FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - In Rex Ryan's mind, there's no doubt he's the right man for the Jets' coaching job -- now and well into the future. But after Sunday's 30-20 loss to the Panthers dropped the Jets to 6-8 and ensured a third straight non-winning season for Ryan, it's no given that he'll get the chance to continue the rebuilding process.
"I believe I'm the right guy for [the job], but I'm not making the decision," a subdued Ryan said Monday. "[If I were], it would be easy."
But nearly five years after Ryan got the job and promptly predicted a visit to the White House after a Super Bowl victory, he is left to wonder about his future. It's up to team owner Woody Johnson and first-year general manager John Idzik to decide whether to keep Ryan, who has one year remaining on his contract, or to bring in a new coach to guide a rebuilding team.
It's not an easy call, and there's no telling whether Johnson and Idzik have made a decision. Both have been careful not to tip their hand, and Idzik's methodical yet secretive approach likely won't yield a definitive answer until after the Jets' season is over in less than two weeks.
Ryan has done a credible if incomplete job this season with a young team that few thought would be anything other than an NFL doormat. With rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a mostly inexperienced defense, Ryan got to 5-4 at the bye week and raised expectations of a potential playoff run. There were stunning wins over the playoff-bound Patriots and Saints and a transcendent performance by Smith in a Monday night road win over the Falcons.
But there has been inconsistency, too, and the Jets have not put together back-to-back victories. They're 1-4 since the bye, with Smith continuing to throw interceptions and the defense starting to wear down.
We still don't know if Smith can be a competent NFL quarterback, so Ryan's ability to keep the Jets in playoff contention this long has been a credit to his coaching. It also helped that he had an experienced and steady play-caller in offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
But in a league that is set up for high scoring, the Jets are near the bottom of every important offensive statistical category. Only the Jaguars (221) have scored fewer points than the Jets (246). And only Eli Manning (25) has thrown more interceptions than Smith (21).
So Idzik has to decide whether the coaches could have gotten more out of Smith, whether this was the usual rookie adjustment period or whether the Jets need to look for another quarterback early in the 2014 draft. And if that's the case, Idzik needs to figure out whether the Ryan-Mornhinweg duo is right for the future.
What's important to remember is that Idzik isn't evaluating Ryan in a vacuum. Idzik has worked for several organizations with prominent coaches. He was around Tony Dungy in Tampa, and he was with the Cardinals and GM Rod Graves, now Idzik's assistant GM with the Jets, and saw how Ken Whisenhunt got them to a Super Bowl.
Idzik also was in Seattle to see Pete Carroll build the Seahawks into winners. He also watched defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who has ascended to a head-coaching spot in Jacksonville, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, a former Wisconsin quarterback who helped turn another Badgers passer, Russell Wilson, into a star.
So no matter how Idzik feels about Ryan, he has coaches with whom he can compare him. And if Idzik believes he can be a better long-term fit with, say, Bevell or Whisenhunt, both of whom offer the advantage of having offensive backgrounds that might be better suited for the current NFL, there's a good chance he will suggest to Johnson that they go in another direction.
Ryan has had a respectable career with the Jets, and his two AFC Championship Game runs took the franchise places it hadn't been since Bill Parcells lifted the Jets out of the Rich Kotite nightmare.
But with Ryan's Jets failing to live up to the standards they set in their surprising first-half run this season, Idzik may feel it's time to move on.
Two more weeks and we'll know for sure.