On Thursday night, Rex Ryan will return to New Jersey's Meadowlands for the first time since being fired from the job he thought he'd hold on to for years. That was always his hope: to turn the Jets, a franchise that had spent decades being tossed around by Dan Marino and Tom Brady and myriad other stars, into a perennial contender that would make fans proud.
Things didn't exactly go as planned. In Ryan's six seasons with the Jets, there were a couple of playoff runs, but those were followed by hapless finishes and butt fumbles and heedless Super Bowl guarantees.
Now, Ryan comes to town not as conquering hero but as a bumbling clown. At least that seems to be the narrative heading into Thursday night's AFC East showdown between the Jets and Bills: that the Jets are the embodiment of their new head coach Todd Bowles -- disciplined, mature and well prepared -- whereas if Ryan were still in New York, they'd be clueless and stumbling around.
The 5-3 Jets are, undoubtedly, playing better football than they did last season, and probably the three years before that, as well. They're better off with the buttoned-down Todd Bowles at the helm, just as the Bills are with Ryan. For that, both sides should be thankful that the Ryan-Jets marriage ended when it did.
But appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Yes, Bowles' Jets look better than Ryan's did last year. The why behind it is the interesting part.
The Bowles mirage
Todd Bowles is a competent coach, which in today's NFL automatically makes him better than nearly half the men holding the same job. His Jets are No. 4 in overall defense and No. 11 in overall offense, according to Football Outsiders' rankings.
The problem is that they have yet to beat a good team. Their five victories have come, in order: against the Browns, Colts, Dolphins, Washington and Jaguars. Not exactly a murder's row there. You can call this the Dan Campbell Effect, when a schedule makes a coach appear better than he is. That Bowles seems to share Campbell's understanding -- or lack thereof -- of clock management doesn't project well, either.
Everyone agrees that Bowles is a brilliant defensive mind. And yet in recent weeks his unit, especially his secondary, has repeatedly been torched. First it was Tom Brady, but that happens to everyone. But then it was Derek Carr throwing for 333 yards and Blake Bortles burning them for numerous big plays that made the Jets' Week 9 win closer than it should have been.
And in terms of yellow flags, the Jets haven't been noticeably more disciplined under Bowles. The 56 penalty yards per game is nearly the same amount the team was handed last season under Ryan.
The other gift Bowles has been given this year has been talent. His defense is full of first-round picks and his team is loaded with players former Jets general manager John Idzik never would have spent the money. Idzik approached free agency like a man walking on hot coals. He hoarded cap room as if he was applying for a spot on a certain A&E show.
Rex's defense, once the toast of the league, fell to No. 21 last year according to Football Outsiders, but a lot of that had to do with the patchwork secondary he was forced to work with. The Jets could have had Darrelle Revis last season when he was a free agent; instead they went to war with nomads like Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls.
Bowles, on the other hand, gets Revis and Antonio Cromartie to roam his secondary. On offense, he was given Brandon Marshall, the best receiver to put on Jet green since Keyshawn Johnson, and also Ryan Fitzpatrick, the best quarterback the franchise has had since Brett Favre's lone year with the team in 2008. Fitzpatrick this year has a QBR of 76.7 and a quarterback rating of 89.3. The closest a Jets QB under Ryan ever came to duplicating those numbers was in 2010, when Mark Sanchez out up a QBR of 44.6 and and a passer rating of 75.3.
When he jogs onto the MetLife Stadium on Thursday night, Ryan will surely have all types of emotions bubbling inside. Nostalgia, remorse, maybe even some pride. But as he looks around at all the shiny toys Bowles has to play with, he'll likely feel some anger and jealousy pop up, as well.
A new voice
All that said, there's no arguing that Bowles has done a good job this year. His team has improved on both sides of the ball and as of now, the Jets seem to be in the driver's seat for one of the AFC's two Wild Cart spots. They have a talented defense capable of wreaking havoc (second in red zone defense, third in takeaways and third in run defense) and an offense that, while certainly not Patriots-like, is still dangerous.
A lot of the credit there goes to Jets rookie GM Mike Maccagnan and Chain Gailey, the offensive coordinator the team hired in the offseason. (Also, many Jets fans would probably like to buy IK Enemkpali a beer for handing Fitzpatrick Geno Smith's job.)
But as head coach, Bowles deserves praise for caring about the offense, which Ryan never did. Wide receiver Eric Decker (472 yards, six touchdowns) has been unleashed and Fitzpatrick has, for the most part, protected the ball.
Bowles' players also seem to love him. That was true with Ryan at the start of his Jets tenure, but over the years his bombastic style seemed to wear on his teams.
Could Rex Ryan have done more for the #Jets last year? Calvin Pryor: "He could have played guys in the right position."— Kimberley A. Martin (@KMart_LI) November 10, 2015
Revis was another Jets player who this week passed on praising his former head coach.
"We made great runs," he said when asked by the New York Daily News' Gary Myers about his years with Ryan. "We didn't get to where we wanted." Revis was then asked whether this offseason he considered reuniting with Ryan.
"I didn't want to go to Buffalo," Revis said. "Even if he did call, I wouldn't want to be in Buffalo."
It's easy to paint Bowles as the fearless leader and Ryan as the class clown. And yet, if the 4-4 Bills pull of the victory Thursday night, it will be Ryan's team who will be holding on to second place in the AFC East. The funny part: it's been the offense that has carried Rex's group thus far this year.
Buffalo, according to Football Outsiders, is No. 8 in offense this season and just No. 16 on the other side of the ball. Those offensive numbers would be even better if his best weapons hadn't all missed multiple games. Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor has missed two games, as has star running back LeSean McCoy. No. 1 wideout Sammy Watkins has missed three. When those three, along with backup running back Karlos Williams have been healthy and on the field together, the offense has been explosive. It just hasn't happened very often.
With Taylor under center, the Bills are a dangerous team. Ryan and his defensive stars haven't jelled yet -- only two teams have fewer sacks -- but that's likely the result of Ryan still learning his players' strengths and his stars still adjusting to Ryan's scheme.
Eventually, those numbers will pick up. When they do, Rex Ryan's current team will be right there with his former one, riding the same strengths -- a swarming defense and a high-potential offense -- and requiring the same breaks to nab one of the AFC's Wild Card slots.
Ryan's time in New York was better than most remember. But his divorce from the Jets was a move that helped everyone involved.