FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- For all of his flaws, Rex Ryan is not a head coach without his redeeming qualities. He can assemble a defense, for one, and he can occasionally charm the venom right out of the viperous news media, for two.
The fact that Ryan is likable and competent on one side of the ball has kept him employed in an unforgiving market, if only barely. But after his New York Jets failed to qualify for three consecutive postseason tournaments, Ryan lost all benefit of the doubt.
He can save himself only one way now, the way every NFL coach ultimately saves himself. If Ryan hasn't finally shown by the end of the season that he can coach the quarterback position, he will either end up in a broadcast booth as some network's idea of John Madden 2.0, or he'll fill the kind of defensive coordinator's vacancy that will expedite his return to the big job.
In other words, Ryan can either develop Geno Smith into a credible starter capable of reaching the playoffs, much sooner rather than later, or he can prove Michael Vick, second stringer, is still worthy of the first-string attention he commands from reporters and fans.
Ryan can't afford to do neither, of course, because the quarterback is everything in pro football, and then some. A head coach has to draft or sign the right guy (or compel his general manager to do the same), give him the playmakers, coordinator and system that best match up with his skill set, and then hope for the best.
Sometimes a head coach needs a break behind center too. Bill Belichick (three titles) and Tom Coughlin (two, at Belichick's expense) are the only current coaches with multiple rings to their name, and they got a little lucky with their Super Bowl MVPs.
Tom Brady was the 199th pick of the 2000 draft, and Belichick had no idea what he was sending onto the field after the Jets' Mo Lewis leveled Drew Bledsoe and changed the course of league history on the first Sunday of football after the 9/11 attacks.
Ryan is in his sixth season with the Jets, and he's yet to mold a quarterback into anything resembling a franchise player. Mark Sanchez was going to be his guy -- the Jets moved up a dozen spots in the 2009 draft to grab him at No. 5 -- until it turned out Sanchez couldn't handle the burdens of being Rex's guy.
Over the years Ryan recklessly subjected Sanchez to some unnecessary hits -- once in a blowout victory over Jacksonville while trying to get Plaxico Burress a touchdown, and again in that infamous preseason game against the Giants that wrecked Sanchez's throwing shoulder and effectively ended his Jets career.
In fact, it's long been clear that the only thing Ryan knows about quarterbacks is how to defend them.
He never had a viable backup behind Sanchez, going with the overmatched likes of Kellen Clemens and 40-year-old Mark Brunell and allowing the starter to feel untouchable at a time when he hadn't earned the right. Ryan brought in Tony Sparano and Tim Tebow, a devastating one-two if there ever was one, and kicked out Drew Stanton, who is 2-0 for Arizona in relief of Carson Palmer.
Now Rex is working his (what's the opposite of magic, anyway?) with Geno Smith, who appears to be regressing at a Sanchez-like rate. Smith finished strong in an otherwise discouraging rookie season, yet he is back to making decisions that result in turnovers and points for the bad guys.
"I have to be nearly perfect to help us win games," Smith said Wednesday at his locker. His imperfections have left the Jets in a 1-3 mess and staring at an opposing lineup of Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, even if Brady is suddenly looking older than Derek Jeter. Once again, on cue, Ryan has no idea what to do about his quarterback situation/crisis. He still can't even give a decisive answer when asked if the Smith-or-Vick decision is his call to make, or if general manager John Idzik has final say.
"Obviously in my position as the head coach," Ryan said Wednesday, "you're going to make decisions that, during the game, who else is going to make them? I'm not going to call Randy Rasmussen up and say, 'Hey, Randy, what do you think?' Or anybody. That falls on my shoulders ... I'll make that decision."
But when asked if his in-game authority over the quarterbacks carries over into the week, from Monday through Saturday, Ryan said, "That is a Jet decision."
Good heavens. This much the fan base has learned about Jet decisions: They usually don't work.
In the end, it doesn't matter if Ryan is unable to replace Smith without the approval of the GM who drafted him. Sure, head coaches should have the ability to name their own starting quarterbacks. And sure, if Idzik is insisting on controlling Rex's lineup it would be just another neon sign advertising the fact that the Jets lead the league in dysfunction. Again.
But Ryan understood the depth of Idzik's authority when he agreed to work for him. Rex didn't have to stay on after Mike Tannenbaum was fired. He could've resigned if he so desired, and he decided to take Woody Johnson's money to coach under Idzik instead.
If Ryan wants Smith benched, it's his responsibility to remind Idzik that he signed Vick for a reason ("To have the presence of a Mike Vick on this football team is a good thing," Rex said) and to persuade the GM to let him make the change. If he can't force his will on Idzik, that's his problem.
Among other problems. The Jets have been stripped bare at cornerback, in part because their owner, Woody Johnson, prefers to remain $21 million under the salary cap, and they're still running low on explosive playmakers. The Jets also have a starting quarterback who responded to a third consecutive defeat by cursing out a heckling fan.
The good news? The AFC East is wide open. The bad news? Ryan's two first-string quarterbacks -- Sanchez and Smith -- have committed a combined 121 turnovers in 82 starts.
Rex Ryan has been at this head-coaching business long enough. If he doesn't figure out by year's end how to handle the quarterback position, he'll be the one getting sacked.