Once upon a time, the prospect of facing Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back games was no sweat off Rex Ryan's back. His New York Jets beat Manning in the playoffs, on the road, then did the same to Brady on a day in Foxborough, Massachusetts, when it appeared the Jets were prepared to spend the next few seasons ruling New York and the AFC, if not the entire sport.
Go ahead and summon the memories, Jets fans, because you deserve a break from the grim reality of the present and what likely awaits your team Thursday night on the New England Patriots' field. If you close your eyes hard enough, you can plant yourself inside Gillette Stadium on Jan. 16, 2011, and remember the time Brady and Bill Belichick looked not just beaten, but haunted by thoughts of what the Jets were about to become.
Ryan's personality was as big as his waistline back then, and after the Giants missed the playoffs in the two consecutive seasons the Jets reached the NFL's final four, Rex was ready to swallow Tom Coughlin whole. Mark Sanchez was going to be a franchise quarterback; Darrelle Revis was going to be a Jet for life, maybe the greatest Jet ever; and the man who drafted Sanchez and Revis, Mike Tannenbaum, was going to keep his job in New York about as long as Brian Cashman has kept his.
Those were the days, my friend, and Rex thought they'd never end. Six weeks after the Patriots ripped the Jets by 42 points, Ryan said he was making it personal against the coach whose Super Bowl rings he vowed to never kiss ("This is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan," Rex barked). On cue, the Jets played as if Belichick owed them a ton of money and refused to pay it back.
What a scene it was, too. Brady hadn't even bothered to spend his first-round bye week watching the Jets beat Manning's Indianapolis Colts; he was busy taking in the play "Lombardi" with his supermodel wife, Gisele. Ryan said Manning would've eaten the Broadway tickets to scout the Jets on TV, and Antonio Cromartie called Brady a loud and profane name.
Most observers thought this approach -- angering one of the greatest coach-quarterback tandems of all time -- would only inspire another 45-3 Patriots victory. Minutes after that December blowout, one he called "the biggest butt-whipping I've ever taken," Ryan had the nerve to say, "I can promise you one thing: I'll be ready to play 'em [again]. I'll play them right now if they'll go out and do it again."
Yeah, he was ready in that second-round playoff game, scheming up a pass rush that had Brady looking terrified in the pocket. On the other side of the field, Belichick made a reckless call on a fake punt attempt and failed the clock management exam for the day.
Sanchez threw three touchdown passes (two against the blitz) and no interceptions, and the offensive line didn't give up a sack. Brady? His day was defined by two scores, an interception, five sacks and a quarterback rating 38 points lower than his counterpart's.
Sanchez was only 24 back then, and with a 4-1 postseason record it sure seemed he had a little of that Joe Willie swagger to him. "He beat Peyton head-to-head, and he beat Brady head-to-head," one of his receivers, Braylon Edwards, said that day. "Last year he beat Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer. People want to talk about Mark as him being a weak link at one point, but when we get in critical situations, he's beaten everybody."
Outside the Jets' locker room, Sanchez's father, Nick, was receiving congratulatory calls from his fellow firefighters in Orange County, California, and choking up with emotion while describing the toughness his son showed while playing with a bum shoulder. The Jets had playmakers at receiver, a reliable line and two lockdown corners, but more than anything they had a limitless future at the one position that matters most in the NFL.
Sanchez was the prospect coveted by Ryan and Tannenbaum, who had moved up a dozen spots in the 2009 draft to pick him at No. 5. The coach at USC, Pete Carroll, didn't think his quarterback was ready to leave school early to play with the big boys, and it sure seemed fitting that hours before Sanchez led the Jets to his second AFC title game in his first two seasons, Carroll's Seattle Seahawks were eliminated from the playoffs.
Everything was breaking right for the Jets, at least until it wasn't. Ryan couldn't keep the Jets in the same emotional place the following week in Pittsburgh, and that was OK. The Jets were going to regroup in the offseason, return with an even better Sanchez, and then honor their coach's guarantee of the franchise's first Super Bowl title since man stepped on the moon.
Things changed for keeps on Christmas Eve 2011. The Jets were coming off a thrashing in Philadelphia, but they were still 8-6 and in position to reach a postseason tournament that the 7-7 Giants might miss for the third straight year.
Ryan decided to make it personal again, pointing out that his Jets had already seized the market from Coughlin's Giants. Only this time he overplayed his hand like never before. Coughlin coached up his team, got that 99-yard touchdown out of Victor Cruz and, despite absorbing a nasty sideline hit that damaged his left hamstring, peg-legged his way out to midfield to force Ryan to shake his hand.
The following week at Miami, the Jets started fighting each other and the offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, benched a star player (Santonio Holmes) without Ryan even being aware of it. These were among the early signs that Ryan didn't have proper control of his locker room, or his offense, and didn't have the head-coaching talent to replicate what he'd achieved in Years 1 and 2.
Jets fans all know what went down after that. They know why Sanchez is now a backup in Philly, and why Revis is a star in New England (of all places). They know why Tannenbaum is an agent representing basketball coaches and broadcasters. They know why Rex Ryan is favored to fall to 1-6 Thursday night against the Patriots, and why he's almost certainly 10 games away from becoming the ex-coach of the Jets.
But just as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman will always have Paris, Jets fans will always have Foxborough, Jan. 16, 2011. Their team, their coach and their quarterback were really something else back then, and even Mr. Revis, on truth serum in the Patriots' locker room, would admit it's a shame it had to end the way it did.