FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Rex Ryan is tired of being the bridesmaid. He’s ready to be the bride.
Ryan, entering his sixth year as Jets head coach, has yet to win a division title. The Patriots have won all five during his tenure, and the Jets finished in second place four times.
Ryan has had a little bit of success against the Patriots, at least compared with his peers — a 3-7 record in the regular season, plus a playoff win in 2010 — but Ryan is tired of finishing second.
“I know one thing: We’re going to play our asses off,” Ryan said last week as the Jets wrapped up training camp. “We’re not conceding anything, I can tell you that much.”
Ryan survived the offseason after an 8-8 finish last year, and enters this season with an intriguing roster that looks as if it could make some noise in a weak AFC.
The Jets have a trio of solid running backs in Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory, and Bilal Powell, a veteran offensive line anchored by Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, better skill-position players with the additions of Eric Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro, and one of the nastiest defensive front sevens in the NFL, led by defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, one of the league’s most dominant and underrated players who is entering his fourth season.
The Jets have two glaring question marks: The secondary is a mess, and starting quarterback Geno Smith threw just 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions as a rookie. But the pass rush might be able to mask the deficiencies in the back end, and Michael Vick gives them a great insurance policy in case Smith doesn’t improve.
Of the three AFC East rivals, the Jets look to be the most formidable foe for the Patriots. Their front seven pushed the Patriots around twice last year as the teams split the series. If the Jets can find a quarterback to just hand the ball off and not make mistakes, they have the running game and defense to be dangerous and make a playoff run.
They just need to tread water during the first seven weeks of the season, when they face a daunting schedule that includes the Packers, Bears, Lions, Chargers, Broncos, and Patriots.
We spent five entertaining minutes talking with Ryan last week after practice about his team, their chances of knocking off the Patriots, and of course seeing Darrelle Revis with his arch enemy. Instead of paraphrasing Ryan’s answers, let’s just let him have the floor:
Is this the year you guys finally overtake the Patriots?
“I have no idea. We’ll find out. For the last 10 or 11 years, as long as [Tom] Brady is there and [Bill] Belichick is there, they’ve won every dang year. When Brady wasn’t in there, that’s the only time they haven’t won the division.”
What’s it like seeing Revis in a Patriots uniform?
“I really haven’t thought about it. We’ve been just focused on ourselves and getting better, but that will be strange seeing him in a Patriot uniform at all.”
As a competitor, are you excited to go against him twice a year?
“I’m competitive as hell, but I’m not excited about that, no.”
Why did you guys decide on Smith as the quarterback instead of Vick?
“I felt confident the way he closed out last year. The last month of the season, he had the second-highest quarterback rating in the league. So I was confident that that’s where he’d remain, he’d take off from there, and that’s exactly what he did. And the good thing is everybody gets to see what we already know.”
You know fans and media are going to scream for Vick to play as soon as Smith throws his first interception, right?
“It doesn’t matter. Geno is our starting quarterback, and we feel great about it. First time I think in my career that I felt great. We have two quarterbacks we feel that we can win with. It’s a great situation that we have at quarterback.”
How good do you think the front seven can be? On paper it looks like one of the best in the NFL.
“I feel great about it, and I would agree with you, that we’re as good as anybody out there. But it’s how it works together collectively, all 11 guys out there. We feel good about our defense.”
You have to be concerned about the secondary, though.
“We’re not concerned. We know we have a lot of good football players, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Don’t worry about us on defense, we’ll be just fine.”
Are you guys talking big among yourself? Mentioning the playoffs or embracing big expectations?
“We talk big all the time. But we feel great about our situation, feel great about our team. We’ll let all the so-called experts pick us last like they did last year and we’ll see what happens.
“But I know one thing — we plan on making some noise, and I feel as good about this football team as maybe I have in a long, long time. We know we’re competitive, but we think we’re more than that.”
“The great thing is our schedule. We have, like, the hardest schedule in the league or something like that. But that’s good for us, because that gets you prepared.
“Obviously we’ve got a ton of work to do before anybody’s getting in the playoffs. But again, we expect a lot of big things from our team this year.”
You guys might be a playoff team if you can just get halfway-decent quarterback play.
“And we’re going to get good quarterback play. So that’s why I think we feel great about it. A lot of things happen, injuries happen, but we feel confident.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin