Rex Ryan drama another chapter in wild Jets-Dolphins saga
There may not be the drama of a playoff berth hanging in the balance for both teams, with only the Dolphins having that luxury heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Jets.
And yes, it's another case of looking ahead to next season while pondering the what-ifs of this one.
But it's Jets-Dolphins, and even with only pride on the line for the Jets along with lingering questions about Rex Ryan's future, history suggests this again will turn into a memorable chapter of a rivalry filled with so many salient moments.
If this is Ryan's last game on the Jets' sideline, how fitting that the backdrop comes against the Dolphins, a team with more lasting imprints -- good ones and cataclysmically bad ones -- on the Jets than any other in the NFL.
But who knows? Perhaps he will come back for at least one more try after a season that included more than its share of highlights mixed in with enough disappointments for the Jets to be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned.
An ESPN report on Saturday suggested the signs are pointing toward Ryan being brought back next year, although there is nothing definitive from the team. In fact, there is nothing at all from the team as far as Ryan's future is concerned.
If the Jets do bring Ryan back, it's the right thing. As we said in this space Friday, he has the team pointed in the right direction, and the fact that the Jets stayed in postseason contention as long as they did, with a rookie quarterback, is an indication that Ryan is part of the solution.
And if the news indeed is promising for Ryan, at least he'll have that as a nice send-off after a Jets-Dolphins game -- win or lose. Which is better than it could have been, particularly when it comes to this rivalry.
So much history between these two teams, much of it not very good to the Jets and whichever coach happened to be on their sideline. Throughout the storied history of this matchup come so many torturous memories, some of which Ryan himself has experienced.
Remember two years ago? The Jets, who at 8-5 looked poised to go to the playoffs for a third straight year, had fallen to 8-7 after losses to the Eagles and Giants. There still was a chance for a postseason berth with a road win over the Dolphins in the regular-season finale, but the Jets lost, 19-17, to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs.
Near the end of the game, wide receiver Santonio Holmes got into a shouting match in the huddle with offensive tackle Wayne Hunter, and Holmes, a team captain that season, was benched when the Jets needed him most.
It was one of the low moments of the franchise, and the Jets haven't fully recovered. They went 6-10 in 2012, the Jets hired John Idzik to replace Mike Tannenbaum, and now the coach awaits definitive word from the new GM and owner Woody Johnson, who brought Ryan back this season but hasn't made any definitive statements about next year.
Ryan's future has been the subject of continued speculation, and we won't know for sure until Monday at the earliest whether he'll be back next season. Perhaps Johnson and Idzik will look elsewhere for a new coach and thus continue a trend in which GMs have moved on from the coach inherited in their first year on the job.
So as Ryan waits, he tries to get through a regular-season finale that has no bearing on the Jets' playoff hopes but means everything to Miami. If the Dolphins beat the Jets, they get in if the Ravens lose to the Bengals or the Chargers beat the Chiefs.
Though it may be tempting to use the revenge factor against a divisional opponent as motivation for Sunday's game, Ryan isn't taking it.
"If you're not in it,'' he said, "it really doesn't matter."
Instead, he's using the game as a measuring stick for his own team. And winning back-to-back games for the first time this year.
"We're playing to see how we stack up," he said. "To talk about 'we're improved,' we need to see that. Let's see where we're at. It's not so much about knocking somebody out of the playoffs. The fact that you're not in it is painful enough. You're not going to derive pleasure from knocking someone out. We'll get pleasure from winning."
If the Jets win, they will finish at .500 in a season that began with zero expectations of success -- at least from outside their locker room. A loss would be one more depressing chapter in a rivalry that has featured more than its share of heartbreak for the team in green and white.
Young or old, you know what we're talking about.
Remember the 1982 AFC Championship Game, dubbed the "Mud Bowl"? A three-day rainstorm preceded the game, and the Dolphins neglected to have a tarp placed on the field for the duration of the storm. With puddles all over the field and players unable to get solid footing, Dolphins linebacker A.J. Duhe picked off Richard Todd three times, returning one of them 35 yards for a touchdown in a 14-0 win. Jets coach Walt Michaels was convinced that it was Dolphins coach Don Shula's decision to keep the tarp off the field to give Miami an advantage over a faster opponent.
Four years later, in a rematch of the epic Dan Marino-Ken O'Brien overtime game at the Meadowlands in which the Jets beat the Dolphins, 51-45, Miami clobbered the Jets, 45-3, at the Orange Bowl.
It was the first of five straight losses to end the season, and the Jets, who were 10-1 before the loss to Miami, wound up losing to the Browns in an AFC divisional playoff game. (Jets fans' lament: Mark Gastineau, why did you hit Bernie Kosar late?!?!) That the Giants won the Super Bowl that year only added to the misery.
The Jets did have that season-ending 23-20 win at Joe Robbie Stadium in 1991, clinching an unlikely playoff berth. And there have been some epic moments against the Dolphins at home -- see: Vinny Testaverde's Monday night miracle at the Meadowlands in 2000. But even that didn't fully make up for the "fake spike" in the same building six years earlier, the game that effectively ended Pete Carroll's one-year run as Jets coach.
So many singular moments in a storied rivalry, some with joyous endings, others with agonizing finishes.
Ryan hopes this next chapter is one he can cherish. But as any Jets coach or player or fan can attest, when it comes to the Dolphins, there are no guarantees.
But if it's true that Ryan will get another chance in 2014, at least there's something good for him to take away from a place that others leave with pure heartbreak.