PHOENIX -- It's not the tattoo, or the foot fetish video, or the flipping off of fans at a sporting event. No, Rex Ryan's biggest regret, the singular moment he would like to have back, is promising after consecutive trips to the AFC title game that the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl in 2011.
"Guaranteeing that Super Bowl is always going to haunt me," Ryan said on Tuesday. "If I could ever have a do-over, that would be it."
Boy, have there been things to do over, and given Ryan's brash past and the perilous position he finds himself in, with a new general manager and a team that lacks talent on both sides of the ball, there undoubtedly will be more. Last season was bad. This season could be worse, much worse. While Ryan put on a happy face Tuesday, he certainly seems well aware of the position he is in as one of the most scrutinized coaches in the biggest media market in the NFL, with a team that lacks a legitimate starter at the most crucial position on the field.
"I'm not afraid of my situation," Ryan said on Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to my situation."
At least there is that.
For Ryan, guaranteeing a Super Bowl is deservedly up there on his regrets list. Drawing unnecessary attention to a task that is already unbelievably stressful and hard does not qualify as the smartest decision Ryan ever made. Doing it in a year where there was no offseason, an NFL-imposed lockout, an abbreviated free-agent period and a shortened training camp was even dumber, even if Ryan actually believed it, which, knowing him, he did.
But dumber still was the decision to entrust the franchise -- and thus Ryan's own job security and future -- to a quarterback who has such obvious flaws. Ryan excelled his first two seasons by surrounding Mark Sanchez with a better-than-average running game, playmakers at receiver and, most importantly, the best defense in the league. The Jets won despite Sanchez because they were fully committed to ground and pound and because the defense was unbelievably talented.
Now, they must win because of Sanchez with a defense that might be losing its best player -- Darrelle Revis. Now, Ryan is in the precarious position of needing a middle-of-the-road quarterback to succeed so that he can hang onto his job. Given Sanchez's body of work through four seasons, it is impossible to see a scenario in which he can lead the Jets out of the mess they find themselves in.
Sanchez as the hero? That's as likely as Ryan actually keeping his job beyond this season.
Ryan certainly seems to recognize that.
At the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Ryan was uncharacteristically subdued. Sitting at a media breakfast with his coaching brethren from the AFC, Ryan could plainly see three men who have achieved what he has not. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, New England's Bill Belichick and Baltimore's John Harbaugh never guaranteed a Super Bowl victory. They never promised anything other than their teams would put forth effort and be prepared. They never looked beyond the moment, because to do so in this league is pure folly. Each day is too crucial. Steps cannot be skipped.
During an hour-long session, Ryan fielded question after question about his future with the Jets, his quarterback, his new general manager, John Idzik, and the fate of his team's best player. Ryan seemed almost resigned to the outcome that befell Lovie Smith, who went 10-6 in Chicago last season and still got fired by a general manager who had only one season under his belt.
General managers typically like to hire their own guys. That's what Phil Emery did after taking a year to evaluate Smith. He looked for any reason to fire Smith -- and the fact the Bears did not make the playoffs gave him one -- and then hired Marc Trestman as his head coach.
Idzik certainly could do the same thing.
"I really don't feel different this year than I do any year," Ryan said. "I've approached this like it's a brand new beginning, because I believe it is."
Maybe so, but for the first time since drafting Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in 2009, Ryan has brought in competition for Sanchez. Ryan said that Sanchez will take the first snap of the Jets' first minicamp practice, but beyond that, it will be an open competition at the position. That 35-year-old David Garrard, who hasn't thrown a pass in an NFL game in more than two years, is part of the open competition tells you everything you need to know about how the organization views Sanchez.
He is not the answer.
Ryan likely isn't, either. It is a shame, because Ryan is a likeable guy. He is a colorful personality in a sport that often lacks them. He is brash and funny, entertaining and confident.
Or at least he used to be.
On Tuesday, someone asked Ryan if he thought the Jets had to make the playoffs this season for him to retain his job. The question was unthinkable two years ago, but this is where Ryan is now.
"I'm not the guy to ask that question," Ryan said. "I know one thing: My goal is always the same, and we know what that goal is. That's what I want to do. I don't want to be average. I don't want to be whatever. I want to be a champion. Whenever that time comes, that's what drives me."
That was a statement, not a guarantee. No regrets, at least not anymore.