Rex Ryan is playing a dangerous game. While entertaining "Hard Knocks" nation -- Tony Dungy excluded -- with his colorful personality and salty vocabulary, he's also jeopardizing relationships in the locker room by putting players in uncomfortable positions.
In last week's episode, defensive end Vernon Gholston and rookie running back Joe McKnight were portrayed in an unflattering light. Thanks to the show's ever-present microphones and cameras, the country watched as McKnight was verbally undressed by the New York Jets' coaching staff, which belabored his lack of focus and finesse style of running.
In Gholston's case, Ryan was so concerned by the player's lack of fire that he actually assigned backup center Rob Turner -- the Jets' version of a hockey goon -- to pick a fight with Gholston in practice. It's a macho thing; the objective is to see if Gholston is man enough to respond. Ryan apparently liked the outcome because he used an off-color, coming-of-age description to compliment Gholston to his coaches.
After Saturday night's preseason victory at Carolina, Gholston was put in a tough spot, admitting to reporters that he didn't know the fight was staged until the show aired Wednesday night. Gholston didn't say he was offended by Ryan's unusual tactic, but he also didn't sound like he loved it. In essence, his coach was questioning his toughness in front of a nation of reality-TV junkies.
"Fighting? We can do that if necessary, but my job is always to try to become a better football player and try to help this team win," Gholston said at his locker after perhaps his best showing as a pro. "They saw how I responded. I ain't scared of no fighting."
On the field, Gholston and McKnight reacted favorably to the "Hard Knocks" fallout, both playing with more tenacity than before. So maybe Ryan is a motivational genius. But it's always a bit dicey when unadulterated criticism becomes public, especially when it involves the issue of toughness.
Obviously, Gholston and McKnight are only supporting players -- it's not like Ryan called out Mark Sanchez or Bart Scott -- but there has to be trust between player and coach. The players trust Ryan because, even if he curses at them behind closed doors, they know he'll never trash them publicly. He has their back.
But this is a "Hard Knocks" summer, and that means sensitive material is getting out. Feelings could be bruised, and Ryan has to be careful. He's not editing the show, but he knows the score. He knows he's on camera 24/7 -- or close to it. It might not seem like a big deal, roughing up a marginal player, but others will notice.
After Saturday's game, McKnight spoke candidly about his "Hard Knocks" experience, admitting he didn't like the perception it created of him. Of course, that was the knock on him coming out of USC -- that he needs to be more physical between the tackles -- but he probably never dreamed it would be fodder in a national forum.
"It's tough love, but I take it to heart," McKnight said. "I never want a coach to tell me something like that. I want to show the coaches what I can do, but that was good that he said it. I appreciate him saying it. It motivated me. It kind of [ticked] me off, too. Not at him, but at myself."
It's a good news-bad news story with "Hard Knocks." On the positive side, the viewers see Ryan at his best -- players' coach, fiery motivator, underrated teacher. For the Jets, it's fantastic exposure, a down-the-road recruiting tool for free agents and coaches. On the negative side, it hangs their dirty laundry on the clothesline, for all the world to see.