FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- He stood Wednesday at the same news conference microphone he used to command as if he were part carnival barker, part football head coach, and part pied piper. But now Rex Ryan was parsing his words like someone who knows the forward-looking question he'd just been asked -- would rookie Geno Smith benefit from another year with the Jets' current offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg? -- is something he won't decide. And he's probably right.
These feel like the last days of Rex Ryan even to Ryan, it seems.
Ryan went on to give some tepid answer about just being worried about the Jets' last two games, starting with Sunday's visit by Cleveland. And it was yet another example of how distant Ryan seems from his first two seasons, when he was the most entertaining sports show in town from the moment he arrived in January 2009. He not only took the perennially star-crossed Jets to back-to-back AFC title games, he seemed on his way to becoming a local legend. Maybe the best, most fun thing to happen to the Jets since Joe Namath.
Like Broadway Joe, Ryan had a signature style. He was, in many ways, everything the modern pro robo-coach is not -- a 300-pound, risk-taking, smack-talking, living-large hell-raiser who made Super Bowl guarantees unlike anyone who'd ever worn a headset in the pros.
Now? This Ryan seems likely to get fired two Mondays from now by a general manager, John Idzik, who was forced to keep him when he replaced Mike Tannenbaum last season. Idzik won't be blamed around the league if he decides it's time to put his own stamp on the organization and not give Ryan an extension, even for an extra year.
And you know what the funniest thing is? Ryan has actually had a better year than Idzik, who drafted defensive rookie of the year contender Sheldon Richardson and traded for Chris Ivory but didn't give Ryan (or his rookie quarterback, for that matter) much to work with beyond that, especially on offense.
As former Jets special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff scoffed on ESPN New York 98.7 FM the other day, referring to the hand Ryan was dealt, who goes to camp without a bona fide NFL tight end? And the Jets' revolving group of wide receivers? "You think Clyde Gates was gonna be a football player?" Westhoff demanded to know.
So you see Ryan's problem. He has a GM who was forced to inherit him for a year. And Ryan now has to wait to see if that same boss will admit this season's 6-8 record thus far was more because of the mediocre personnel he handed him than his head coach's performance.
And what do you think the chances of Idzik concluding that are?
Only another year of clemency from owner Woody Johnson can probably save Ryan now.
No wonder he looked like a resigned man Wednesday, one who figures what's the use of entertaining questions beyond the final Sunday of the regular season.
If Ryan can coax two more wins out of this roster and have the Jets finish 8-8, it would be a certifiable accomplishment.
But it won't be the sort of overwhelming proof Ryan needed to overcome the nagging feeling that as publicity-generating as he's been, and as great a defensive mind as his peers regard him by acclaim, the overarching theme to his five-season stay here is still troubling: He's never really shrugged off the rap that he's a one-trick head coach whose modus operandi year in and year out was build a kick-butt defense and then hope you have a running game and a quarterback who won't screw everything up.
There's certainly an argument to be made that Ryan probably could've won 10 games with this team if he'd had a credible NFL quarterback. But why even go there? He didn't.
Smith and the Giants' Eli Manning have been in a neck-and-neck race for the NFL interception lead most of the season. Ryan fired one-and-done offensive coordinator Tony Sparano a year ago after the offense finished ranked 30th in the league with Mark Sanchez; it's ranked only 29th this year.
So Ryan twists. His current players -- newer arrival Willie Colon, longtime mainstay Calvin Pace -- keep speaking up about how much they love playing for Ryan, same as his players have every year he's been here. But even that provokes a little melancholy nostalgia. Been there, heard that before. So why isn't the bottom line better?
As a showman, Ryan can still be as entertaining as hell. Remember how he dared to poke Bill Belichick with a sharp stick on arrival, growling, "I came here to kick his ass." Jets fans were starved for swagger like that.
He wound up on the front page of the tabloids for everything from flipping off a taunting fan at one of those mixed-martial arts extravaganzas he loves, to seemingly doing voice-overs in foot fetish videos featuring a woman who, it was delicately pointed out, bears a remarkable resemblance to his wife.
His performance on HBO's "Hard Knocks" -- from the many F-bombs he eventually had to apologize to his mother for, to his immortal closing line at the end of a team meeting ("Let's go eat a goddamn snack!") -- are going to be hard to reminisce about for years without laughing all over again.
But this Ryan bears only a faint public resemblance to that man.
He is just another coach in the NFL who has seen the wisdom of toning down his act in the hopes that the substance of what he brings will stand out in greater relief if all the shenanigans and noise are stripped away.
And for the second straight year, that hasn't really worked either.
The Jets could finish 6-10 as easily as 8-8. But neither is likely to be good enough cast against Ryan's three straight seasons without a playoff berth.
What's more likely to happen is the big-top circus Ryan ran here is about to pull up stakes and leave town. And the Jets will be left where they've usually been.
Blowing things up, yet again. And lamenting what could have been.