SEATTLE — One day after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Rex Ryan was introduced as the new coach of the New York Jets, promising his own version of hope and change.
Squinting into the bright lights, Ryan made a brash landing in the Big Apple: “First off, with all the cameras and all that, I was looking for our new president back there. You know, I think we’ll get to meet him the next couple years, anyway.”
And so it began, the most boisterous regime on the New York sports scene since, perhaps, the Billy Martin Yankees: With a sly but unmistakable reference to an oval-office ceremony after a Super Bowl title.
Four years later, the Jets are still awaiting for that elusive championship. But as the Jets prepare for their first trip to Seattle since 2008 under Ryan’s predecessor, Eric Mangini, the Jets’ soap opera is unabated.
In fact, the hype has reached hyperspeed this season with the acquisition of Tim Tebow, the most closely chronicled reserve in NFL history. In preseason camp, each New York newspaper assigned a writer just to follow Tebow. Eight games into what so far has been a hugely disappointing season for the Jets, he has yet to make a significant impact, yet the question still hangs in the air constantly: When will Ryan dump Mark Sanchez and give Tebow a shot?
After a bye week, Ryan is sticking with Sanchez against the Seahawks as the 3-5 Jets try to keep their waning playoff hopes alive. Asked in a conference call Wednesday if it’s difficult to thrive in an atmosphere where every Sanchez incompletion leads to an outcry for Tebow, Ryan replied, “You know what? I don’t hear very well, so it doesn’t bother me at all.”
The Jets have provided nearly nonstop white noise under Ryan, achieving one goal, which was to get themselves heard above the din of a crowded New York sports scene. But the question being asked increasingly as the Jets face a second straight season out of the playoffs is whether a focus on captivating the tabloids has come at the expense of building a deep, cohesive team.
That question is even more pertinent when juxtaposed against the success of the Giants, who last year won the Super Bowl — and got to meet the president — for the second time in five years.
Before Tebow, the Jets traded for Brett Favre and Santonio Holmes, and signed flashy players like Jason Taylor (fresh off his appearance on “Dancing With the Stars”), LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress.
They flaunted their brand on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” all interspersed with frequent New York Post-worthy back-page eruptions. Like the female reporter who was allegedly harassed at a practice. Like the inappropriate text messages and photos Favre was alleged to have sent to a female sideline reporter. Like Ryan’s $50,000 fine by the team after he was caught on a cellphone camera making an obscene gesture to a fan at a mixed martial arts competition. Like the nationwide smirks when Ryan’s wife was identified in foot-fetish videos on the Internet.
And that’s just the tip of the hypeberg. It’s little wonder that the word “circus” is often attached to the Jets.
“I’ve got to believe there’s plenty of stuff that goes on with every team,” Jets center Nick Mangold said. “We’re just fortunate that we’re here in the New York market and things kind of get blown up.”
One upside is that the interest in the franchise has rarely been more frenetic, perhaps not since the Joe Namath days. Seahawks running back Leon Washington got to see the transition first hand in 2009, his last of four seasons with the Jets.
“Our fans are passionate about our team,” Washington said. “But it seems like the fans there feel like they own the team, and they can say whatever they want. Which is fine. That’s what the fans are for.
“The media attention is a little different. For example, the media might ask you, ‘Hey, Leon, why did you fumble the ball?’ Versus out here in Seattle, it’s ‘What happened on that play?’ A little more direct (in New York).”
Does he miss that edge? “Not really. I feel our fan base is a lot better.”
Through it all, Ryan has maintained his reputation as a players’ coach, perhaps even to a fault.
“From the moment Rex entered this building, he’s always had the players’ backs,” Mangold said. “As a player, you really appreciate that. You want to go out and not disappoint him or prove him wrong. Guys keep fighting and working, and at some point it’s going to pay off.”
Perhaps even with a meeting with the president.