CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Rex Ryan lost his team just as surely as he lost those 105 pounds. He admitted as much Friday in addressing 2011, in disclosing that he was the last man standing, the last New York Jet to buy the sell of a long-shot playoff run.
"I almost felt like I was the only one that believed it," Ryan said.
He immediately backpedaled from that quote at Darrelle Revis speed, but it was too late to stuff the truth inside an equipment bag. It wasn't just that Santonio Holmes quit on Mark Sanchez and the offensive line, or that Mark Sanchez and the offensive line quit on Santonio Holmes.
The Jets quit on Ryan, too. They let him get embarrassed by Tom Coughlin's Giants on Christmas Eve, and then they came completely undone under the southern Florida sun.
So this is Rex on the rebound now, a little meaner and a lot leaner at 243 pounds, walking about his practice field in his black Converse high-tops. "He is the coolest-looking head coach in the National Football League," said Keyshawn Johnson, working this training camp opener for ESPN. "He's lost weight, looks healthy, looks good. He's got cool shoes on and a [tattoo] on the calf. I love all that. Really cool."
Only the really cool presence can't cloak a really desperate situation. In fact, Ryan is so desperate to regain control of his team, he dusted off the mission statement he outlined on arrival in 2009 and reviewed it with his 2012 team. Ryan labeled it a "blueprint" that called for players to embrace a selfless brand of ball.
"The only way to have success individually," Ryan said, "is if the team succeeds."
In the winter of 2009, on his very first day as head coach, Ryan declared he wanted a roster full of passionate Charlie Hustle types. "We're looking for Pete Rose," he said, "without the gambling."
He also described what he called a K.I.L.L. approach -- "keep it likable and learnable" -- and spoke of the need for his Jets to engage in team-bonding activities like paintball and fishing trips.
All these wins and losses and empty promises later, Ryan is back at square one, hoping against hope that Sanchez and Holmes -- teammates who did everything in the offseason but take a Caribbean cruise together -- can repair a dysfunctional relationship and lead an offense suffering a dearth of playmakers, Tim Tebow or no Tim Tebow.
Everyone in green swears Sanchez and Holmes won't be suspicious business partners with competing agendas this time around, though the receiver disputed the notion that chemistry problems were his and Sanchez's alone. "I thought it was all over the place amongst us all," Holmes said. "It wasn't just between myself and Mark. It was the quarterbacks and the receivers."
More evidence that Ryan's team was a complete mess, and one that required a firmer approach from the man who had blustered his way to two consecutive AFC Championship Games before he blustered one time too many.
In an interview with ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, Ryan had knocked Holmes for knocking down the idea that a two-quarterback system could work, reminding the receiver that he'd already hired an offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano. Friday, Holmes called Rex's rebuke "a joke between us," and Ryan passed on the opportunity to resend the message with a little more heat.
"If that's what he said," the coach said through a smile, "I'm with him all the way. ... His job is to come in and play, and we'll worry about all those situations. Tony and I will figure that out."
Sparano has been entrusted to figure out everything his besieged predecessor, Brian Schottenheimer, could not. As the Jets ran through their first workout, it was Sparano, not Ryan, who represented the dominant voice, barking at Sanchez and Tebow to do this and that. In fact, an oblivious guest making his or her first trip to Cortland would've assumed Sparano was the big boss.
If his presence was much more forceful than Schottenheimer's, Ryan was harder than ever to find. He was wearing a white cap, the beginnings of a salt-and-pepper goatee and a much smaller pullover than he used to wear.
Not that Ryan was hiding. He knows better than that.
"I look at myself as the best defensive coach in football," he boomed, "and that's saying something, because Dick LeBeau is pretty darn good and Bill Belichick is pretty good. But that's the way I've always believed."
Of course, Ryan isn't paid to be the best defensive coach in football. He's paid to be the best head coach in football, or something damn close.
Toward that end, Ryan said he would assume some of Mike Pettine's play-calling responsibilities on defense and show up in more offensive meetings, even if Sparano will call every run and pass. Rex wouldn't guarantee anything about the results other than the fact he won't, you know, guarantee them.
Asked in his news conference why he chose to temper his boastful ways, Ryan said, "The arrows weren't just coming on me; they were coming on my players. And that's not what I wanted. ... Maybe you guys would've said, 'Well Rex, didn't you figure that out?' No, I never figured that out. But I certainly did at the end of the season."
A season that left Ryan feeling sick, angry and hell-bent on evening some old scores.
Rex said he was motivated by the fact that many were picking the Jets to miss the playoffs again, and that some were picking them to finish at the bottom of the AFC East. As he boarded a cart to take him from his completed news conference back to the team facility, Ryan was asked if he believed his roster was good enough to win it all.
"I'm not going to say anything on that," Ryan said. "What did Tom say last year?"
Tom Coughlin said talk is cheap, play the game.
"I'll go with that," Rex responded.
He'll go with the 8-8 flow. Ryan is under heavy pressure to make this season work, and he knows it.
Just because the head coach of the Jets lost a lot of weight doesn't mean he lost any of his burdens.