised eyebrows, fueling speculation that he and Ryan had a falling out. Pettine, speaking to reporters Wednesday in Buffalo, said that wasn’t the case at all. He said he was offered a contract extension before last season, but decided to coach out his deal, becoming a free agent. He wanted to see if there was a better opportunity, and he believes he found it with the Bills.
“He wants to be a head coach in this league and sometimes, rightly or wrongly, they’re going to attach everything we do defensively to me,” Ryan said. “If you’ve got a chance to go out and make your own name, he deserves that opportunity. I expect him to be a head coach. I hope he’s a head coach because I want him to hire my son. There’s a lot of truth to that.”
Ryan has taken a hands-on approach with the defense, acting as the de-facto coordinator. He loves being in that role, and the players love that he’s back in the classroom, teaching the schemes he created.
On Sunday, Ryan will unleash his knowledge against Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. Pettine will do the same toward Jets rookie Geno Smith, using a lot of the same concepts he learned at Ryan’s side. You can’t call it a chess match because they won’t be calling plays directly against each other, but it will be ultra-competitive.
Ryan said it’ll be like facing his brother, Rob, a well-traveled defensive coordinator currently with the New Orleans Saints.
“We’ll want to beat each other’s brains in,” Ryan said. “From a competitive standpoint, you don’t want to whip anyone worse than you want to whip your own brother. It’ll be great competition. It’s OK for you to whip your brother’s ass, you just don’t want anyone else to whip it. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Even on vacation, Ryan and Pettine competed, engaging in heated contests of beach washers, an accuracy-toss game. Pettine claimed he dominated Ryan. He hopes to do the same on Sunday.
“I'd be a liar if I stood here and said this game didn't mean more to me or I didn't want to win it,” Pettine said.
In the meantime, they’re enjoying some friendly back-and-forth banter via text messaging. Ryan told Pettine he was going to punch him in the face at the game, a joking reference to LaDainian Tomlinson’s revelation last week that Ryan once joked in a pregame speech that he wanted to punch Belichick.
And, of course, there was the picture of Bruddah Iz, whose soft voice belied his massive body. He reportedly once weighed as much as 750 pounds. Ryan and Pettine joked about his weight, but they loved his Hawaiian and reggae songs. They like to think they made beautiful music together while listening to it.
Now they’re frenemies.