FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Over the last 25 years no head coach or manager in this market, not Bill Parcells or Joe Torre or Pat Riley, has consumed the identity of his franchise quite like Rex Ryan consumes his.
The successes and failures of Parcells, Torre and Riley were defined by Hall of Fame athletes who represented game-changing brilliance and rage (Lawrence Taylor), grace under pressure (Derek Jeter), and tragic twists of fate lifted from a Shakespearean plot (Patrick Ewing).
Ryan? He doesn't have the same kind of figure on his New York Jets roster.
Mark Sanchez might be the third-best quarterback in his division (behind Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick) and state (Eli Manning, Fitzpatrick). Darrelle Revis might go down as the greatest Jet of them all, but he's a cornerback, and cornerbacks don't win you trophies and rings.
So Ryan is the most relevant Jet since Joe Namath, his most prominent critic, if only because Parcells was here and gone from the team in a New York minute. And that means Rex will either get lionized for honoring a Super Bowl guarantee, like Namath did, or lampooned for presiding over a 2-3 season that goes careening toward a 7-9 finish.
No, Sunday's defeat in New England didn't necessarily sentence Ryan's third year to a premature death. The Jets have enough time and talent to return to the playoffs, and to take their chances once there.
But this much is clear: If the 2011 season spins out of Ryan's control and ends up in a smoky heap, the head coach will assume sole ownership of the crash.
Brian Schottenheimer, offensive coordinator, will end up as the necessary human sacrifice (and if you listen closely enough, you can already hear Bill Callahan practicing his acceptance speech in front of his mirror), and Mike Tannenbaum, general manager, will end up as the smart executive who made some dumb summertime calls.
Only no Jets player, assistant or official will get blitzed like the Jets' head coach.
"This whole team," Ryan said Monday, "is my responsibility."
And then some.
"This has my name on it," the coach said.
And then some.
Ryan has molded the Jets in his big and brash image, angering opponents while galvanizing a fan base that hasn't seen a Super Bowl, never mind won one, since January of 1969. Against all odds, the Jets opened the Ryan era with two straight trips to the AFC title game and a third straight forecast of a ticker-tape parade.
A third straight road loss doesn't jibe with the vision, nor does the sight and sound of Ryan swearing he was encouraged by the alleged progress made in a 30-21 loss. Last time anyone checked, the Jets ripped the Patriots in Foxborough in a playoff game. If the visitors made progress nine months later, they had a funny way of showing it.
But there was Ryan again Monday, talking like a guy who had just finished tweaking his swing on the driving range. His Jets might've blown a shot at winning the division and the first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage they crave, and yet their coach was acting as if he'd just lost a preseason game.
"I was encouraged by some of the things we saw offensively, and on defense," he said, neglecting the fact that his offense went three-and-out seven times, and that his defense was shredded by Brady and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
At the day-after podium, Ryan wasn't making it personal with his blood rivals to the north. His fire and bombast suspended indefinitely, the coach came across as humbled, resigned, reserved -- all those things Rex Ryan isn't supposed to be.
Sunday night, Ryan admitted that this losing streak ranked among his most trying challenges, prompting a conspicuous member of his audience, Sanchez, to admit, "I hate seeing Rex like that."
So do millions of Jets fans. They don't need another sad-sack at the top.
But in the wake of the New England defeat, Ryan flashed his old fighting spirit only when asked about media accounts of in-house strife. His Jets lead the league in denials, and nothing else.
Thank heavens for the Philadelphia Eagles. Without them, the Jets would stand as the NFL's biggest practical joke.
Ryan keeps talking up his 2009 team as the first in league history to reach the playoffs after enduring two three-game losing streaks, as if that's a distinction worth boasting about. He said the experience proves his current Jets "know how to get out of it."
Really? Ryan now lords over a defense vulnerable to just about any quarterback or running back who cares to test it, a unit that doesn't exactly summon the memory of his father's '85 Bears. Truth is, the Jets are a lot closer to 1-4 (one blocked punt closer, in fact) than they are to legitimate contention in the AFC East.
"I don't see us losing our confidence," Ryan maintained.
He didn't rule out losing more games.
"We may get beat," he said, "but we're not going to get beat because we don't believe in each other or we're coming apart at the seams."
A rallying cry for the ages this was not.
Ryan said his team needed to improve more than it needed to change, and he put the onus on the coaches to reduce the players' mental and technical mistakes. "I think that's where it comes back to all of us," Ryan said.
Only it doesn't go back to all of the Jets, just one. In case 2-3 turns into 7-9, Rex Ryan needs to understand something.
He won't be the captain of a sinking ship.
He'll be the sinking ship.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.