EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No matter what was written or said about Rex Ryan, football coach, as his New York Jets program came undone, this generous qualifier was usually attached to the thought: At least Rex is a nice guy.
Ryan was a nice guy when he failed to honor his money-back guarantees, when he put his quarterback in harm's way in a preseason game, when he pieced together four consecutive non-winning seasons and when he attended a Florida MMA show and gave the finger to some Miami Dolphins fans who wanted to meet him in the octagon.
Ryan was still the one NFL head coach you would most want to grab a cold beer with, the one multimillionaire in the sport who carried himself like the simple and kind-hearted Mr. Fix-It who lived next door. Nobody wanted him to go 4-12 last year, and nobody wanted him to get fired. Rex was a nice guy, after all, and nobody wants to see nice guys finish last.
But before his new team, the Buffalo Bills, held off Todd Bowles' Jets by a 22-17 count in a bittersweet MetLife Stadium homecoming, Ryan exposed himself as a not-so-nice guy after all by walking his talk and sending out IK Enemkpali as one of his captains for the coin toss. It was the one career guarantee Ryan actually backed up, and the one he really needed to spike into a trash bin the way he spiked his red cap and headset Thursday night after Bacarri Rambo's interception decided things in the final seconds.
Ryan was some victorious sight on the sideline, wildly swinging his fists, screaming profanities and hugging players to slap an exclamation point on his conquest of the franchise that canned him after four playoff victories in two years and then a whole lot of buttfumbling and bumbling after that.
Finally, Ryan said in his standing-room-only postgame news conference, the truth could be told. Minutes after reprimanding reporters for making Bills-Jets about him, Ryan said, "It's kind of like being dumped by some girl that you had the hots for. ... Every now and then they call you back. They can't get you back."
Don't worry: The Jets are never, ever calling Ryan back.
He was in all his glory, anyway, after barely escaping what would've been his most painful defeat as a head coach. The Bills were up 22-3 in the middle of the third quarter only to watch the Jets rally and threaten to take the lead in the closing minutes after Ryan's punter, Colton Schmidt, botched a snap deep in Buffalo territory.
The Buffalo defense kept Ryan Fitzpatrick out of the end zone, Sammy Watkins put an ankle-busting, heart-breaking move on Darrelle Revis for a critical first down and then Fitzpatrick threw the ball to Rambo to send the Bills coach into a state of sheer delirium. By game's end, the only surprise from Ryan was his failure to line up Enemkpali in the backfield near the goal line, Refrigerator Perry style, so he could score a touchdown to boot.
That's OK; the pregame honor amounted to enough humiliation for one night. Ryan shouldn't have done it, of course, no matter how many times he'd made a temporary captain of a player who once suited up for that day's opponent. Enemkpali broke the jaw of the Jets' starting quarterback, Geno Smith, with a punch that probably should've landed him in jail, and the sight of him on the video board shaking hands with Jets captains inspired even louder boos than those that greeted Ryan when he trotted onto the field.
The NFL never should have allowed this to happen. Roger Goodell should have forced Ryan to stand down on this or face a heavy fine and/or suspension. For all of its problems with off-field violence, most of it perpetrated against women, the league should be embarrassed for allowing Ryan to use a national TV game, or any game, to reward a player who assaulted and injured a teammate who ended up in surgery and out of a first-string job.
This rebellious act wasn't funny, or cute, or the kind of Rex-being-Rex buffoonery defined by, say, cursing out a fan who assured him he was no Bill Belichick. This was a complete disgrace and a window on the soul of the once-likable coach that was better left closed.
Good for Bill Cowher for saying on The NFL Network that Ryan had "made a mockery" of the captaincy, because coaches (former and current) are often loathe to criticize a fraternity brother. Good for Cowher for saying, "It's not always about Rex," for ripping the Bills coach for wearing that Clemson helmet to his news conference the other day, and for turning a game shaped by playoff possibilities into a forum big enough for only three people -- me, myself and I.
Ryan was a selfish boor for making the Enemkpali announcement Monday, ensuring four days of spirited conversation about -- who else? -- Ryan. Maybe he realized it was a bit much Thursday night, when he didn't show his face for pregame warmups. But then again, maybe not.
"You guys made it all about me, and that's why I stayed in [the locker room]," Ryan told reporters. "It has jack-s--- to do about me."
That ridiculous claim couldn't go unchallenged. Reminded that he had made it about himself with the Enemkpali appointment, Ryan responded: "You guys know me better than that. I've always done that. It would've been a story had I not named him captain. You know what? He's not a bad kid. You think that's the first fight that's ever happened in an NFL locker room? Ever single team has had fights in their locker room, OK?
"The young man made a mistake. You don't think he thinks about that every single day? But he's on our football team and I'm proud of him. ... It's a bad example to judge people. ... Nobody's perfect, including every single person that's pointing a finger."
Yeah right, it would've been front-page news had Ryan not named Enemkpali a captain. And Ryan spoke of his backup defensive end as if he has made one violent mistake when, in fact, he has made two: As a college player at Louisiana Tech, Enemkpali punched an off-duty police officer who identified himself as an officer and who was wearing a hat and shirt marked by the word "police" while working security at a bar.
None of that mattered to a coach whose judgment on this was uglier than the teams' dueling red and green jerseys. When it was over, Ryan admitted that it "felt weird" to coach against the Jets, and that during the game he even looked at the wrong side of the stat sheet -- the Jets' side -- on muscle memory. He clearly didn't care that the victory was only his third in his past 20 games that followed a victory the previous week.
Did it matter to him far more than your average Week 10 road victory to get to 5-4?
"Hell yeah," Ryan said. "How do you think it feels?"
It felt better to him than it felt to the fans who had burned him in effigy in the parking lot and then left the ballpark hours later wondering if their former coach had just set fire to their playoff hopes. So be it. Ryan won on the MetLife scoreboard but lost something valuable in the process. No longer can a neutral, right-minded observer look at him as a good-natured soul in a cold, unforgiving sport.
Long ago exposed as a mediocre-at-best head coach, Ryan has revealed a character flaw here. The next time he gets fired, this much is clear: Ryan has forfeited his right to be described as another nice guy who finished last.