Title talk turning Rex into a punch line

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The NFL spotted Rex Ryan a touchdown this week, forcing the San Diego Chargers to fly across the country for a game scheduled to start at 10 a.m. on their body clocks. The league might as well have ordered Philip Rivers to throw left-handed, or to play once again with a torn-up knee.

West Coast teams often sleep-walk through these early East Coast games, a truth that might've given Ryan exactly what his New York Jets needed: a bio-rhythmic edge in a game they are desperate to win.

But of course the Jets coach gave it all back when he said he'd already be a two-time champ had San Diego been smart enough to hire him in 2007. The man the Chargers did hire, Norv Turner, was annoyed enough to return fire on Ryan, and now Turner's 4-1 team is favored to be wide awake at kickoff and over-caffeinated in pursuit of victory over the 3-3 Jets.

"It's just Rex being Rex," said LaDainian Tomlinson, once a Chargers megastar and now a Jets role player. "We laugh. The guys that get offended by it are people in San Diego, but us? We don't care. I'm not there. He's our coach."

And as the Jets' coach, Ryan has made two trips to the AFC title game in two years. Nobody in franchise history had made it to pro football's final four twice, never mind twice in a row in his first two seasons.

Ryan's four postseason victories beat the combined Jets totals of Bill Parcells (1), Herm Edwards (2), and Eric Mangini (0). So yes, it's already been a hell of a run.

Yet the more Rex Ryan tries to talk his way to Canton, the more he boasts about his team's certain and immediate future as Super Bowl winners, the more this possibility sounds like a mortal lock:

If he doesn't win it all in New York, Ryan will go down as something of a clown.

When he was hired after Mangini's fall, Rex declared that he wanted to be a better coach than his father, and that he wanted to leave some of the less desirable traits of Buddy-ball behind. In other words, he didn't want to put bounties on opponents or punch Kevin Gilbride in the head.

But the baseless claim that he would've won two titles in San Diego didn't just sound like it was scripted by his father, and didn't just inspire Turner to deliver the line of his otherwise colorless career, the one about wondering if Ryan kept his phantom Chargers rings with those phantom Jets rings he's forever guaranteeing. ("It was a good one," Rex conceded.)

The claim also hardened the notion that Ryan is less a coach than a comic, an entertainer whose ultimate victory is one of style over substance.

At his news conference Thursday, I asked Ryan if he was concerned that his outsize personality would detract from his successful (so far) record as a head coach.

"I'm not really concerned about that," he answered. "I just don't want to take away from our team and our team's preparation. I think that's the biggest thing.

"But I want to be myself. I want to be true to myself. ... At the end of the day, sure, I'd love to be respected by my peers. But I just want to win, and I'll be happy if that's the case."

If Ryan sure sounded like he was saying he cared more about winning games than winning respect, hey, he won't get one without the other. Not with his willingness to say anything, anywhere, at anyone's expense.

"It was unintentional," Ryan said, "and hopefully it doesn't take away from this game."

It's hard to say whether the Rex-being-Rex thing negatively impacts his team. Ryan publicly jabbed Bill Belichick and Tom Brady before last year's playoff game, setting a tone that Antonio Cromartie followed, and then watched his Jets shock the New England Patriots on their own field.

But then again, the Jets were emotionally cooked when they showed up -- or, better yet, didn't show up -- in Pittsburgh the following week, stamping the Patriots result as a Pyrrhic victory.

Nine months later, the Jets still stand by their man. Tomlinson had nice enough things to say about his former coach, Turner, but said this of Ryan: "Certain coaches have an ability to get the best out of their players, and I think Rex does that better than anybody."

Another ex-Charger, Cromartie, called Turner a "good, offensive-minded coach," but gave the nod to Ryan. "Rex is a guy I'll go to bat for any day," Cromartie said. "So if you wanted to pick between the coaches, it would be Rex."

In the end, Turner is the poster boy for distinguished coordinators who come across as wet-noodle head coaches. Sometimes it seems as though Norv has borrowed a kick-me sign from Wade Phillips.

Only this time around, Turner kicked back. Ryan phoned in an explanation, if not an outright apology, and the Chargers coach still made sure to settle the on-the-record score.

We'll see if this nice guy is destined to finish last on Sunday. And while we're paraphrasing Leo Durocher, why not point out that one of his contemporaries, Casey Stengel, would've gotten the biggest kick out of Rex Ryan?

Take away the seven World Series titles, including five in a row, and Casey's bizarro act and Stengelese dialect might've reduced him to a practical joke. Of course, nobody's taking away those seven titles, including five in a row. Stengel's in the Hall of Fame, and he didn't talk his way there.

"It's all on me," Ryan said Thursday after his latest fumble from the mouth. "I'm guilty, absolutely."

He's guilty as charged of talking a better game than he coaches, and he does coach a pretty good game. The punishment?

Ryan has to win it all at least once before he's done as coach of the Jets. If he fails, he'll go down as a punch line.

He'll go down as lord of the invisible rings.

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.