After constantly coming up short against Bill Belichick, swagger no longer there for Rex Ryan
How fitting that the final home game of the season -- and likely the last time Rex Ryan will roam the Jets' sideline -- is against the team that the coach always has measured himself against.
It is Jets-Patriots one more time for Ryan.
One last time, actually.
One final time for Ryan to show -- no matter how pathetic it might seem now, as his woefully underachieving team staggers to the finish line -- the passion he still feels for his biggest rivals.
With the Jets' sixth-year coach expected to be fired after the season, the final home chapter of his journey comes against the coach that Ryan aimed to conquer from Day One. It will be another sad reminder of that futile chase. Bill Belichick always has been Ryan's white whale, and while there have been some memorable wins, Ryan's body of work never lived up to the hope.
Or the hype.
Even the words that once stoked back-page headlines now are tinged with a feeling of resignation. As Ryan's 3-11 Jets face Belichick's 11-3 Patriots, Ryan is like the boxer who has been pelted to the floor time after time. He still wants to fight, no matter how often he's lost.
"We're approaching it as if we're 11-3, also," Ryan said. "We know they're not looking at us as a 3-11 team."
Hardly the fighting words to which we've grown accustomed from Ryan. These days, Ryan is a virtual recluse by comparison.
The coach was asked if he'd like a do-over about his comments from the early days of his run in New York, when he said he didn't come here to kiss Belichick's Super Bowl rings.
Rex wasn't interested in rewriting his comments.
"I never came here to do that," he said of kissing the rings. "I came here to kick his butt. Obviously, I haven't been very successful at it, but that list [of coaches] is long. I might be the only one with the guts to say something about it."
The vibe this week is far different from the last time Ryan used similar words to describe his intense desire to beat Belichick. This was a few days before a Dec. 6, 2010 Monday night game in New England, when Ryan shared his feelings.
"I came here to win," Ryan told me that day. "As much as I respect and admire Bill Belichick, I came here to kick his [butt], and that's the truth. That's just the way it is. I came here to beat him, and I'm never going to backtrack on that."
Ryan's Jets, who had been to the AFC Championship Game in the 2009 season, were 9-3, just a game behind the Patriots. With a chance to move into a first-place tie, the intensity was palpable.
The result was one of Ryan's biggest embarrassments, as the Jets were walloped, 45-3, at Gillette Stadium. But a few weeks later in the divisional playoffs at the same stadium, Ryan enjoyed perhaps his greatest triumph -- a 28-21 upset and a visit to his second straight AFC title game.
Ryan never has gotten closer than that to winning a Super Bowl, and with time likely running down on his run in New York, this almost certainly will be his last shot at Belichick with the Jets. With all the sound and fury that accompanied Ryan's early days in New York, he will go out with a whimper.
Even his old cornerback, Darrelle Revis, who now plays for Ryan's mortal enemy, called it "sad" to see Ryan's team near the end of such a disappointing season. The sadder part came when Ryan had only this to offer as a response.
"The 3-11 year or whatever wasn't what any of us thought, so I appreciate his concerns," Ryan said. "But we're going to do our darnedest to get our fourth win this week."
A sad way to end what had once been such a breathtaking rivalry between a future Hall of Fame coach and the guy who tried so, so hard to get the best of him. Only to show up for the last fight a beaten man.